Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Django Unchained

SPOILERS!

I'm most impressed with film directors when they tread different waters, explore genres and styles that don't necessarily resemble their last 2 pictures. Example? Alan Parker.  His films covered a very wide cinematic palate: kiddie gangster movie, musical, suburban drama, prison pic, occult thriller,  historical epic. His visual sense was strong and his narratives were sober(ing). You might, with careful study, be able to discern a style, some threads among his works. But Parker could rarely be pidgeonholed.

But then I cite the undeniable greats who unleash their signature styles that cannot be mistaken for anyone else like Scorsese, whose strongest films stayed in the old NYC neighborhoods. You might say the same of Elia Kazan. Hitchcock's canvas widened over his long career by locale but the themes (dating back to his silents) were similiar throughout, as were Kubrick's among his very diverse oeuvre.  Quentin Tarantino can't seem to shake  the memories of 1960s/70s exploitation pics, and each of his own films are positively saturated in those worlds,  regardless of the time period depicted. This choice has plagued him at times, with frequent charges of plagiarism dogging every movie he makes. In 1994, writer/director Mike White produced WHO DO YOU THINK YOU'RE FOOLING, which alleges that QT all but lifted ideas and scenes (for RESERVOIR DOGS) from the 1987 film from Hong Kong, CITY ON FIRE.

But like Brian DePalma, Tarantino, while paying grandiose and obvious homage to those (often) distasteful pics of the past, uses those very familiar elements to create a grotesque melange all his own.  A commanding, utterly kinetic round of film-making that amuses and thrills in ways that, with each work, re-awaken my excitement for the art form. Certainly, the style is always the strongest element of any QT film, followed by rich performances and tasty dialogue. He's a hell of a storyteller, too. Because of his masteries, I forgive his liberal "borrowing", and his seeming lack of  genre progression with his films. His obsession with a certain period of time.

I also forgive those who incessantly quote him. LOVE AND OTHER CATASTROPHES, released only one year after PULP FICTION, was already quoting that film. One year! It was clear that a new voice was emerging, possible changing the art form. And doing it through endless evocation of cinema's not so distant past.

With DJANGO UNCHAINED, to me, Quentin Tarantino has stopped being limited by his strengths, and moved forward to create an uneven, messy, frustrating, cringe-inducing, and (yes) often mature motion picture. One that is interested in more than mere trickery.

Django (Jamie Foxx) is first seen with head down and ankles chained to several other slaves as they hobble   through Texas in 1858, a few years before the Civil War. Along comes a man named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a former dentist turned bounty hunter who offers to purchase Django from the owners, a pair of loathsome brothers. A sale is made, rather unwillingly, resulting in a lot of blood before Schultz and Django head off, eventually becoming partners in the lucrative bounty hunter trade. The first assignment: kill another band of lecherous brothers (the Brittles) with whom Django and his missing wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) have a very unfortunate history. The Brittles are found at the first plantation Schultz and Django visit, run by Big Daddy (Don Johnson), and quickly dispatched.

Our heroes strike a deal: Schultz will help Django find and rescue his wife if the now freed slave will assist him with a long roster of bounties through the winter.  Django is a first a bit reluctant to kill merely for money, even as his partner assures of their prey's malevolent natures. On this journey, flashbacks show the hardships (and bodily scarring) Django and his bride suffered at the hands of many vicious slave traders. It is learned of how Broomhilda came to speak German and how shrewdly Schultz can broker and negotiate his way out of the stickiest of predicaments, including when an entire town points their barrels at the saloon our the pair stop in. In more retro casting, Tom Wopat (Luke Duke from The Dukes of Hazzard) shows up as the town's marshall. In fact, DJANGO is loaded with actors in bit parts who once upon a time shot, slept, drove, fought, and cussed their way through yesteryear drive-in epics that Quentin has absorbed over the years.

Eventually Schultz and Django are led to the smooth talking Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who now owns Broomhilda as a "pleasure" slave, and his very loyal servant Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), who is as racist as any of the rednecks he works with/for. Both men are as ingratiating as they are unsavory.  Their performances threaten to steal this movie. DiCaprio in particular owns the screen, especially during his "skull lecture" sequence, one of the most electrifying scenes in his career and in any QT film.

Djano and Schultz pose as "mandingo" (exceptionally strong slaves trained as fighters) experts, attracting Candie's attention by offering to buy one for $12,000.00. Candie's introduction sets the tone for this part of the film quite effectively: two slaves fight to the death in front of him and a rival (Franco Nero, who played a character named Django in a same titled 1960s spaghetti western) in a parlor room. It is one of the grisliest mano-a-manos I think I've witnessed in a film. Our heroes' real agenda, of course, is to rescue Broomhilda, a plot which doesn't exactly work out as planned. Before the fade out, a lot of marinara sauce will spill, spray, and burst in some of the most outrageous violence I've seen in a major Hollywood film in a long time.

The plot of DJANGO UNCHAINED follows the standard revenge formula seen in all of the Westerns and blaxploitation films Quentin references. Even some of his earlier films (mainly KILL BILL, though INGLORIOUS BASTERDS is heavily evoked). Setting this story in pre-Civil War South isn't merely a convenient device to allow QT to also evoke memories of  the awful MANDINGO and its even worse sequel DRUM (to say nothing of 1974's THE KLANSMAN), but an opportunity to depict the despicable atmosphere to which blacks were subjected with some real conviction. This movie, to its credit, never flinches from the ugliness.  This is not merely the expected grindhouse valentine. The attitudes, the psychological and physical abuse, its all there. Sometimes, it's nearly unwatchable, such as when a runaway fighter is eventually torn apart by dogs. You might fault Taranatino for putting our faces in the muck, but I did not feel it was gratuitous - sometimes you have to baptize your viewers to make them understand.

And what a long, unpleasant baptism this movie is. All of QT's films are troubling yet exhilirating essays on the human condition, and never has it been shown to be more wretched. Most of the director's bag of tricks are on display (cool soundtrack, flashy cuts, onscreen titles at unusual moments, swiftly orchestrated action scenes), but the far more serious themes emerge even more evidently than in BASTERDS. This is ultimately (despite many comedic moments, including a Ku Klux Klan scene that seems to be a nod to BLAZING SADDLES) a very potent, vital examination of social depravity, of superiority, of the most base and primal of behavior. An unrelenting treatise one of the most gruesome chapters in American history. Roots times ten. A true depiction of the South as the stage for a holocaust.

But QT wants to (gets to?) have it both ways.  His movie is not as cartoonish as many of his others, at least not until the final act, which to call over the top is understating things. The final gun battles are clearly inspired by the bloodiest moments in Peckinpah films, as well as countless other genre pics not limited to Westerns.  I was, by turns, disturbed and riled up by these scenes, which will provide truckloads of vicarious thrills for the bloodthirsty, and much to think on for those who put a bit more thought toward their viewing.

Every Tarantino film has at least one moment of violence that manages to be humorous and horrifying simultaneously. Until the closing scenes of DJANGO UNCHAINED, the violence is uncomfortably real: images that won't soon leave your consciousness.  To me, every moment was justified. Spike Lee may not agree with that, or the repeated use of the word "nigger", but I never got the inkling that Quentin was just being cheeky or just trying to salute Sergio Leone.  This film is strong meat. By the time Django truly is unchained, I think we've earned the catharsis. But if you are at all sensitive.......

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