Quentin Tarantino is, when you think about it, the most successful avant-garde filmmaker in Hollywood. His triumph is that although his films are as idiosyncratic and unique as, say, those of the Andersons Wes and Paul Thomas or of Terrence Malick, he’s not thought of as “avant-garde” at all. They struggle to get their films financed and hope that every few years (this year it was Moonrise Kingdom for W. Anderson) they can find their way to enough boxoffice so they can keep going, while more than half of Tarantino’s features have grossed over $150M worldwide, and his most recent picture Inglourious Basterds was his most successful, with $321M. Like Stanley Kubrick before him (a filmmaker with whom he otherwise has little in common), Tarantino combines his obsessions and obscure references with genre-based plots, sardonic wit, and plenty of violence and controversy, and the mix, more often than not, works.
Django Unchained is, on its face, Tarantino at his most straightforwardly crowd-pleasing. Unlike most of his other work, Django doesn’t have a tangled, complicated chronology, nor does it indulge in extended digressions and structural tangents. Aside from a few brief flashbacks, it starts its saga at the beginning and stays with it to the end. And yet, it’s as deeply immersed in its creator’s personal vision as anything this side of The Master; a 165-minute epic that takes place in the Netflix that is Tarantino’s mind.
Although there are a legion of additional cineaste (and other) references to be found within it, including to the “Django” film series that began with Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 movie (its star Franco Nero turns up in a cameo here), Django chiefly unites two of Tarantino’s beloved genres: the massively scaled and stylized spaghetti westerns of the 1960s, and the blaxploitation action movies that had their place in the sun a decade later. The story is set in the years shortly before the Civil War, as the slave Django (Jamie Foxx), shackled in a line of other prisoners, is being marched to sale. That journey is interrupted by the arrival (in a dentist’s wagon, complete with giant dangling tooth) of Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a mostly amiable but utterly ruthless bounty hunger, who needs Django to identify several criminals he plans to kill for the prices on their heads. After one of Tarantino’s patented polite-dialogue-leading-to-slaughter sequences, Django and Schultz head off together.
The two men begin to bond (another influence here may be the 1971 comedy Skin Game, in which James Garner and Louis Gossett, Jr, played white and black con men who took advantage of slaveowners), and Django and Schultz eventually make a deal: if Django partners with him as a bounty hunter for a season, he’ll help Django get back his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who was separated and sold away from him. (Django’s quest to rescue her is explicitly likened to the myths that inspired Wagner’s Ring operas.) This requires the men to head into the hell that is “Candie-Land,” the plantation owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and largely run by his most trusted and very dangerous slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), a place where the slaves are pitted against each other in sadistic fights to the death (as in Mandingo and Spartacus), and often treated even more despicably than that.
If Django Unchained were no more than the sum of its references, it would be–well, it would be Grindhouse, the bloated “double feature” Tarantino made with Robert Rodriguez that was one of his few flops. But even more than in Inglourious Basterds, in Django Tarantino infuses his jokey, comically violent, deliberately anachronistic view of history with emotional content, reaching a climax that feels earned, rather than just like cartoonish wish-fulfillment.
Django, of course, is stuffed with all the stylistic quirks that make a film Tarantino-esque, from the brilliant, unexpected musical choices to a couple of dandy examples of his slow burn this-ain’t-gonna-end-well set-pieces. As a writer, Tarantino is wildly lucky that while many filmmakers hope for years to find a single performer who can personify their style of dialogue (Woody Allen has never completely found a replacement for the Diane Keaton of his 1970s films), Tarantino has two in Waltz and Jackson, both of whom are, again, sensational here. (It’s a toss-up as to which of them is more impressive, although Jackson may have to get the extra credit because of how utterly daring his characterization is.) Foxx and DiCaprio are both more than capable in their roles, but they can’t touch those two.
Not all of Django works. A seemingly Blazing Saddles-influenced flat-out comedy scene (with guest star Jonah Hill) in which KKK members grouse about not being able to see out their hoods gets its laughs, but feels tonally wrong, and Tarantino could have easily lost 20 minutes in this long movie before the ending by eliminating a lengthy, unnecessary sequence (one that not coincidentally features himself in an acting role, since he’s apparently still unable to admit that isn’t his strength). The decision to turn a climactic shootout into an all-but-literal bloodbath arguably takes away from its drama. (It should also be noted that the movie includes unrestrained use of the worst racial slurs.) Still, those caveats are small beside the movie’s audacity and sheer entertainment value.
As always, Django Unchained is painstakingly crafted to realize Tarantino’s vision. He’s reteamed with cinemtographer Robert Richardson, who gives him all the florid color and old-time abrupt zooms he could wish, and the new members of his creative team, production designer J. Michael Riva and editor Fred Raskin (the latter moving up to replace the late Sally Menke, who had been a right hand for Tarantino), blend right in. Along with the leads, the cast includes Walton Goggins in a major supporting role, and the usual group of Tarantino reclamation projects, appearances that are nods to earlier work by Dennis Christopher, James Remar, Don Johnson, Tom Wopat, Don Stroud, Russ Tamblyn, Michael Parks and Bruce Dern, among others.
20 years into Quentin Tarantino’s feature career, it’s still not entirely clear how seriously we should take his films thematically, whether they’re simply fantastic glosses on all manner of culture both high and low, or if their intent is to say something more profound about society and, in this case, history. What’s undeniable is that Tarantino has created a film universe imprinted in every way with his creative impulses and ideas–and that for audiences, it’s still a thrilling one.
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