By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act December 12, 2012 at 3:03PM
As for the rest of The Good...
- QT does a really good job of what I call "world-building." Thanks to the work done by his team - especially on production design, set design, cinematography, and of course the acting, and all the other pieces of this pie - I was usually (though not always) immersed in the world he creates. Occasionally, I was taken out of it (more on that in "The Bad" section), but I'd say that for the majority of its running time, I was in that world. Sometimes the pieces worked together very seamlessly, because you're engaged, and having a good ol' time. There are a few really memorable moments that could be enough to hold a movie together, even if much of the rest of it is kind of humdrum; for example, a constantly stern Jamie Foxx's exchanges with Leonardo DiCaprio's Calvin Candie and his men, are often especially witty and sharp. And I have to tip my hat to DiCaprio's performance as Candie. Wunderbar, as Waltz would probably say! One of the film's strongest and most memorable, grounded-in-reality moments, is during a dining room scene after DiCaprio's Candie learns he's being duped by his 2 guests. He goes from cool and calm, as he recounts a somewhat creepy tale, and there's a wonderful sudden devilish turn in his demeanor that erupts into a violent outburst, taking his two guests (who are used to being one step ahead of their opponents) by complete surprise. It's a really good scene, and one that I think might help secure an Oscar nomination for DiCaprio (whether he can win is another thing, but I think he'll be in the conversation, if he isn't already). Even though he wasn't at all what I imagined for the character when I read the script (I believe I imagined he'd be much older - at least, older-looking - heavier, and even slimier), his portrayal of a southern, ostentatious, we could even say metrosexual (at least, what that word may have meant during that time period) plantation owner in the antebellum south, is, at times, deliciously evil; but just not enough. I could tell he was having a lot of fun with it. Of course it helps that he's a good actor.
- And finally, in one of Hollywood studio big-budget cinema's rare moments, a black man gets to be THE hero in the end, saves the day, shooting and killing a lot of white men in the process, and rides into, not quite the sunset, but the moonlight in this case (given how the film ends), with his woman, rescued and proud of her man, riding at his side. To some that might seem like a sexist vision; but to others, a rare, black, masculine cinematic moment to relish unapologetically. As I said earlier, Django is very much his own man - a man on a mission, determined, focused and unwavering in his ultimate goal. He's not emasculated, aside from being initially set free by Waltz's Schulz, at the very beginning of the film. But there's no proverbial white saviour here.
AND NOW THE BAD
- As I said earlier, the pre-release marketing for the film is deceiving - specifically quotes (some we've shared) from the key cast and crew, which really don't jive with the brisk, amusing trailers we've seen. It's not quite the brutally realistic, heart-wrenching human drama of survival, love and death that it's purported to be by some; it's more of a mish-mash send-up of spaghetti westerns and blaxploitation cinema, with quite a lot more comedy than you might expect for a slave narrative, with the main goal being to entertain than to inform or incite. I get that it's a nod to Spaghetti Westerns of years past, but if you've seen any of those films, this might just seem like a well-made spoof or knock-off of those original classics. I dare you to watch the first silent 15 minutes (or the final 2-man showdown between Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson) of Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West; or the last 15 minutes of The Good The Bad And The Ugly, and not appreciate the quiet tension in each. Except for DiCaprio's moment as I described above, Django Unchained feels mostly breezy, and predictable. And those past films had much more of an epic sweep to them, than Django does. And I think that's in part due to the fact that, again, Tarantino plays up the comedy more than some of the film’s predecessors (the two I mentioned for example), which felt weightier and grittier to me; the harsh, weathered variety of faces in closeups, staring each other down, all looking like they belonged exactly in the worlds where the films are set. I’m thinking of, again, names already mentioned, like Bronson, Fonda, and also Woody Strode, Lee Van Cleef, and even the ebullient, yet very sly and dangerous Eli Wallach as Tuco. I believed them all. In Django, I found it hard to take most of its characters very seriously. In fact, aside from Jamie Foxx's Django, who I'd say is really the only character that felt grounded in reality, much of the rest of the starring cast played more like caricatures - exaggerations of the people they would be in real life; Far more comical than menacing as evil slave owners and slave drivers during the time that the film takes place. Even Christoph Waltz's Schulz - quick and deadly on the draw, but still played mostly for laughs. And for all his strengths as an actor (in this film as well) DiCaprio suffers from what I'd call "babyface syndrome" which, at times, gets in the way of really seeing him as this supposedly evil, frightening slave master of a villain. There's a scene with early KKK members, in which they've gathered to plot and carry out a scheme that's so comical and ridiculous that, in a way, trivializes the unimaginable cruelty that blacks faced at the hands of the real-life KKK for many decades to come. And so herein lies a problem - if you don't really fear your villains, and what they might be capable of, because you're instead laughing at how comically they are parodied, that kind of ruins the revenge experience doesn't it? When our forever-stern black hero finally gets his opportunity to act heroically, it just doesn't resonate as much. It's not as satisfying as it should have been. As exceptional as our black hero is (even as a slave - "he's a born natural" I believe is the line Waltz delivers, when Django makes his first kill), his opponents aren't quite as exceptional. In fact, right from the very start, they are all more like buffoons, incompetent, and, to be frank, no match for our hero (aside from the fact that there's an existing system that prevents out hero from acting on his desires) which some could argue is actually a disservice to our hero. He's robbed of a certain kind of masculine *dignity* in that regard.
- As I noted in "The Good," there isn't as much slave violence depicted as you might expect. Hints of it, and flashes here and there (like a Mandingo fight - although in the film Mandingo, Ken Norton's very first real fight as Mede, was quite brutal - maybe even more-so), but nothing that'll shock you - especially if you've read a few books on slavery, or watched some past films and documentaries on the subject; or even if you've just heard about it in passing, I think most of us have some idea of not just the mental, but also the physical cruelty black people suffered as slaves. In short, some really horrible shit happened; just think of some of the unimaginable, inhumane things human beings have done, and continue to do to animals; because that's essentially what slaves were - not entirely human to those who enslaved them at the time, and were treated as such. Very, very little of that is actually in the film! And it made me wonder if that was an intentional decision by QT. Maybe feeling like he could be criticized for being seemingly exploitative, he chose restraint instead; although some might argue that he was too restrained. The most visually violent sequences happen towards the film’s end, as I noted above, in a series of gun fights - a shootout that shows lots of exploding body parts, hit by bullets, with blood gushing and splattering in volumes, and bodies falling all over the place. The problem here is that the violence, played out often in very slow motion (I suppose to emphasize each bullet hit, gushing blood, as limbs are torn into with bullets, like slabs of meat on a butcher's table), is a tad cartoonish that, again, it's hard to take it seriously. Yes, some might cringe at the blood splatter, but I found myself chuckling and shaking my head at what felt like an excess of it, instead of being horrified by it. Or maybe I'm just so numb to violence on screen that I wasn't affected by any of it. But, if you've seen any R-rated (especially those hard-R-rated) horror movies like those in the Hostel or Saw franchise, there's absolutely nothing here that's at all shocking or that will make you cringe - especially with regards to violence endured by slaves in the film, which, as I already noted, is limited to really a few scenes. If we're talking about contemporary revenge cinema, or films in which a man is driven to act heroically, or vigilante-style, inspired by his love for a woman, I was far more taken by the sheer force of Kim Ji-woon's unrelentingly violent, and stunningly accomplished thriller, I Saw The Devil, than I was by Django. And as I noted, it's really interesting to me (and maybe it's just me) that Tarantino seemed to be very, very cautious depicting any violence as experienced by slaves specifically. There's much more violence against the white slave owners and slave drivers, and others in that chain of command, than there is in the opposite direction. And I just wonder if that was an intentional or even a subconscious choice by QT. Whether it's a good or bad thing depends on your POV. As I said in "The Good" section, there are two ways of looking at that aspect. Those who are hoping to see the *realities* and hardships of slavery, warts and all, will be disappointed; those who'd rather not, won't be.