Writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s approach to cinema is privately important to him.
He is the movie-movie fan’s king. He has a good ear, a good eye, and a good sense of movie past. The QT joint is a lubed thing of spare parts, a Frankenstein beast from a video-store vacuum. With the blood of a thousand giallos, it runs on Big Kahuna burgers, Patron, and burnt popcorn. (I think an Uzi and a McCulloch pop out from the hood.) It has the good-natured motor-mouth of a buxom, braless She at a roller derby. Yes, the QT movie is hurt — but it flays the competition. So the man entertains. And we who share his enthusiasms – those of us outside the film industry looking in – root for him to rock. He makes the movies he wants (and we want) to see. Embraced the world over for doing this, he embodies the notion that, if you work hard enough, you can indulge your creative joys for a pretty penny. And it pays to be you.
Django Unchained concerns me, though. Here, the feral trace – the drive of the boy that 35mm film raised – starts to feel ingrown.
You are what you eat. It is true. Nursed at the grindhouse till he began making movies, Tarantino is a worldview borne of film: the belief in movies as living, mentoring totems that can teach you all there is to know and value. (Movies, of course.) In Django Unchained, he recycles a revenge flick for and about an unjustly, historically oppressed minority (next up, The Legend of Jo Fancy-Pants Nutterberg, a formerly enslaved, gay Jewish black woman). Now we are in Sergio Tarantino’s antebellum South. To the extent that he makes that kind of a film, he succeeds. Like Leone and Corbucci, his betters, he takes a stylish, larger than life tack. He does not waste the violence. Revolting or fun (or both), it hinges on a point of view, on the characters with whom our sympathy aligns. And he puts the violence up front. Unlike Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, this movie ain’t no uppity slog. No. It ain’t precious. Because of the near-exploitative zeal with which it appeals to our desire for bread and circus, and the multi-functional vernacular that ripples through, QT’s dialogue moves the story even when you think otherwise. It sounds great. It sets things up. It reveals. Unlike Leone and Corbucci, though, QT does not know when to quit. His titular hero bores. The pastiche is left a pastiche.
A slave-turned-bounty hunter who tries to save his bride from the Candieland plantation, Django (Jamie Foxx) is the big flaw. He’s flat. Designed to be a badass hero, an avenging angel, he’s really a stand-in device to bring other, more memorable characters onto the page. The stage. The page. Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, never better) is the main hero, whereas Django is a glorified sidekick for much of the film. Stephen the butler (a revelatory Samuel L. Jackson) is the main villain, whereas Calvin Candie (Leonardo “the boy prince” DiCaprio) is a rank figurehead for all kinds of unseemliness. The assignation of heroes and villains is playful. The stars in supporting roles outshine the leads. This is fun, to a point, but Foxx seems ill at ease with the dialogue. He glowers then he does not. And by giving Django a false arc – from a taciturn stone face in the first two-thirds to a loquacious deliverer of death in the last third – Tarantino trips. When Waltz leaves the story, we should not feel the loss we do. I concede, this is partly the point. His character is to be missed. But a poorly shaped, poorly cast hero cannot possibly fill his shoes, and the film suffers for it.
That segues: In Django Unchained, Tarantino outdoes himself. Parts of it are bloodier, funnier, and sillier than any QT film to date. Yet the balance is off. The movie could have used a rinse and a shave, and the spirit of a film like Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown. Chalk it up to the death of longtime editor and co-conspirator Sally Menke. Chalk it up to the director’s over-and-under exposure.1 The simplest proof of this liability? The presence of so many loquacious characters. It’s like he stamped every other character on the forehead with a trademark. It’s too much.
I love a tough genre movie as much as the next cat. I don’t need it to be deep or profound. So, given QT’s clout, why can’t he do more? And by more, I mean less – or something unexpected.2 Is that asking him to be a different director?
I get it. Believe me, I do: He wants to make great bad movies, long, costly Leone flicks. Where actors (e.g., James Remar) and locations (e.g., Lone Pine, CA) play dual roles. Where a fake film grain overlays the frame. Where he uses a zoom lens mock-randomly and many of the key dramatic situations are contained situations. He does this by choice (as opposed to a choice that bare necessity dictates, like in a Roger Corman cheapie). Paying tribute, the Weinstein Company green-lights a multimillion-dollar budget. And the irony may turn you off. Perhaps, in 1994, you spotted the peacock for what it was. Oh well. The Weinsteins are happy. The great bad movies he’s made have made huge sums of cash. And presumably, they will raise the budget on others to come. But if Django Unchained is any indication, QT will run out of gas sooner than I’d like. He will cease to transform the trash by which he’s transfixed. He will go for show (the Quentin show), and story will lose. Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown derive aesthetic pleasure from, and give to it, a classically neat tautness. They are crime comedies with real thematic weight (the antiheroic search for purpose and redemption). In their circular way, they are lovely. Django Unchained is a blowout with less on its mind than either of those films.
Roll on, Quentin.
1 Distasteful is the rich fat director who promotes his film by saying that cinema has not seriously dealt with the blight that was American slavery until now. (To which I say: But Quentin, Django Unchained is not that movie. 12 Years a Slave is.) Strange is the rich fat director who has not lived in the real world for just shy of twenty years.
2 Is it wrong to fault Django Unchained for not surprising me like his other films do (Inglourious Basterds included)? Do I expect too much?