Style and Substance, by Matt Warren
True story: following the critical and commercial success of 2009’s Nazi-huntin’ actioner Inglourious Basterds, writer/director Quentin Tarantino retreated to his private underwater castle to begin plotting his next move. Sitting atop a throne made of first-print laserdiscs, he stroked his ample chin, smoked cocaine out of Vincent Price’s skull, and pondered which historical atrocity might be worthy of his trademark grindhouse-kitsch reimagining next. The Armenian Genocide? System of a Down has that ground pretty much covered. Obamacare Death Panels? Too Galt’s Gulch. Fracking? Best left to the Gus Van Sants and John Krasinskis of the world. Then it came to him: Slavery! That’s it—everyone loves Slavery!
Continuing very much in the same aesthetic and tonal vein as Basterds, Django tells the story of black slave Django (Jamie Foxx), who is acquired by upbeat German bounty hunter (and former dentist!) Dr. King Shultz (Christoph Waltz) to help track, identify, and kill three criminals previously employed at Django’s old plantation. Plot enough for one movie, but the task is accomplished quicker than you’d expect, at which point the story switches gears to follow the unlikely duo’s quest to rescue Django’s wife Hildy (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of nefarious plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a foppish Mississippi dandy who’s regard for America’s black population is ill-intentioned even by the lax standards of nineteenth century slave ownership.
One of the big questions going into Django was just how the absence of Tarantino’s longtime editor Sally Menke—who died unexpectedly in 2010—would affect the final film. One of the things I’ve always admired about Tarantino/Menke is how the pair never quite used wideshots or close-ups exactly how you’d expect. Whether by nature or external conditioning, the body is attuned to a certain natural pattern of shot variance. Menke and Tarantino realized this, and made great use of zigging whenever audiences’ innate biorhythms seemed to anticipate a zag. New editor Fred Raskin does a capable job, but overall it feels like there’s less idiosyncrasy going on here than usual.
Django is also Tarantino’s most straightforward narrative since Jackie Brown, missing both the nonlinear storytelling of Pulp Fiction and the divergent crosscutting of Basterds. And the director’s love of meaty, jumbo-length scenes leads to the film feeling quite long and episodic, even as it remains consistently entertaining moment-to-moment. Tarantino also ignores several logical endpoints for the film, pushing the story further and further to its outlandish climax—ultimately becoming more folktale than pulp fiction.
Your mileage may vary project to project, but it’d be hard to argue that Tarantino is anything other than a true master of cinema. The Q-Man may ape the superficial trappings of Z-grade schlock, but he takes these influences and regurgitates them not as pastiche, but as high art. It helps that Django is Tarantino’s most thematically bold film to date, with more challenging intellectual substance than ever before. Destined for controversy, the film’s aggressive racial themes comment on everything from America’s blood-soaked origins to Tarantino’s own complex/problematic relationship with Black pop culture.
It goes without saying the performances are fucking great. In just two films, Christoph Waltz has asserted himself as the other premier deliverer of Tarantino’s signature heightened dialogue, second only to Samuel L. Jackson himself. Waltz wraps his Teutonic tongue around every syllable of Shultz’s dialogue in ways that seem both sideways and inside-out, producing an uncanny alien language distinctly at odds with the Old West surroundings. DiCaprio is bound to get some awards attention for the villainous Candie, a slimy Southern piece of shit who really puts the “eel” in Genteel. And the aforementioned Sam Jackson pops up late in the film with a wonderful, multi-layered turn as Candie’s loathsome “Head House Nigger”—playing the cotton magnate’s consigliare as a sort of Uncle Tom Rasputin in what’s sure to be the film’s most discussed wrinkle.
The biggest missed opportunity is Jamie Foxx as the titular Django. Foxx is fine—very good, in fact—bringing plenty of badass swagger to a role that demands a certain degree of Blaxploitation panache. But supposedly Tarantino originally wrote Django for Will Smith, with Smith briefly considering the part before turning it down. This would’ve added an entire extra metatextual level to the film, and potentially made a good movie even better. That bit of casting would have been a radical subversion of Smith’s affable onscreen persona, and a jarring rebuke of Smith’s status as the only real mainstream African-American crossover star of the last two decades. It’s not hard to see why Smith passed—he’s just lucky Tarantino didn’t try to give him Samuel L. Jackson’s part.
Following Basterds, Django confirms that Tarantino has settled into a welcome third phase of his career, with the filmmaker finally capable of applying his abundant style to weightier subjects. My jokey introductory paragraph aside, I sincerely am excited to see where this violent wave takes him next.