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.

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