Quentin Tarantino gets away with a lot in Hollywood. It appears he’s even celebrated for what he can get away with – the latest of which being the Oscar nod to Django Unchained in the Best Picture category. While his latest film is in no uncertain terms great, I’m hesitant to say it’s the Best Picture of the year… yet.
If you know Tarantino’s schtick, you’ve seen all of his other films; Django Unchained shouldn’t be surprising in any ways. QT creates each of his “new” films by arduously selecting only the best bits and pieces of a cinema long-gone and tying it all together in a story that is ripe with exposition, dialogue and graphic imagery. In this case, one bit he’s carefully selected from the annals of cinema history is the title and title character.
The original Django (from 1966, directed by Sergio Corbucci) had nothing to do with the Antebellum South or slavery, but it did have a man tortured by the loss of his woman who was also on a vengeful quest to get her back. One of my first disappointments with Tarantino’s film was the surprising lack of startling imagery as compared to many of his previous works. In this film, his usual cinematographer Robert Richardson and he, seemed to be a little less inspired with the visuals. For example, the opening imagery in Sergio Corbucci’s Django is of the titular character dragging behind him a coffin on a rope. Unchained opens with Django’s character walking in the woods tied to a group of other slaves – granted – also a powerful image you’d think, but not in the way it’s presented here, dark and expected, and even more, it’s an image that’s been burned into an American’s psyche forever. In this respect, I almost find myself having to agree with Spike Lee in his protestation at Unchained’s release, to leave this topic alone – almost.
That issue aside, the first three-quarters of the film had me pretty much hooked and under his spell. I commend Tarantino on what he’s succeeding to say with the story, but then by the end, when he goes for the simplistic, tie-up-every-loose-end-of-the-story-with-a-ridiculous-gunfight (very much akin to the final scene in True Romance or the Crazy 88’s scene in Kill Bill), my interest and appreciation quickly began to wane.
The thing about Tarantino’s films are they confidently take themselves very seriously. It’s why arguments are easy to make with Unchained about its use of the word “nigger” and its over-the-top violence. As for the word “nigger,” I’ll admit, I was a little taken aback by its gratuitous use from the first scenes forward in Unchained, but at the same time, I know that’s because I’ve been conditioned to be repelled by that word – a seemingly more disrespectful and distasteful slur now-a-days than, say, calling someone a “bitch” or a “fuck.” It seems to me that if we’re going to be repelled by the use of one derogatory slur, we should be repelled by them all equally. Historically though, I know the use of the word “nigger” was a real and extremely prevalent thing (and to some extent, unfortunately still is), and therefore, even though QT uses it to his cultish, slightly perverse pleasure here, it’s not without point or reason. For much of the violence, however, I cannot say the same.
Violence in the cinema has never been an issue to me; cinema is all fantasy no matter how you look at it, but it’s the new breed of violence in films (most of it re-invigorated by the torture-porn musings of films like Hostel, Saw and basically any “horror movie” from Asia in the past decade-and-a-half) that turns me off of filmmaking in general. Much of Tarantino’s brand of gun violence is point blank with plenty of maiming. When it works for the story, I can accept it and move on, but when it’s just random and unsubstantiated, I find myself getting bored. The final shootouts in Django Unchained are very over-the-top. Although someone will likely argue that I shouldn’t keep comparing them, the final shootout in Corbucci’s Django was equally over-the-top, but so much more acceptable (maybe not believable) – and just plain cool. Franco Nero, the actor who plays that original Django, after having his hands crushed to the point where he can’t hardly hold a gun, much less shoot it, musters the will and strength to bite through the trigger guard on his pistol and then by pressing the exposed trigger up against a gravestone, and using his gimp hand to hit the hammer back, he cleans out a cemetery full of bad guys all by himself.
Jamie Foxx’s Django has a far less impressive final shootout, although also equally unbelievable. Hardly even grazed by a bullet in a barrage of fire at him, he dives under a wooden wardrobe that is toppled over and despite it then being riddled with bullets – which indeed appear to be piercing the wood – he is not even showing a scratch once he emerges. It’s only that he runs out of ammo that he is even stopped and gives himself up. While I’ve always appreciated that Tarantino remains firmly planted in plausible territory with his action sequences in all his films, Unchained’s final shootouts seem a little haphazard and too “easy.”
As usual, the characters in Unchained are full, colorful and engaging. The highlights here are most certainly Leonardo DiCaprio as a young owner of one of the largest plantations in the South, his house slave, played by a well made-up Samuel L. Jackson and, of course, the always coolly hilarious and ebullient, Christoph Waltz as, quite literally, the only white man in the Antebellum time period to “abhor slavery,” aptly named Dr. King (Schultz). Upon just hearing the name for the first time in the movie, it brought a smile to my face.
Despite some of its drawbacks, Tarantino’s film is a much needed respite from the overwrought, striving-to-be-historically-accurate period pieces that normally tackle subjects as large, sensitive and America-centric as the Civil War and slavery, in that it allows audiences to actually enjoy a movie, while still also getting the gist of what was egregiously wrong about that time period in America’s history, and poking fun at how far (and in some cases, how not-so-far) we’ve come since then. Too bad Spielberg never had the balls to do that.