The Films of 2012: Django Unchained

I’m still in a bit of a daze after seeing Quentin Tarantino’s latest opus, Django Unchained, yesterday evening: like nearly all of Tarantino’s films, it’s a jolting, at times overwhelming experience, by turns funny, clever, frustrating, audacious, excessive, and unsettling.  (A typical image: a spray of blood raining down on white cotton blossoms.)  It also gives you more to think about than just about any other movie of the year.  Consequently, it seems to me only fair to overlook the film’s occasional tendency to go somewhat deliriously off the rails.  Tarantino, who continues to reign as one of our most gifted, and incorrigible, living filmmakers, has served up yet another jaw-dropper.     

The film is an anachronistic blend of spaghetti Western, antebellum melodrama, and caper comedy, inspired by Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966) in the same loose, roundabout way that Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) was a remake of the 1977 Enzo Castellari film of the same name.  The title character, played by Jamie Foxx, is a slave turned bounty hunter who, with the help of his unflappable, smooth-talking business partner (a superb Christoph Waltz, once again showing off his facility with foreign languages), endeavors to rescue his wife from the clutches of dandified plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).  All three male leads are in excellent form, as is Samuel L. Jackson, playing Candie’s reprehensibly devoted manservant, Stephen, with obvious relish.  Tarantino has always had a gift for serving his actors plum roles, and there is no shortage of them here.  The plot, too, is a classic nail-biter, with Django and his partner infiltrating the plantation (“Candie Land”) under false pretenses, unexpectedly arousing the suspicions of the martinet Stephen.  It builds to a hugely entertaining, nerve-jangling, baggy monster of a set piece, staged around Candie’s dining room table.  The film falters, though, by not knowing quite when and where to resolve—not even a storyteller of Tarantino’s command can avoid making the second of two epic shoot-outs feel anti-climactic.  

Django’s flabby, protracted ending is a real shame, because it weakens what is otherwise a tightly composed and carefully modulated film that toes the line between provocation and tastelessness.  The material here is bound to raise some eyebrows (Spike Lee has accused Tarantino of making light of African-American history), but while it’s not always reverent (or historically accurate), Django is a keenly observed vision of the antebellum South as it’s been constructed within the cultural imaginary.  Whereas, say, Lincoln aims meticulously to re-create the historical reality of the Civil War era, Django is firmly rooted in the realm of literary and cinematic fantasy—of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Birth of a Nation, Mandingo and Blazing Saddles, all of which get invoked here at one point or another.  In other words, Django says more about the cultural texts that we have used, and continue to use, to respond to the historical realities of racism, slavery, and violence than about those historical realities themselves.  It acts as an example of what Tavia Nyongo has called "a performative intervention into historical memory, one focused not on getting facts right or doing justice to the past as it really was, but on seizing upon an intensely affective trigger as it flashes up in a moment of danger."  As in Inglourious Basterds, with which Django makes a neat companion piece, Tarantino plays deftly with fantasy and history to serve up a delirious revenge yarn that is as intellectually stimulating as it is a thrill to watch unfold.     

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