Thursday, December 27, 2012

Tarantino Goes South: Django Unchained

When Quentin Tarantino opens his new film, Django Unchained, with a shot of the Alabama Hills badlands emblazoned with the lurid red letting of the main title, immediately reminiscent of the many Westerns filmed in that very location, notably the Randolph Scott Westerns of Budd Boetticher, I felt a thrill of anticipation, wondering where Tarantino might be taking us this time as he blends two late 60s, early 70s genres: the less innocent Westerns influenced by Sam Peckinpah and the outrageously violent, racially charged Blaxploitation flick. Tarantino’s Southern/Western/Blaxploitation film is, appropriately, a revenge tale in which Dr. King (I get it, Quentin) Schultz, a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) and Django, a liberated slave (Jamie Foxx) work together as bounty hunters and later set out to rescue Django’s enslaved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from bondage.

Although slow and sometimes ponderous, the film’s episodic, picaresque first half works fairly well. Schultz frees Django, uses him to track down wanted men, eludes and obliterates a posse of hooded racists in a momentarily spectacular mock up of The Birth of a Nation, and transforms his bitter protégé into a bounty hunter in a snowy scene reminiscent of Little Big Man and Jeremiah Johnson.

Already overwrought in its depiction of violence accented by exploding slabs of flesh and geysers of blood, the film goes South in its second half in more ways than one. In Mississippi, Schultz and Django meet Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), trainer of gladiatorial “Mandingo” fighters (so called in an allusion to the 1975 Southern plantation film Mandingo) and the owner of Broomhilda. At times engaging, as mesmerizing as a swamp snake, Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of Candie quickly wears thin in this long, latter part of the film that features one long dialogue after another. If you see a table, characters sit around it and lengthy dialogue ensues, but it is dialogue that is rarely engaging and never builds tension as Tarantino so masterfully did in Inglourious Basterds. For the most part, Waltz drives the film in his role as the articulate German bounty hunter, a clever redemptive twist on his Jew hunter role in Basterds, but it is a long film to carry. Eventually Waltz’s performance weakens under the load, and the endless dialogue sags like a slave-catching bloodhound’s drooping jowls.

This half of the Django Unchained is the lurid slavery half, with grainy footage appropriate to a low-budget 70s film. A runaway slave is torn apart by dogs. We see whippings and brandings. We see slaves shackled with bits and collars. In the film’s most serious moment, we see a naked Broomhilda released from a hot box and carted away in a wheelbarrow. Yes, as Quentin shows us, slavery was horrendous, but any gravity Tarantino achieves is swallowed up by heavy-handed, self-indulgent ridiculousness. And if the film starts to wobble when Schultz and Django meet up with Candie, it falls flat on its face when Tarantino appears on screen in a jarringly bad cameo as an inept slave catcher who gets blown to bits, as though Tarantino realizes subconsciously that he deserves such a fate.

I don’t care how Tarantino alludes to other films, and his own films, how he toys with genres and boldly depicts the horror of slavery and interjects his little jokes. I get the ironic twists (Samuel L. Jackson as a white-haired Uncle Tom). Ultimately, however, it all adds up to one of the worst films of the year, a bloated bag of ineffectual performances and uninteresting writing.


Craig said...

I felt the same way, Hok. Loved the first hour, was bored by the second, and more or less appalled by the third. Most of all (something other critics have mentioned), I'm bewildered why Tarantino didn't follow through on his best idea - the tension between Django and Stephen. It's about freedom vs. power, working outside the system vs. manipulating from within. He sets up this terrific dichotomy...and instead gets bogged down in the boring, convoluted subplot about somebody named Eskimo Joe. It's a shame, because I really enjoyed seeing Samuel L. Jackson play frail and obsequious (although he would have been even more effective without his favorite curse word to lean on like a crutch). And early on Don Johnson also proved, once again, that he can be a good actor when he wants to be. Waltz and Foxx had some touching moments in the early going too. Yet all for naught.

Kevin J. Olson said...

I think the film is one act too long. But I still really liked it once I realized it was more Kill Bill, Volume 1 than Inglourious Basterds.

Oddly, the stuff that should have worked best -- Jackson and DiCaprio -- drags too much. Although the dinner table scene isn't nearly as good as the tavern scene in Basterds (what could be, though?), I did appreciate Tarantino's attention to detail like the way a ticking clock is heard in the background throughout the scene. I also loved how Jackson's character hovers over DiCaprio's shoulder throughout dinner.

I have a lot more thoughts that I hope to organize in a blog post soon, but I will say this: I did not care as much about Django's quest for revenge/reconciliation as much as I did Bea's in Kill Bill. Perhaps Tatantino needed two volumes here, too, to humanize Django a little more and better parcel out his comedy from his violence.

Like I said, I like it...a lot...but the more I think about it, the more I understand where you're coming from. More thoughts to come...

Hokahey said...

Thanks for the comments, Craig, Kevin. We are all agreed that the film's length works against it. Also, I agree, Kevin, that this movie is more Kill Bill than Basterds. I realized that was the case early on in my viewing, and I was fine with that, but even as an outrageous genre entity it does not achieve anything memorable or noteworthy.

Initially, in my post, I had a comment talking about the film's potential, and I suppose a tighter, shorter story focused on Schultz and Django might have worked better, but the more I think about this movie, the more I feel that much of this film isn't worth the effort.

FilmDr said...

"it all adds up to one of the worst films of the year, a bloated bag of ineffectual performances and uninteresting writing."

Whoa! I wasn't expecting such a strong negative review, given your love of westerns. In contrast, I had mixed feelings about the film, in part admiring Tarantino's audacity even as I agree with you with the heavy handed aspects of the latter half. The movie deserves some credit for provoking such extremely divergent critical reactions.

Hokahey said...

FilmDr, my strong reaction comes, only in part, from my love of Westerns, cuz this ain't a good'n, classic, revisionist, or Italian. It is an overstuffed sack of ridiculousness with, PERHAPS, the kernel of a worthy premise about race and slavery in the guise of a Western. Tarantino needed more time to work on developing that kernel.

Steve's Blog said...

I have to say that I was surprised by your mostly negative review here, especially knowing what an admirer of Inglourious Basterds you are. I was thrilled by Django, second half and all! I found the commentary on American corporate greed and imperialism thinly disguised but nonetheless cathartic in light of the over-the-top violence, ex. the more sophisticated views on business, civility, and slavery from the European point of view. The subtle touch of Beethoven playing and its subsequent irritation to the Waltz character was a brilliant, even touching moment. And then the reference to Dumas! You can practically hear his Dr. Schultz cringing inside, "How dare you steal and mock our art, you ignorant barbarians!"

There was so much to admire here, and I found the dialogue scenes pulsing with tension, especially the initial meeting with Dicaprio while the two men fight it out before the rustling fire. Every conversation that followed was punctuated with jubilant allusions to Christ, Satan, Shakespeare, and of course those great films of the 60's and 70's. I even love the idea that Mssr. Candie insists on the European lifetsyle as decoration only; but without any knowledge of language or culture.

The film isn't as polished as Basterds--pacing is awkward at times, especially the end-- but it certainly is as masterful and thoughtful.

Hokahey said...

Thanks for the comment, Steve, but sorry, Django is not nearly as masterful and thoughtful as Basterds, and I didn't feel the pulsing tension in the dialogues as I did in Basterds. (In comparison, Basterds feels made by a much more talented filmmaker.) Any tension that might have been there in the scenes was smothered by the length and aimlessness of the dialogue. Shultz's outrage in regards to the playing of Beethoven fell flat for me. I did not feel the tension in the scene in which they meet Candie; I was too distracted by the fight. I'll give you that Schultz is a great character, but he is ultimately drowned in a poorly made, ineffective, undramatic, poorly written movie. And all the allusions and ideas and historical commentary mean nothing to me because the film is not effectively dramatic and consistently compelling. Tarantino had a huge gob of dough that he should have kneaded and shaped a lot longer before he baked it and gave it to us. I'm glad you liked what Tarantino is doing here, but I just do not feel the same way.

Jason Bellamy said...

If you see a table, characters sit around it and lengthy dialogue ensues, but it is dialogue that is rarely engaging and never builds tension as Tarantino so masterfully did in Inglourious Basterds.

I mentioned in my post a way that DU eliminates some of the pleasure of IB. But there's a flip side to that coin: It also underlines how astonishing it is that all of the talk-talk-talk of IB works so damn well.

The initial sit down with Shosanna and Zoller is a bit tedious. As is the second one, before Landa shows up. But the rest of the talk feels like white-knuckle action.

DJANGO UNCHAINED isn't as intense in its talk. Not even close. No argument there. But it's in my top 10 because it's so immersive, even when it isn't quite working.

Hokahey said...

Jason - Now "immersive" is an important factor. I've had other viewers, who loved this film, tell me about its allusions and its profound ideas and its metacinematic elements and its genre twisting (suggested that I had missed those!), but they never said whether or not they were immersed. I was not immersed. I was ready to adjust to whatever this film turned out to be, and I was able to do that in the first half. I was not entirely immersed, but I went with the flow. Then the flow turned to Mississippi mud.

And another thing - and this makes me see red - I read a headline to a review that said "The Most Violent Western Since The Wild Bunch." No way!

Actually, I would have to say that there are only a couple of violent scenes in Django. The most violent scene is when the man gets ripped apart by the dogs (and that is weakened in the close-ups); then there are the whippings and the scene in which the Mandingo fighter kills the other. ALL of the shooting was NOT violent. Did QT WANT it to be violent? It was shooting without "real" bullets. It was noise and geysers of blood without any impact at all.