Quentin Tarantino’s brash pop-Western “Django Unchained” runs on the same saturated patterns of violence and convoluted chutzpa-choreography that has become a spectacle of the aging auteurs’ obsessions, part extravagant melodrama and part something else desperate to be serious and absurd and socially relevant. Some of it, almost none of it, comes together in a way that serves both short-term entertainment value and as a source for long-term serious conversations. As a revisionist Western set out to spin new heroes and tackle old foes, to unsettle the indelible battlefields of the not so distant past while genre bending like only he can, Tarantino makes “Django” as appealing as it is charged with possibility, yet it is also inherently flawed; the trouble with so much ambition is the inevitable failure to marry fantastical imaginings with factual happenstance and make it entertaining. Driven by caricatures and disjointed by sketchy archetypes that you might believe but don’t trust, the narrative is forced through a meat grinder of exceedingly more gruesome and brutal scenarios that leave you breathless, mired in brutal and unforgiving carnage. If not for the particular flavors of the filmmaker’s elaborate conversations that stitch together his fragmented narrative, “Django” might not work at all, though living up to the possibility of the concept, which sounds like the perfect territory never fully happens. It ends up being textbook Tarantino theatrics, hardly more than his usual penchant for bedraggled morality tales, the sort of bop-prosody that fans soak up in cotton ball doses while others take away in granular appreciation. Tarantino makes no excuses, implied or necessary, secretly relishing the war torn landscape of popular opinion that produces the nonsense-infused hot air required to propel his fierce pomposity.
I have to come to terms with the fact that I’ve lost the flavor for Quentin Tarantino’s films. It has been a long time since I felt excited by the news of his latest release and even longer since a screening left me entertained. Despite the overwhelming fans, followers and sycophants that clamor for whatever he does and embrace however he does it, I long for the films he used to make when he was less interested in educating his audience and more inspired to entertain them. “Django” has all the trappings of a Tarantino film, the colorful characters and punctuated lingo flavoring quick wit and snappy shot lists, but shot for shot he’s always about making a point of things, of justifying every tortured scene that goes on and on far too long. He used to put his characters into believable worlds at intersections of conflict and action we could understand, focusing on issues and ideas in dialogue and decisions rather than formulas and strategies wrapped up in social satire and political parody. Now he’s no longer interested in the wraps, he’d rather put it all out in the open and make you understand he’s in control, he can do whatever he wants.
This insistence on bigger themes and more important social consequences is what drives his films, so much so that there’s hardly any room for fun. It’s hard to enjoy blood soaked everything, no matter how much you think you like it, at some point when it becomes personal you’ll never look at it the same way again. Perhaps it makes sense, somehow; what if he sees himself as a Truman Copote of the cinema, marrying fact and fiction to make his films serious and more respected, a new kind of big screen blockbuster thinking person’s film? Is “Django” the creative non-fiction equivalent of “In Cold Blood?” If Tarantino has gotten off track there is a chance he could return. Maybe what he needs is a tornado to whirl into town and stir things up. Maybe he needs someone to come along like Aronofsky with a film like The Wrestler and what it did for Mickey Rourke, or what Scott Cooper did for Jeff Bridges with Crazy Heart. A detour maybe, a lot of what used to make his films great by not trying so hard. Maybe the mix would resuscitate his dilapidated redundancy. Then again, as far as the many are concerned, his bastardized western “Django Unchained” is simply another entry in his ouvriers of blood soaked Spaghetti Pulp Americana, loved for oozing wrongness, merchandise for mass indifference.
Most of what is wrong with “Django” is packaging, the stuff we can trace back to Kill Bills and the snowball of seriousness that’s taken out just about everything else. There appears to be some deep seated need to turn his films into meaningful, socially responsible and historically critical examinations instead of sticking to his shoot em’ up successes. All this planning and determination however, feels more like we’re expected to get it and like it and take it home, think about the message Tarantino is making and then thank him for the pleasure of his brilliance. That’s an awful lot to expect from someone who just wants to escape for 2.5 hours. What made his earlier films great is how he wove this stuff in, made it part of the tapestry not the plastic wrap on the outside with all that plastic sound slipping and sliding around. That Tarantino is absent here, a long gone echo of effortlessness and subtlety we haven’t felt since “Jackie Brown“. Faint recollections of the director’s earliest talent lives and breathes here and there but not enough to keep it from succumbing to heavy-handed manipulations of expendable outcomes that fail on impact.
“Django” meanders because Tarantino meanders. Every bloody exclamation point and every mangled adjective drives this film beyond all measurable tolerance, abandoning the audience along the way in considerable emotional confusion. Violence is no longer an action in response to a situation but the situation itself, stripped of meaning except to serve pornographic machinations where sex parts are replaced with smoking gun barrels and lingerie is lost to the blunt imaginings of blood spattered cotton. If not for Tarantino’s lengthy, self-congratulatory commentary on the publicity tour and after, we might not know the great lengths he went to teach us something. Too bad he thinks so highly of himself.
What’s even more troubling than a movie that gets away with everything for the sake of nothing, is how serious so many people, critics and others have responded to it with unfettered glowing reviews, accolades and award show posturing. It feels like the uncomfortable response and pitiful excuse to load praise for that which bothers and cannot be resolved, for that which demands a response but for fear of losing the mainstream popularity contest, real criticism gets lost in the shuffle. Aggregators contribute to this effect, pushing negatives down below the stars and tomatoes and percentage points. In the face of any real discussion about “Django” is the overwhelming landslide of award show accolades, press doling out praise and a flood of internet buzz trying to get the picture of success just right. You end up feeling like you have to go along with the masses or you look funny or sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about. “Django” is not the “crap masterpiece” David Denby of the New Yorker would like you to embrace, for you simply cannot have it both ways. Similarly, it is not the right tool with which to approach historical injustices and turn a profit in the process. When James Rocci declares “Django” a 5-star success on the merits of its ability to, “..create a discussion of both pop and politics”, it is particularly disturbing that these days we must first wade through gallons of blood and the dismembered body politic in order to get down to the caverns of our most battered discontent. Perhaps Rodrigo Perez captured the sentiment best in his review for the Indiewire blog The Playlist when he wrote, “..[Django].. is not particularly funny or moving..though it might just entertain the shit out of the less discerning.”
At this stage, an overwhelming amount has already been written about the movie and diving into the plot and what not would be pointless. It is safe to summarize that plot, the stuff that is happening goes on far too long and without any relevant purpose to story or important character development. The only change that takes place in these characters is when they die and how. If you are able to live in the moments alone and discard them one by one, take a breath and then let them all go as the credits scroll, perhaps this -is- the movie for you. For the rest and the weary, tired of sensationalized excessiveness and unnecessary carnage, there are many other films considerably more entertaining and vastly less offending.
Sometimes less is more and subtlety delivers the greatest satisfaction in the art and imaginations of the movies we bring into our lives. We have the power of choice and the freedom of action to choose that which entertains and that which offers us a chance to educate ourselves without losing our morality in the process. All I can say is that I long for the Tarantino of years gone by, the refined master of moments that felt so effortless and real and part of each and every one of us that he got us around to thinking by our own devices, however scattered or incomplete. We laughed and tensed up because of the ride, not the message and meaning of it all or his sense of well placed intentions. Sometimes movies have a job to do and that is to take us away from so much manipulated truth and advertising in our lives, however good for us, almost always too much for us. We’re not that broken that we need our escapist films to fix us in the process of thrilling us with something someone else wants us to believe about our personal experiences.
- Django Unchained (thefunhousejournal.blogspot.com)
- Collected Writings on Django Unchained (the guardian)
- Movie – Review: Django Unchained (fernbyfilms.com)
- Spike Lee refuses to see Django “..disrespectful..” (laist.com)