Monday, January 28, 2013

Walking in the Moonlight: Django Unchained

I finally got around to seeing Quentin Tarantino’s latest grindhouse-style violence opus, Django Unchained. It turns out it’s great.

Continuing the unbroken streak of violent revenge-based action thrillers Tarantino began all the way back in 2003 with Kill Bill, Django Unchained is the story of a freed slave (Jamie Foxx) who becomes a bounty hunter and cuts a bloody swath of vengeance through the slave-owning white folks of the pre Civil War American South on a quest to rescue his wife from a cruel Mississippi plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio).

The obvious problem with the film (which is probably apparent just from reading the synopsis) is that we are talking about an action-thriller about American slavery: a horrible and tragic time in our nation’s history that our society is still feeling the effects of 150 years after its abolition. What’s worse, all this exploitation of American tragedy is done by Quentin Tarantino - a pretty definitively white guy.

Smarter critics than me have not been able to see past this issue, but in my opinion the film itself disarms much of this criticism by being so intensely stylized and artificial that its impossible to mistake it for a film about slavery. It’s a film about the satisfaction of revenge itself on a grand scale. A slave in the South taking revenge on cruel plantation overseers is simply a quick and easy shorthand for the oppressed taking revenge on the oppressor. Everyone - regardless of race or ethnicity - understands that the man with the whip is the evil one in this situation, and everyone feels (at least a bit) of the satisfaction of justice well done when Jamie Foxx takes that man’s whip away and shoots him in the face. Tarantino walked this same territory with his last film, Inglorious Basterds, with its crack squad of Jewish commandos murdering the hell out of Nazis in a fantasy version of World War Two.

It also helps that Django Unchained operates on an elevated, near-mythological level. Django’s quest into the heart of darkness to rescue his true love has a very Joseph Cambell-esque Hero’s Journey feel to it, with him first having to learn the necessary skills from his bounty-hunter mentor, (played brilliantly by Christoph Waltz, who is quickly becoming one of my new favorite actors) and then having to use those skills on his own to destroy his enemies and rescue his wife.

Never for one moment does Tarantino allow us to forget that we are watching a movie: constantly shifting anachronistic music cues tell us how to feel at any given moment, crash zooms and stunt photography make sure we never get bored, and crazily over the top gouts of blood spray everywhere (shades of Sanjuro...). In the hands of a lesser director all of that would be awful, but Tarantino makes it work for him, eliciting nothing but grins from me where another filmmaker might get groans.

The hyper-realism of the film extends to the script as well, with everyone (especially the villians) having excellently overblown speeches to chew the scenery with. Extra credit goes to Jamie Foxx, who delivers his hardcase one-liners with exactly the right amount of growl, and Leonardo DiCaprio, whose villainous plantation owner Calvin J. Candie sets the new standard for psychopathic Southern gentleman for years to come.

Yesterday my wife and I were discussing Django Unchained when she asked an excellent question: “Who is this movie for? What’s the target audience?” I thought for a moment, then replied that the target audience for this and every Tarantino film is Quentin Tarantino himself. Luckily for the rest of us, Tarantino likes great films. Lets hope we don’t have to wait another four years for his next one.

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