Thursday, January 3, 2013
Django is a three hour film about a slave who is emancipated, kills a bunch of people and then kills a bunch more people until it finally, mercifully, ends. I suppose in between some of the carnage there are extended dialogue sequences, but unlike the usual dialogue in auteur Quentin Tarantino's previous films where two characters talking can be more exciting and visceral than any close up head shot, most of the dialogue here is just boring. When Tarantino is on top of his game, the dialogue is layered upon layer, mixing exposition, character development, and inventive concepts in an explosion of wit and dramatic flourish, like the Royale with Cheese conversation in Pulp Fiction, the opening interrogation from Inglorious Basterds, or Bill's insane interpretation of the Superman mythos in Kill Bill. But when he's off his game, we get abysmal monologues from annoying actors talking about how much they love blueberry pancakes that load a film down with so much crap the entire movie feels like it's going to implode into a black hole from which no audience member is able to escape.
Well, the script for Django is a whole lot of blueberry pancakes.
Part of the problem stems from the fact that the story is so slight, and the extended running time seems to suggest that Tarantino thought it was going to be epic. It's not epic, although there are a lot of characters and various locations, but these elements made it all feel disjointed and poorly structured, not epic in scope. And it doesn't help that the revenge story at its core is so morally reprehensible.
Tarantino's last three films (this one included) have been basically the same movie: Some individual or group gets revenge on an evil organization who has wronged them. Kill Bill was about a woman getting revenge on Bill and his assassins, which I'm going to go ahead and say was a surrogate story for single mothers getting revenge on the deadbeat fathers who abandoned them. Basterders was about a group of Jews killing a bunch of Nazis, including Hitler! And this one is about a former slave killing a bunch of slave owners.
Now, at the heart of it, these all sound like a lot of fun, and they are to a certain extent, but they all left me feeling hollow and uncomfortable... and I think watching this third film in Tarantino's revenge trilogy led me to figure out why: These are revenge films made by a man who is assigning rage to a group of people to which he doesn't belong. Tarantino is a white, gentile man who has now made three films where he attempts to offer solace in the form of vengeance for women, Jews, and African Americans. And by doing so he has attempted to force a bloodlust and desire for pronographic vengeance that is actually found historically in one culture: white, gentile men.
I can't speak for women or African Americans, but as a descendent of Jews (some of whom died in the Holocaust), I can speak as a Jewish viewer of Inglorious Bastereds: It was awful. Quentin Tarentino concocted a film where a team of all Jewish soldiers roam through Europe with the sole intention of murdering Nazi officers in the most horrific ways possible, all culminating in a pornographically violent sequence where Hitler himself is torn apart with machine gun fire and then burned to a crisp. Again, this sounds fun in theory, but when it was actually committed to film it became something of a mockery of the holocaust and turned the murders of nearly ten million people into a joke.
"Look, it's ok now!" Tarantino seemed to be saying. "Hitler finally got what he deserved!"
Well, no he didn't and he never did, and the only way to honor the millions of people who died in the Holocaust is to remember that Hitler was a real human being who did unspeakably horrific things, and not a mustache twirling villain in a summer blockbuster. After all, it would look ridiculous if Hitler tried to twirl that tiny little mustache, but this was a film that was a two hour attempt to do just that.
Anyway, here's my main: These revenge stories are reprehensible because they assign a blood lust and desire for vengeance where none exist. As a Jew I don't respond to the Holocaust with a desire for more bloodshed, I respond with a desire for understanding, forgiveness, and end end to violence. And I imagine that most African Americans feel the same way about the holocaust of their people: They probably don't want to see another lynching or whipping, even if it's the lynching or whipping of the people who used to abuse them.
But even forgetting all that, it maybe doesn't even apply to this film, since even though Django Unchained has been billed and described countless times as a slavery revenge film, it really isn't that at all. Even taking away the slavery, this is just a story about a guy who gets revenge on people who mistreated him and his wife. After all, there are no scenes in this film of Django emancipating any slaves other than himself and his wife. In fact, time and time again he turns a blind eye to the suffering of slaves around him and views them just as a means to an end: to save his wife and escape with her to freedom. All they needed at the end was a simple scene where Django unshackled the remaining slaves on the plantation, but that never happened because Django didn't seem to care about anybody but Django.
Or maybe I'm over thinking this movie, but iff so, that's Tarantino's fault. If he didn't want my mind to wander he shouldn't have stretched out such a slight story into a bloated three hour mess.
But as I said above, it wasn't all bad, and it could even have been really good with some trimming and slight story changes. After all, this is still a Tarantino movie, and he's incapable of making anything truly terrible.
As a writer, Tarantino was able to put in a few of his signature moments, the most notable being the scene where all the riders out for vengeance against Django complained about how they couldnt' see out of their white masks they were forced to wear. That was seriously one of the funniest scenes I've ever seen and the entire theater was rolling with laughter.
The casting, of course, was brilliant. Tarantino is a film fan first and a film maker second, so he always stacks his movies with such amazing performers, and the western genre gave him the excuse to go nuts. We have roles for Michael Parks, Don Johnson, Tom Wopat, Walton Goggins, Tom Savini, Bruce Dern, and even Franco Nero who starred in the original spaghetti western from which this film borrowed its name. And that list is only the tip of the iceberg, with a cast list that includes people that I didn't even notice or realize where in the film. There's even an appearance by Tarantino himself, who inexplicably decided to return to acting by giving himself a role as an Australian slave overseer. Anyway, he sucked.
We also have the starring roles by Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx as our heroes, both of whom were exceptional, although Waltz was the superior performer and the better written character. Foxx was great as the strong but silent cold blooded damn killer, but this also made him feel thin as a character and kind of boring. I understand that this was a nod to the man with no name type heroes who typify this kind of film, but Clint Eastwood had a twinkle in his eye that Foxx, talent not withstanding, can't quite match.
Leo DiCaprio was another very talented actor who seemed hampered by poor writing. He had a lot of fun hamming it up, but his character's motivations were never made clear, and he just felt too forced and weird to be the least bit intimidating as a villain. Don Johnson was way more fun and scary a bad guy in his ten minutes or so on film than Leo was for about two hours. I dunno... he was just aiight for me.
But the entire movie belonged to Sam Jackson, who came in late and just walked away with the whole film, creating a character unlike anything ever seen on film. If I can think of one reason to go see this film, it's for the mesmerizing acting performance of Samuel L Jackson. I'm not going to spoil anything by even talking about who he plays or what role he had in the overall story, but for such a poorly made and thought out film, this was one area truly deserving of accolades and awards. He was amazing.
Tarantino also excels at putting together memorable soundtracks, and this may have been his best and most epic since Pulp Fiction. When "I Got a Name" by Jim Croce started playing at one point, I actually thought it was a joke. I love the song but I never thought I'd see it in a western, but it worked perfectly. And the showstopping "Who Did that to You" by John Legend was incredible. I went to buy it on iTunes but it was one of those "album only" tracks. They know it's the best one too.
Anyway, that's Django Unchained, and this review has gone on almost as long as the film itself, but I had a lot I wanted to say. Other than a few funny moments, some great songs, and the sublime performance by Sam Jackson, I just thought it was too long and too morally questionable to come together as anything that resembles a good movie. But what do I know?