“Any man can be a father but it takes someone special to be a dad.” - Anne Geddes
by Michael Sarko
- The Capitol Hill Times -
Part of being a critic is experiencing the urge to write unfair, hyperbolic things just to prove a point. When our better angels decide to call in sick, we get to go on public record with phrases like, “Over the past decade, Quentin Tarantino has transformed into Michael Bay’s talky, pretentious cousin.” Now, I don’t actually believe that, but I think there’s a grain of truth to it. Quentin Tarantino has never made a movie that hasn’t gotten some kicks from outlandish violence. Even his brief moment at the helm of the uneven anthology “Four Rooms” uses an irresponsible application of a butcher’s knife as its punch line. This violence on its own isn’t a problem, but it’s unfortunate that blood and ‘splosions have taken the limelight from the dazzling dialogue and stylish directorial flourishes that have always been Tarantino’s strong suit. The director’s latest, “Django Unchained,” suffers from this violence-over-all tendency despite moments of brilliance.
Jamie Foxx stars as the titular Django Freeman, a slave in antebellum Texas who takes up with a German bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). The two make an entertaining pair, especially in the second half of the film when a seasoned Django puts on a sociopathic front for a long con to rescue his wife from Leonardo DiCaprio’s devilish fop, Calvin Candie. Though Foxx makes a good action hero and stoic foil to the more flamboyant characters around him, the movie really belongs to Christoph Waltz. After crafting one of the greatest villains of the decade in Tarantino’s last feature, “Inglourious Basterds,” Waltz makes Dr. Schultz into a remarkably likable, funny anti-hero.
But for a few divergences, some more amusing than others, “Django Unchained” is very straightforward. It’s a bloody revenge story where the bad guys are undeniably evil and the good guys thrive on violence easily glorified because of that clear evil. There are few surprises and a dearth of subtle moments. Everyone states their motivations in no uncertain terms, if not in the beginning then in some dedicated scene later in the film. The primary joy of this movie is in watching slavers get shot, beaten, blown-up, and humiliated.
All of this unsubtle action and staging is stylish, well acted, and nicely directed, but Tarantino could have done a lot more with “Django Unchained.” The twisty, intriguing conversations that elevated “Basterds” above its own over-the-top revenge fantasies are nowhere to be found, nor is the audio/visual homage to genre found in “Kill Bill.” “Django Unchained” doesn’t look or feel like the spaghetti westerns that supposedly inspired it. Rather, the connection to cowboy spectacles of yore is in obscure nods like the cameo by Franco Nero, the star of the 1966 western “Django,” and oblique moments with classic western star Russ Tamblyn and his daughter, Amber. This winking fan service doesn’t explain what’s good about the classic western genre so much as just acknowledge that it was once a thing.
Ultimately, the fact that its writer and director is so genre-literate and clearly capable of something smarter is what stops the simplicity of “Django Unchained” from being its chief appeal. Taken as just an action movie with an astronomical squib budget, “Unchained” is a masterpiece. The shootouts are spectacular, the characters are colorful (if a bit flat), and the design is sumptuous. But this isn’t just some holiday season blockbuster for bloodthirsty audiences – it’s an occasionally postmodern foxtrot through the horrifying subject of slavery that revels in one kind of violence while expecting revulsion for another kind. Hopefully Quentin Tarantino has gotten this heightened brutality out of his system so his next movie can be a return to form rather than the beginning of a late period in self-parody.