Quentin Tarantino's Unchained Malady

The legendary director emerges from a chaotic couple of years with his most ambitious film to date, 'Django Unchained'

"How much do you care about Oscars?" I ask.

Without missing a beat, he answers, "It would be really nice."

* * *

The Weinstein Co. has roped off just two rows of the 600-seat DGA theater for VIP guests, and the room is full; the rest of us waited in line for hours to ensure a seat at the first-come, first-served first screening of Django Unchained. Moments before the movie begins, Ennio Morricone's score for Once Upon a Time In the West starts to play over the PA, and the anxious audience quiets. The crowd at a typical industry screening in LA is, shall we say, rather blasé. But here, the feeling in the room is that everyone is fucking psyched to have gotten in.

Django begins in 1858; an onscreen title reminds us this is two years before the start of the Civil War. As it charts Django's journey from slave to superhero, his introduction to empowerment, and his efforts to reunite with his lost love, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the movie presents the American South as a land without pity, where white men are all but expected to invent identities for themselves, and women and blacks are violently encouraged to conform to the identities to which they have been assigned. The past it references is also present: Django himself is symbolic of white, ultra-conservative America's worst nightmare of the Angry Black Man, a cartoon symbol of the brown people they've treated like chattel rising up in revenge.

As an anatomy of how a society evolves by following the lead of heroes who murder in the name of the greater good, defending the value of human life by exterminating those who treat it most cheaply, the film works as both a fun-house analogue to Lincoln and a kind of prequel to Inglourious Basterds.

For some, Django might bear too many similarities to Tarantino's most recent movie. As with Basterds, it's a revenge epic informed by identity politics, and it hero-worships con men who, under deep cover, exploit a moral license to kill. Also as with Basterds, it climaxes with highly symbolic, pyrotechnic destruction.

But those similarities aside, what's most striking about Django is all the ways in which Tarantino either sidesteps or messes with his patented "tricks"—for better and for worse. For a female lead in a Quentin Tarantino movie, Washington has incredibly little to do. Broomhilda is squarely a damsel in distress who watches the action scenes from afar rather than chip in. The plot is a MacGuffin built on familiar beats; there are long stretches of almost unbearable suspense but ultimately no real surprises. As ever in a Tarantino script, conversation is used as a delay tactic, and thus as a kind of weapon, but here there is no such thing as even seemingly tangential conversation. When Django and Schultz kick it by the campfire, they don't have time to chatter over the 1858 equivalent of the Royale With Cheese; almost every line in the movie is direct or veiled exposition.

And there's no equivalent of the scene set to David Bowie's "Cat People" from Basterds, in which Mélanie Laurent mentally and physically prepares for her movie-house kamikaze mission—a pause in storytelling for an indulgence in aesthetic pleasure, which enriches the story without actually extending it.

The closest thing to a classically Tarantinoan aside is the film's funniest scene, a kind of micro-flashback to the moments just before a gang of proto-Klan thugs rides over a hill to attack our heroes' camp, with the racist morons bickering among themselves about the subpar quality of their disguises.

Oscar-voter standards aside, Tarantino doesn't hold back the gore entirely—in the first scene, a slave shoots his owner, and a red fountain of guts splashes up from the corpse—but he does suggest more than show. When a slave is eaten alive by a pack of dogs, the horror is mostly relayed on the faces of the bystanders. (At the end of the scene, Leonardo DiCaprio's Calvin Candie suggests to Django that his partner Schultz "looks a little green." Django responds, "I'm just a little more used to Americans than he is.")

The flashiest sequence, a massive shoot-out inside Candie's house, is arhythmic and visually chaotic, with a lack of flow that draws attention to itself. A hip-hop song starts about halfway through, then abruptly stops; the action becomes abstracted by the red mist of spraying blood. In its staging around the staircase of an absurdly opulent home and its bloody totality, the scene seems to reference Scarface, directed by one of Tarantino's idols, Brian De Palma. The choice of music apparently reflects the way De Palma's film, a flop on its release, was reclaimed as a cult object by hip-hop culture. You could read this as an act of fandom—a wishful, YouTube mashup-style homage born out of Tarantino's obsessive study of prints in his home theater and his sessions of writing to a soundtrack of mixtapes out on the balcony of his mansion.

You also could read it as an act of radical film criticism, and on the whole, Tarantino seems to be aiming for the latter. In recent years, his own written criticism, which has never been published, has functioned as a prelude to his screenwriting. "I do my film writing until I come up with a story," he tells me. "[Criticism] keeps me going, keeps me investing in things, and keeps me thinking in an artistic way—and in a critical way, too."

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