My film students know full well how much I don’t “appreciate” the work of Quentin Tarantino. I softened a bit with Inglourious Basterds, a lusciously filmed work that contained genuine moments of love, suspense, and an acknowledgement of historical tragedy. Now, with Django Unchained, I’m back to my original assessment of his work as essentially amoral and smart-alec (that’s in place of a more accurate but less family-friendly term).
First, the compliments: Tarantino knows how to get good performances from his actors. (In fact, the only bad performance in the film is his.) Christophe Waltz, one of the great film discoveries of recent years, turns in a performance as accomplished as his Oscar-winning turn in Inglourious Basterds. If he hadn’t done that work, he’d likely win the Oscar for this finely tuned performance. He’s confident, funny and absurdist. Also getting attention, and perhaps an Oscar, is Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as the ridiculously named Calvin Candie. For those who never saw What’s Eating Gilbert Grape or can’t see the incredible scope of this actor over his career, perhaps this performance will finally convince skeptics of his talent. He holds onto this despicable character like a dog with a bone, and presents us with yet one more color in his acting palette. Then there is Tarantino perennial Samuel L. Jackson, who bravely takes on a role that’s about as far from his “normal” character than is even possible. Kudos for taking a brave actor’s step into the new and difficult and for pulling it off. Those who are afraid they might miss the onslaught of foul language usually associated with Mr. Jackson’s character may rest assured. The pre-Civil War timeframe and the abhorrent obsequiousness of his character do nothing to dull the onslaught of profanity, especially the actor’s most well known 12-letter word.
Jamie Foxx embodies the lead character well (especially in the comedy parts), and Kerry Washington provides the only classical acting of a major character as well as embodying her character with the beauty and strength that makes it logical that Django would go to such lengths to have her back.
That said, the rest is typical Tarantino. Lots (and lots) of profanity, and an utter disregard for the value of the human life or even anything resembling a standard. In fact, as in most of his oeuvre, there is little evidence for respect of anything; everything seems grist for the Tarantino mill. Some have apparently seen the film as a criticism of slavery, or violence, or violence-begetting-violence, or an indictment of racism. Inglourious Basterds seemed to at least occasionally acknowledge that perhaps the Nazis’ anti-Semitism and their death camps were not exactly OK. Django, on the other hand, uses slavery, racism and violence as subjects, but then merely exploits them for Tarantino’s brand of “isn’t everything fodder for satire?” humor and an indulgent orgy of violence that serves no good purpose (especially now) and obliterates any possible interpretation of this film as a social or historical comment.
I had expected an overuse of the “n” word, based on some reviewers. There was plenty, but perhaps my expectations prevented me from considering it overdone. But the violence is, to use a term, overkill. It’s not funny, nor ironic, nor a statement on anything thematically. It redefines excessive and promiscuous.
A late-phase genre piece, Django Unchained, especially in the hands of a stylist like Tarantino, could be expected to be more about style than substance. There’s nothing’s wrong with style being substance—see Moulin Rouge for musicals and any number of the Italian westerns Tarantino draws from here for examples of a baroque treatment of the western. Style can be a vessel for a love of sound, or beauty, or the history of the art form. Here, style gives a nod to the American westerns of the ‘50s, spaghetti westerns of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and any number of pieces of music from movie-theme to rock. The violence is clearly in his grindhouse movie tradition as well. Let the interpreters delve. Let them find every cinematic and musical reference and see if, along with the narrative and especially the treatment of racism and violence, if there is some kind of thematic thread other than snarkiness, a near-worship of excessive violence that glories in rather than comments on, and a tendency to riff on every topic imaginable, including (or perhaps especially) on subjects that some people might hold dear—such as, you know, like slavery and the Ku Klux Klan. (Seriously, Jonah Hill? And a “can’t see out of this hood” scene straight out of Blazing Saddles?)
Lastly, it bears repeating that unlike Hitchcock, who did a quick guest appearance in nearly all of his films, Tarantino tends to cast himself as a real character that opens his mouth. A big mistake. Even in a film where anything goes, he’s a major distraction in what is supposed to be a serious portion of the plot, and he’s simply a bad actor that’s painful to watch.
Much will be written about the various serious and real subjects QT “addresses” in this film. But he doesn’t “address” so much as riff, which devalues nearly every subject he touches. Beautifully filmed, well acted. Violent, hollow.