The South sure as hell ain’t gonna rise after this: “Django Unchained”

December 31, 2012

DI PosterIn hindsight it’s sort of surprising it’s taken Quentin Tarantino this long to make a movie about slaves killing their white masters, what with his love of Blaxploitation cinema and a sensibility that seems mostly (if not totally) entrenched in the early ‘70s when race-relations were a tad more overheated than they are today. Still, it seemed to take Inglourious Basterds, and its history-rewriting acts of cathartic violence to put him on this track. In fact, this film has gotten some flack for being a simple retread of IG. It seems to me, though, that IG was the dry run for Django Unchained, since this film is more cohesive and disciplined than many of Tarantino film of late. Of course it’s a sliding scale, but still…

So, Django Unchained. Well, if you’ve seen the trailers, then you know what this movie is about. In the American South of 1858, a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) is given his freedom by a German bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who is hot on the trail of a trio of brothers whose scalps promise a hearty payout. Schultz needs Django to ID the brothers, and Django agrees, because, well, who wouldn’t? As Django and Schultz bag more and more outlaws, and become closer as friends, Schultz agrees to help Django buy the freedom of his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Seems pretty straightforward, right? Yeah, Tarantino still manages to milk damn near three hours out of it.

Django and Schultz spend the bulk of that run time passing through the unreformed South, experiencing a whole host of unreformed attitudes toward the sight of a black man riding a horse. A fair number of these come courtesy of Big Daddy Bennett (Don Johnson), a particularly callous Mississippi plantation owner and KKK member. Django and Schultz’s run-in with Big Daddy leads them to Calvin Candie, who presides over a modest plantation named Candieland. Yeah, it’s a cheap joke.

I'm pretty sure this would have been Johnson's wardrobe if Miami Vice had run a few more seasons

I’m pretty sure this would have been Johnson’s wardrobe if Miami Vice had run a few more seasons

To work their way into Candie’s good graces and infiltrate Candieland, Django and Schultz pose as prospective investors in Candie’s hobby of “Mandingo fighting,”—pitting two slaves against one another in a bare-knuckled brawl to the death (something which, historically, never seems to have happened). Schultz plays the wealthy investor, and Django as the talent scout. Their plan is to purchase Broomhilda as a rider in the wake of a greater investment of one of Candie’s Mandingo fighters. Suffice it to say, it doesn’t quite go that smoothly.

Django Unchained is Tarantino’s most straightforward narrative since perhaps Jackie Brown, and it gives him room to put his thoughts up onscreen. This isn’t always a bad thing, but it’s not always a good thing, either. Tarantino is genuinely appalled by the institution of slavery (not, I should point out, a difficult side of the fence to land on), and he uses his considerable skill and dexterity with portraying violence to clearly delineate between the crowd-pleasing  ‘70s splatter violence and the genuine atrocity which is inherent in slavery. He’s also adept at cutting to heart of the rank hypocrisy at the heart of Southern gentility, which posited a mannered, cultured world atop an institution of unspeakable barbarity (not for nothing is Candie an avid Francophile who can’t speak French).

Dude, Southerners are weird.

Dude, Southerners are weird.

The problem comes when Tarantino attempts the pivot between his beloved grindhouse sensibilities and his more realistic depictions of violence. It’s a tough act for any director, and while Tarantino may have many virtues as a filmmaker, emotional nuance is not one of them. In the end, Tarantino never really arrives at an appropriate tone for Django Unchained, and instead just lets it swing wildly in whatever direction he feels.

As with all his films, the casting and performances are simply the best. Waltz continues to be the best German import since the H&K P7M8, creating another mesmerizingly verbose character—as cunning and eloquent as his Hans Landa, but without underlying cruelty. As a proxy for the audience, he is a perfectly serviceable entry point to this world—as baffled and horrified by what he sees as we are.

Paradoxically, Django is the less showy role, requiring Foxx to mostly just hit his marks as a taciturn gunslinger. He does this well, along with finding a light comedic chemistry with Waltz and playing the romantic hero opposite Washington. The part was reportedly originally written for Will Smith—maybe as an attempt to cast him against type and jolt the movie by subverting his family-friendly image. It’s tough to see that work, though, since a certain degree of ego-suppression is required for the role, and that’s not something Smith does well.

In supporting roles, Johnson, Washington, and Walton Goggins all shine to varying degrees. Johnson hams it up in a performance as broad as the one in Machete was straight (not his fault–the film veers toward camp here), but it’s fun to watch. And Washington, while not given much to do other than be the damsel in distress, is a perfect McGuffin to hinge this movie upon. I mean, she’s Kerry Washington, wouldn’t you burn down most of the antebellum South to rescue her? I know I sure would.

I would reduce Mississippi to a smoldering crater for her...

I would reduce Mississippi to a smoldering crater for her…

The most ferocious performance, however, comes from Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, Candie’s house slave. Playing something close to his own age, Jackson’s Stephen is a cauldron of bitterness and subsumed fury. He’s almost a familiar to Candie—as much a fixture of the house as any of the finery—and serves as the apparatus of white society’s attitudes toward their slaves. He is more than a race-traitor: his fealty to the Candies has engulfed his entire existence; his character, the sublimation of personhood personified.

Make no mistake: right this minute, you are disappointing Samuel L. Jackson

Make no mistake: right this minute, you are disappointing Samuel L. Jackson

So, that’s Django Unchained. It’s a mess, and I don’t think has anything insightful to say about anything, but I was never really bored. That’s something.

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