by ALEX CARNEVALE
dir. Quentin Tarantino
Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) has a lot of money and is very, very bored, a position Quentin Tarantino has been able to identify with for some time now. Tarantino loved genre films as a young one; now he remakes them as if their conventions were high literature. He reminds me somewhat of how Charles Dickens reinvented the early serial drama of his predecessors into a somewhat more serious treatment of his place and time. In its sheer exuberance and energy, Django Unchained makes everything else released this year look amateurish and dull.
Dr. Schultz tracks down Django Freeman (Jamie Foxx) because he believes the slave can identify individuals with a considerable bounty on their heads, the Brittle brothers. He purchases the slave and promises Django freedom if he complies with Schultz' instructions. Most slave narratives have a white man making such a vow at one point or another, but Schultz keeps his word, and after Django helps him kill other white people, including Don Johnson and Jonah Hill (couldn't he have eliminated Emma Stone while he was at it?), they team up to assassinate more whites with bounties on their heads. The outfits they wear during their hunts are absolutely magnificent.
Tarantino gave into his more comedic impulses in his hysterical two-part revenge fantasy Kill Bill. It was still strange enough to make the films it was parodying seem normal in comparison. Django Unchained is not nearly as risky, for it must necessarily take its major subject - slavery - at face value. It is only near the very end of Django, when Jamie Foxx's horse is doing a humorous, Mr. Ed-style tap dance after eliminating the plantation where he finds his wife Hildy (Kerry Washington), when Django Unchained fully embraces the whimsical satire that all of Tarantino's films inevitably become.
Casting was once Tarantino's forte, but now his friends are actors, and it's more important to find work for his buddies, along with the token comeback role for a guy like Don Johnson, than find the best actors for the role. Waltz is basically reprising his role as a disturbed Nazi from Inglorious Basterds, except now he is on the other side, playing a bounty hunter who returns the corpses of wanted men for cash. Dr. Schultz seems to be more excited by the danger his profession entails than the potential monetary rewards. (Again, the parallel to Tarantino, whose use of the word "nigger" completely subsumes the dialogue of Django Unchained, is obvious.)
Waltz' overall diction and facial expressions are virtually unchanged from Basterds. He is good at what he does, but about halfway through Djano Unchained, when the two bounty hunters arrive at the plantation of Leonardo DiCaprio, you realize you are as sick of him as Django is. Schultz does not really possess the right kind of personality for the reserved Foxx to play off, and later scenes where Django purses his objective alone are filled with a more exciting kind of tension. We do not want our black hero's vengeance encumbered by a white man any more than he does.
DiCaprio himself, portraying plantation owner Calvin Candie, is far and away the most talented actor in Django Unchained, and like most of Tarantino's villains he gets the best lines. (His teeth are revolting and perfect.) Calvin Candie's own second is a simpering, aged Samuel L. Jackson, who plays the role of the black man loyal to the plantation. This, DiCaprio explains at length, is because African-Americans have a part of the skull which renders them more submissive than whites. Jackson's role is mostly played for comedy, and its only difference from the traditionally offensive roles of blacks issued in films from the early part of last century is that the actor behind the role voted for Obama.
The rest of the cast gets little in the way of screen time. As Django's wife, Kerry Washington is painfully muted. She is the only one slave who experiences tortune in Django Unchained as a slave. Sure, one man is torn to death by dogs, and another is beaten to death in a staged fight to the death, but that is not slavery. Slavery is not violence alone; it requires duration.
Mostly, the blacks of DiCaprio's not-so-idyllic Candyland lounge about, not working the fields or feeling the lash of the overseer. Washington's scars, when displayed at a particularly eventful dinner, are the only evidence of violence present. Her screams do not make us shudder when she emerges from the salty hotbox where she is punished for fleeing, and her anguish, or anyone else's, is never offered at length.
That is not the kind of movie Tarantino is making, which is something of a shame, because Quentin is the best technical director working today. He has abandoned his unnerving, electric habit of using long shots and pans that so set him apart from his fast-cutting peers in his early career, trading it in for a more flexible style. At times he seems to be even making fun of much imitated moments in his earlier efforts, repeating his most famous nausea-inducing pan from Reservoir Dogs as he circles around a group of Scottish slavers that includes himself, 100 pounds heavier than when Quentin Tarantino first cast Quentin Tarantino in Reservoir Dogs as the slender Mr. Brown.
Roots this is not. "Slavery is not a spaghetti western," Spike Lee informed us, as if this were in doubt. There are few spaghetti westerns played for laughs. Django Unchained is a slavery comedy, plain and simple.
Here we find a reminder of what slavery was, without the evidence of degradation over time that distinguished it from mere oppression. Maybe that is just as well. White audiences have never tolerated an extensive reminder of their ancestors' foibles; much easier to simply witness the murder of slaveowners and feel superior and glad as blood cartoonishly spews from their bodies when Django executes them. It is not dissimiliar to the congratulatory feeling that Zero Dark Thirty offers at the violent execution of Osama Bin Laden. At least Django does not throw a lively party and announce a press conference afterwards. We cannot help our enjoyment at watching evil people die, but nothing offers more diminishing rewards.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here. He last wrote in these pages about Rebecca West and H.G. Wells.
"Freedom" - Anthony Hamilton & Elayna Boynton (mp3)
"Who Did That To You" - John Legend (mp3)