Friday, December 28, 2012

Django Unchained: The West as it should have been?

Django Unchained (2012) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for relentless violence and gore, profanity, nudity and considerable ghastly behavior
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.28.12

Since Jews were given the vicarious opportunity to blow up Hitler and his high-ranking Nazi goons in 2009’s alternate-history Inglourious Basterds, we shouldn’t be surprised that cinematic bad boy Quentin Tarantino would grant African Americans similar cheap thrills, by scolding the pre-Civil War, slave-holding South in the same cheeky manner.

Django (Jamie Foxx, left) believes that he and his partner have successfully tricked
Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) into accepting their feigned roles as slave traders.
Alas, Candie isn't quite as dense as he seems, and his fury builds to fearsome
proportions when the ruse is exposed. As for what happens next ... well, let's just say
that it's vintage Tarantino.
If Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles made you wince, by milking broad comedy from racism, this one will freeze your blood.

But make no mistake: Although Django Unchained definitely scores points in the ongoing debate about American race relations, at its heart this film is gleefully exploitative trash: giddily violent, gratuitously blood-soaked and unapologetically self-indulgent.

And yet ... undoubtedly a guilty pleasure. You just can’t help admiring Tarantino’s chutzpah.

He remains a walking film encyclopedia, with a particular fondness for the campy, low-budget sleaze of the late 1960s and ’70s, which ranged from the Clint Eastwood/Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, to the blaxploitation flicks that made minor-league stars of Fred Williamson, Pam Grier, Richard Roundtree, Tamara Dobson and others.

Tarantino evokes them all in Django Unchained, a revisionist western that takes its title from a 1966 Sergio Corbucci rip-off of Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars — which, in turn, ripped off Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo — and starred Franco Nero as a coffin-carrying pistolero who blows into a town-turned-battle zone by feuding Mexican bandits and (you gotta love it) KKK members.

No surprise, then, that Nero himself pops up in a small part here; Tarantino loves to honor his predecessors. He also gets a kick out of “rescuing” familiar film and TV B-actors, and so you’ll spot the likes of Don Johnson, Tom Wopat, Don Stroud, Bruce Dern, Lee Horsley and Michael Parks.

And you’ve gotta love the parts assigned other visiting day players: Russ Tamblyn pops up as Son of a Gunfighter — a nod to the title of his own 1966 Spanish oater — which allows Amber Tamblyn an eyeblink appearance as “Daughter of a Son of a Gunfighter.” And speaking of the KKK, Jonah Hill is cast as “Bag Head #2” in a sequence played for high comedy, which mercilessly depicts clan members as the dim-bulb morons they undoubtedly were.

But all this comes later. As was the case with Leone’s similarly sprawling 1966 epic, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Tarantino — both writer and director here — takes his time setting up this narrative. It’s two years prior to the opening shot of the Civil War, and the story begins as Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a traveling dentist of questionable repute, encounters a couple of horse-riding toughs leading a small line of chained slaves, one of them Django (Jamie Foxx).

Except that Schultz isn’t really a dentist; he’s actually a U.S. court-appointed bounty hunter who earns his rewards whether the targets are dead or alive. (Usually dead, then, because that’s easier.) Schultz has long been tracking the notorious Brittle brothers, whom Django can recognize by sight, from a previous encounter. Schultz knows this, and “acquires” Django with the promise of freeing him after the Brittles have been nailed.

As it happens, though, Django rather enjoys the idea of killing nasty white folks; he and Schultz become uneasy allies, then partners and finally genuine friends. Meanwhile, Django has shared his own mission: to be re-united with the wife — Kerry Washington, as Broomhilda — who was sold to another slaveholder after the married couple fumbled an escape attempt.

Schultz is completely sympathetic to this quest, particularly since it evokes the Brünnhilde legend that is so essential to his German heritage. And so, while gut-shooting many of the South’s most wanted criminals, he and Django eventually make their way to “Candyland,” the notorious estate run by the bestial Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the current owner of Broomhilda.

Candie’s idea of a good time is watching two slaves fight, no holds barred, until one literally beats the other to death. With a hammer.

Django, meanwhile, has remade himself into a tight-lipped, bad-ass bounty hunter, complete with snappy duds and ’tude-enhancing shades. We can’t help laughing at our first glimpse of this transformation, but there’s also no doubt that Foxx successfully sells the part.

And so we merrily await what’s to come, knowing it’ll be insanely violent, and secure in the knowledge that while the Deep South’s slave-holding history may not have gone down this way ... it probably should have.

Waltz, who won a well-deserved Academy Award for his chillingly nasty role in Inglourious Basterds, sets an entirely different tone here. His Dr. Schultz is polite, intelligent, clever and quick to condescend; much of this film’s joy comes from the way this character talks down to stupid Americans who lack the wit to realize how badly they’ve just been insulted.

Waltz makes us like Schultz, and not just because this German observer of the human condition takes such a dim view of those who traffic in slavery. He’s also kind, resourceful and loyal, with a pragmatic streak that makes the cold-blooded killing of criminal scum seem, well, like a purely practical necessity. In short, he’s an outrageous archetype, but that’s all right; we need a few positive characters to offset the heinous behavior of this saga’s various villains.

Top of the heap, in the latter camp, is DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie, whose “punishment” for a disobedient slave is to watch the poor wretch torn apart by the plantation dogs: a fate that also meets the full approval of Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s trusted house slave. Stephen, it turns out, is a far nastier piece of work than Candie, who at least falls back on perceived racial superiority to justify his behavior; Stephen doesn’t give his fellow slaves a second thought, as long as his own comfort and security are assured.

Along with, we eventually discover, the ability to influence all aspects of his master’s plantation activities. Truth be told, Candie probably couldn’t get along without Stephen, and that’s a match genuinely made in hell.

Although much of the so-called acting in this film is more overstated camp than actual art, the performances delivered by DiCaprio and Jackson are genuinely scary. Candie initially comes off as a privileged, smiling aristocrat who defends his racist beliefs with the dubious application of phrenology; but when DiCaprio’s smile becomes hard, and his eyes compress into flinty, blue-green chips of diamond, the man appears capable of anything.

Jackson, as well, is introduced deceptively as a figure of ridicule: an aging Uncle Tom who bows, shuffles and yassirs to a degree that draws taunts from white crackers and grim expressions of disgust from fellow slaves. But Stephen, as well, is holding back; when the veil parts and his true colors are revealed, he’s a similar nightmare.

Washington, game for anything, makes Broomhilda a woman worth fighting for. We spend the entire film in agony, waiting for the next act of cruelty to be heaped upon her, knowing full well that if Candie has no limits, the same can be said of Tarantino.

Unlike DiCaprio and Jackson, who initially conceal their characters’ inner selves until sudden, climactic reveals, Foxx’s Django evolves slowly. The transition is tantalizing, with Django initially wary and suspicious, then profoundly amused, as he realizes that Schultz truly does mean to take him on as a gun-toting partner. Eventually, as Django grows into this new dynamic, thoroughly enjoying the double-takes of white folks who’ve (for example) never seen a black man on horseback before, Foxx’s bearing blossoms into grim satisfaction.

A feeling we share, it must be mentioned. And that, of course, is the subversive nature of Tarantino’s approach. It’s hard not to feel glibly superior to the racist idiots deliberately censured by this story, but we must be careful not to get too full of ourselves. Much of this film is uncomfortable because we also recognize, all too well, that considerable work remains to be done when it comes to American race relations.

At 165 minutes, though, Tarantino’s film definitely outweighs its welcome, despite a riveting climax of absurdly gory, jaw-dropping excess. As befits Tarantino’s approach, he choreographs such carnage to familiar music quotes lifted from 1960s exploitation flicks; you’ll recognize themes by Ennio Morricone and Jerry Goldsmith, and you’ve never heard Jim Croce’s “I Got a Name” used to such ironic effect.

I can’t casually recommend this film to the general public, and I shudder to think of unsuspecting patrons who wandered in on Christmas Day — when it opened (!) — without any notion of what was about to smack them senseless.

That said, Tarantino’s fans and folks with a snarky sense of barbed dark humor are apt to have a wonderful time.

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