Monday, January 7, 2013

Django Unchained

Django Unchained is the first film by Quentin Tarantino to ever leave me with a sense of disappointment.

Like all of his films, it is highly stylized, delves deep into genre exploitation, and is filled to the brim with superb acting and cinematography.  Despite that, as a genre exploitation film it is not as thorough as Kill Bill or Death Proof.  Nor is it as complex or layered as Pulp Fiction or Inglourious Basterds.

When I first learned of Tarantino's ambitious plans for Django Unchained, I felt a mix of excitement and trepidation.  On the one hand, I am a big fan of spaghetti westerns, even the original Django film that Tarantino is borrowing from.  On the other hand, I feared that Tarantino's continued return to the dominant theme of revenge would grow tiresome, particularly after his revenge masterpiece Inglourious Basterds.  As it turns out, the film succeeded in both titillating and and disenchanting me.

Tarantino masterfully framed Django's quest for revenge inside the German fairy tale that Dr. Schultz tells.  In the fable, the princess Broomhilda commits a meaningless transgression against her father, the god of all gods.  As punishment, she is placed at the top of a mountain, surrounded by a ring of fire, and guarded by a dragon.  Eventually, a hero named Siegfried climbs the mountain, slays the dragon, and walks through the ring of fire to rescue Broomhilda.  In the telling of the story, Dr. Schultz casts Django as Siegfried and identifies him as an epic hero of our movie.  Django's quest is no longer a shallow wish fulfillment story about a black slave killing white people.  It has been elevated to an epic quest about the basic human condition that resonates throughout history.  Django's quest is against natural evil in the name of love.

After successfully killing the Brittle Brothers, Dr. Schultz encourages Django to let him help in the rescue of Hildie, who in the context of of Schultz' fable is the metaphorical and literal damsel in distress.  Dr. Schultz tracks down Hildie's location.  She is held prisoner in Candyland, a plantation owned by southern dandy, Calvin Candie.  Schultz concocts a plan where in they lie their way into Candyland on the false pretense of buying an expensive Mandingo fighter.  Then, when Candie is so taken with the idea of a lucrative deal for a Mandingo fighter, Schultz and Django make a second, smaller deal for Hildie, presumably to then sneak off into the night without paying the expensive Mandingo bill.

This all falls right into Dr. Schultz' fable.  Candyland is the mountain and the army of armed gunfighters is the ring of fire.  You might be inclined to think of Calvin Candie as the dragon, but that role goes to Samuel L. Jackson's character Steven, the head house nigger.  Candie is god.  He owns the plantation, he controls Hildie's fate, and his dragon, Steven, has a  fierce, blind loyalty toward him.

Unfortunately, our heroes are unable to pull a fast one over "god" and through the eyes of his dragon, Candy learns of Dr. Schultz and Django's subterfuge.  Candy takes control of the situation, abandons the Mandingo sale and instead forces Dr. Schultz and Django to pay the previously agreed upon price for Hildie, to which they reluctantly agree.  Dr. Schultz, overcome with Candy's twisted morals, feels he has no other choice but to shoot Candy.  Dr. Schultz takes on a Nietzscheian role and successfully kills god.  He then strikes a Christ like pose, accepting his punishment, and is immediately executed by Candy's henchmen.  Django tries to shoot his way out of the house, but eventually has to relent in order to save Hildie.

I liked the way this story started out, all the characters were in place and there was strong tension right up to the moment when Candy forces them to accept the new deal.  At that moment though, when they pull 12,000 dollars out of Dr. Schultz' wallet, I felt some of the tension of the movie deflate.  Considering the fact that they had more than enough money to buy Hildie's freedom no matter what cost Candy named, Dr. Schultz' plan seemed needlessly complex.  Then, after rescuing the princess, albeit not in the fashion they had hoped, they are given a free pass to leave with their prize.  Dr. Schultz, unfortunately does not have the strength of Siegfried, and kills Candy in an uncontrolled emotional outburst.  This brings back a little tension, since Django has to then shoot his way through an army of ranch hands.  This is where the length of the movie is felt.  The pace comes to a grinding halt after Django and Hildie are recaptured.

At this point, Django is faced with a series of new threats, but they appear to pose little or challenge.  He quickly and easily regains his freedom, unceremoniously shoots all the ranch hands, rescues Hildie, tortures the people who were mean to him, and blows up the plantation house.  The film feels like it is rushing to a cathartic ending where Django's revenge takes precedence over rescuing Hildie.  Most all of that could have been achieved in the first shootout and didn't require a second go at it.

As a genre exploitation film, Tarantino seems to choose not to include one of the biggest tropes of the spaghetti western genre, which is the final showdown at the end of the movie.  If Django was the Clint Eastwood character of the movie, then there was no Lee Van Cleef character to antagonize him, and that is where the tension fails.  Candy was Dr. Schultz' nemesis.  Dr, Schultz had a set of morals that allowed him to  guiltlessly kill a man once he had committed a transgression.  Candy also had his own set of morals that justified slavery though a quack science known as phrenology.  They were reflections of each other.  Although there were a few characters set up to be Django's nemesis, such as Butch or Billy Crash, they never posed a real threat and never had a proper duel.  Django's real nemesis was Steven, the dragon, but as a 70 something year old crippled man he didn't provide much of a physical challenge.

I think the ending would have come to a more satisfying climax had there been a scene like this somewhere in there.

I would still highly recommend Django Unchained despite it's lackluster ending.  Like any other Tarantino film, it was funny, bloody, and beautiful.

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