Monday, January 7, 2013

Bloodiest Fun in The South

I'm hard-pressed to think of a film that has been more poorly suited for a Christmas Day release than Django Unchained. It's a modern day exploitation film about one of the United States' most shameful periods of history with a central theme of vengeance, whose spree of gleeful violence is punctuated by scenes of truly sickening brutality. In other words, Quentin Tarantino is square in his comfort zone making damn sure you never find yours. But it's a hell of a lot of fun despite how hard it can be to watch.

One of the weaker posters for the movie. Sit tight and I'll find a cooler one...

Most of Tarantino's films are Westerns (you could even make the case that they all are), but Django wears the genre most ostentatiously. The titular character is a reference to a Franco Nero film that is famous for both its extreme violence, and the host of unofficial sequels it spawned. 

Just as Inglorious Basterds was a dark, fairy tale re-imagining of World War II, Django is a dark fairy tale about the pre-Civil War South. The eponymous hero (Jamie Foxx) is a slave liberated by Doctor Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German dentist turned bounty-hunter. Django displays a prodigious talent for killing people and declares that his ultimate goal is to reunite with his wife Brunhilde. Schultz, touched by the parallels between Django and the German folk hero Seigfried (who also set out to rescue a Brunhilde), takes Django on as his partner. While Schultz has no problem killing people, even in front of their own children, he finds the institution of slavery appalling and morally reprehensible; the obvious implication being that the serial slaughter of "bad guys" is preferential to slavery.

This one is more abstract, but I really liked the look of it.

It's a position you can't help but sympathize with when you are introduced to plantation owner and mandigo fighting enthusiast, Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). This is one of DiCaprio's finest performances, and far and away his most chilling. Candie's mix of abject cruelty, vapid dandyism and slimy smugness easily makes him the most loathsome villain of 2012. But what is mandigo fighting you ask? It is a (fictitious) practice where plantation owners pit their male slaves against each other in fights to the death. One would think that slavery held enough actual horrors to furnish an exploitation flick, even one as lengthy and exaggerated as Django. But, the exploitation film Mandingo happens to be one of Tarantino's favorites, and he's always been a sucker for self-indulgent cinematic references. And if you are going to this movie for historical accuracy, or an enlightened discourse on the evils of slavery, you are watching for the wrong fucking reasons.  

Although, like all of Taratino's stuff, there were moments where I wondered if there was a right reason to watch, and what my choice of movie said about me as a person. In a pivotal scene, DiCaprio actually slices his hand on a crushed cordial glass, but rather than cutting the scene to get a bandage, he continues on in-character and wipes his real bleeding palm on Kerry Washington's face without her prior knowledge or consent. It was the most disturbing thing I've seen at the movies in the past year, and it makes you wonder how much of this is actually making an artistic point versus trying to shock and alienate the audience.

I think this one is fan-made, but it is my favorite. 

This raw intensity is oddly juxtaposed against the film's gunfights, which come off as comical by comparison, with full-on Spaghetti Western blood geysers erupting from each felled foe. Despite that disparity, I had more fun with Django than I did with Basterds, because it felt like a much more focused experience. Ironically, my favorite Tarantino flick is still Pulp Fiction, which is far more surreal and discordant than either of these two historical exploitation fairy tales, though I'll admit my personal nostalgia for that film is a big, (and at this point, unassailable) factor.  The thing I like about all of Tarantino movies, aside from the dialog and corny-yet-undeniably-cool style, is that they are equally divorced from formulaic, impotent Hollywood blockbusters and overwrought, pompous Oscar-bait. If you ail from either, Django is an antidote to both. 

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