Quentin Tarantino is a unique voice in the overcrowded landscape of modern filmmaking. His rise to mainstream, big budget, Hollywood director from the lower depths of Los Angeles video store clerk purgatory is the stuff of tinsel town legend. He’s extremely adept at mixing several genres together to produce something totally fresh and unexpected. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction rattled our collective cages, and put us on notice. Tarantino didn’t just arrive on the scene as an independent filmmaker to keep your eye on, he exploded onto it with the full force of a nuclear warhead. Of course, the problem with scaling the mountain of success so soon and so publicly, is you have almost nowhere to go but back down the steep, slippery sides to the forest of mediocrity. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk, and very, very few artists of any medium have managed to pull it off. I’ll give Quentin props. He has no intention of going quietly.
As for his post-Pulp output, I enjoyed the slow burn of Jackie Brown, and I really liked Kill Bill - Volume 1. But from there, it’s been a slow decent back down the mountain. I found the second installment of Kill Bill frightfully boring. I walked out of Death Proof convinced it was all over. Then came Inglourious Basterds, a huge hit that re-established him as a marketable filmmaker, but left me scratching my head in puzzlement. Something seemed off, but I couldn’t quite identify it. Now, with Django Unchained, I suddenly understand what put me off about Basterds, because the two share the same DNA. More on that in a moment.
Django Unchained concerns itself with a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) who is rescued/purchased by a bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who needs information that Django has in order to locate and identify a trio of brothers who have a high price on their heads. The two form a bond and a partnership, and Schultz agrees to assist Django in rescuing/purchasing his wife from a vile and cruel plantation owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Here is the film’s trailer.
The performances are very strong. Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz make a great onscreen pair. Waltz in particular is a marvel to behold, and seems to be completely relaxed and confident in front of the camera, as he was in his Oscar winning role in Inglourious Basterds. Foxx turns in a very courageous performance as a man overflowing with inner rage and loathing toward the world around him, yet tender and vulnerable when it comes to matters concerning his wife. Leonardo DiCaprio has a gleeful time playing the slimy, harsh, and completely repellent Calvin Candie, lord and master of Candie Land (yes, really). A surprisingly comic appearance by Don Johnson as Big Daddy was most welcome, and Samuel L. Jackson rounds it all out as Stephen, Candie Land’s old, crotchety, scheming, head house slave.
So is the film any good? Sorta. Does it have flashes of Tarantino’s genius for expertly framed shots and smooth, rich dialogue that flows off the actor’s collective tongues like silk? Sure. Plenty of it. But there is also something hollow about this film, just like Basterds.
Tarantino has stated that Django Unchained is the second film in his “Revisionist History” trilogy, and this is where many of my issues begin to take shape. I have no problem with telling a story that alters the natural order of events in history, but Basterds, as well as Django, feels more like “revenge fantasy” than “revisionist.” For some people, this will not be an issue, and judging from the early box office, it’s not. For myself, it just feels empty. In Inglourious Basterds, Jews get to kill as many Germans in gruesome and painful ways as the running time of the film allows. The same is true with Django, as the title character gets to do away with scores of evil white men (and a few women) in nearly three hours. This, of course, is nothing we haven’t seen before. Rambo: First Blood Part II was, perhaps, the granddaddy of all revenge fantasy films, allowing us to revisit to the Vietnam War, only this time as victors.
It feels a little strange, having to make a case that while films like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction are, indeed, hyper violent, they have a more subtly complex nature to them. The violence springs forth from the situations that arise from a tightly constructed story.
Even Kill Bill - Volume 1, a revenge yarn itself, manages to maintain its integrity by telling us a story that is involving and multi-layered. Both Basterds and Django suffer from Tarantino being more concerned about fulfilling the fantasy of richly deserved retribution, than about telling a story that gets under your skin and stays with you, as he’s demonstrated his ability to do. It’s just violence for the sake of violence. I think there may be a good film in there somewhere, but what may have been a biting social commentary instead becomes a cartoonish exercise, so soaked in exploding blood packets and oozing flesh carnage that any redeeming value is lost.