Monday, December 31, 2012
Django Unchained: The Good, the Bad, and the Incomplete
He’s one of our greatest filmmakers, but I’m not entirely convinced that Quentin Tarantino knows how to tell a feature-length story. In some ways, that’s his great advantage – an almost pathological inability to lay out his plots in the standard way.
I should qualify this sentiment, though. Jackie Brown is the closest he’s come, thanks to the fact that he was adapting an Elmore Leonard novel. But Tarantino’s other films are deliciously fragmented: Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds are in effect built around several interlocking short stories; Kill Bill is a season-long TV series in miniature. Death Proof is a kind of mini-franchise of a movie and its sequel; neither is properly structured, but together they’re glorious. (And they were released as part of the grander structural experiment of Grindhouse.) Reservoir Dogs (still my least favorite of his films) feels basically like a one-act play.
More on that later, but first things first: I love Django Unchained. It’s riveting, breathtaking, outrageous, and contains some of the best filmmaking of Tarantino’s career. I do have some problems with it, but violence is not one of them. The final words Tarantino gives to King Schultz (Christophe Waltz), “Forgive me, I couldn’t resist,” act as a kind of apologia pro filma sua for the director's own project: He’s too outraged, too angry by what he has seen, to create a respectful movie. He needs the baptism of a bloodbath to do justice to the sins of a nation. That’s a sentiment that was expressed quite eloquently, ironically enough, in one of those “respectable” films to which Tarantino probably sees his Django as a corrective -- Steven Spielberg’s Amistad.
All that said, after multiple viewings I’m still having some difficulties with Django. And my problems are structural ones – not because it’s not conventional enough but because at times it feels too conventional. The movie was probably structured at some point like one of those previous experiments of his: It has a certain episodic looseness, but the looseness feels abbreviated, like something’s been cut to create a finished product with a beginning, middle, and an end. Here and there are characters who look like they were supposed to add up to a lot more in a longer version. I’m a little perplexed by how little the transcendent Kerry Washington is given to do, though she does so much with so little. (Every time the movie flashed to her I felt chills go up my spine, and part of me suspects/hopes that there’s a longer cut with more to her in it. That gleeful smile on her face as she plugs her ears in the final scene of the film is electrifying.)
(There now follow some serious SPOILERS for Django Unchained.)
Much has been made of the fact that the film seems to lose a certain amount of propulsion after the deaths of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Schultz and the subsequent gun battle. I agree with that, but I don’t think the reason for it is because DiCaprio and Waltz are too good (though they are, indeed, great). Rather, it’s because Tarantino has bought into a certain conventional dramaturgy that plays against his strengths: He doesn’t want the movie to end with Schultz’s death, but rather wants (or needs) Django to come into his own as a killer and to enter the final contest against Candyland by himself. This seems like one of those Syd Field-approved story points that Tarantino is often so fond of quoting.
It might have worked, but the problem is that he hasn’t really portrayed Django as a guy who needs to come into his own: Jamie Foxx’s character is quiet, perhaps, but he’s also a badass fairly early on. He seems to be an expert shot from the get-go, and he doesn’t break character when he’s posing as a black slaver to infiltrate Candyland. Earlier, when he acts on his own to kill the Brittle brothers, we’re given a hint that Schultz is upset with him, but nothing really comes of it. I don’t know if it’s a question of performance (I can’t think of anything Foxx does that’s wrong, necessarily) or of direction, but we just don’t worry too much about whether Django will be able to handle himself without Schultz. He seems more than able to well before the finale. That, plus the fact that with the death of Candie and much of his men in the earlier gun battle there doesn’t seem to be that much of a compelling physical threat to Django, reduces the suspense somewhat.
But of course, the final confrontation isn’t really with a person. Not with Walton Goggins's Billy Crash, who may be was supposed to be more threatening than he is, having already been humiliated once by Django. Not even with Samuel L. Jackson’s Steven, who briefly seems to gain a kind of galactic monstrosity that, again, I wish Tarantino had done more with. Rather, the face-off is against Candyland itself, and the legal institution it represents. Thus, this finale is more of a symbolic one. And what does work here is how Tarantino closes out Django’s journey from the most powerless victim of the law (a slave), to an agent of the law (a bounty hunter with Schultz), and finally, to someone who is entirely outside the law. In other words, an outlaw -- and a myth.