As we begin a new week of examining of the possible pros and cons of this fall’s award-contending pictures (following “Lincoln,” “Flight,” “Skyfall” and “Wreck-It Ralph“), it seems like the next natural choice is to go with “Django Unchained,” which is sure to be one of the most controversial movies of the season.
Quentin Tarantino‘s films are always talking about, but with his first Western, taking on issues of slavery and revenge, and with a pair of A-listers in Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio, “Django Unchained” is sure to be a key point of debate over the coming months. And as if to prove our point, we’ve got us a fight going on that’s a good bit of fun between two writers who are respectively anticipating and dreading the picture. In the red corner, Katie “The Bloody Bride” Walsh, and in the blue, “Stuntman” Rodrigo Perez. Read on for their debate, and you can see the film for yourselves on December 25th.
The Case For:
It’s true that Quentin Tarantino is a filmmaker who doesn’t like to stray from his thematic wheelhouse. But when he’s constantly jumping between different time periods, aesthetics, and characters, that theme is constantly being reworked and reevaluated as he continues to retell the story. It’s called, well, being an auteur. Watch any Hitchcock or Scorsese film: they work the same thematic groove again and again, honing their skill to a fine, razor sharp edge. With Tarantino’s last film, “Inglorious Basterds,” we were able to witness moments of true greatness and masterwork, wherein the director was able to embrace the qualities of stillness, gesture and subtlety in service of his writing, not allowing his words to steamroll the quieter moments, and using his camera to do the heavy lifting instead of the script.
It’s on the basis of the sophisticated work seen in “Inglorious Basterds” that I’m anticipating “Django Unchained.” Another period piece, Tarantino will finally be working in an era that is pre-cinema, so despite the fact that by tackling the Western genre, he’s speaking directly to its precursors in the ’70s exploitation flicks that established its formal milieu, and his script should be less riddled with the pop references that have become the Tarantino trademark. What then, will his characters talk about? Well, I hope it’s evolved, though I know that those clever moments won’t be sacrificed. The D is silent, after all.
And, you’ve got to admit he’s assembled quite the cast for this slavery/bounty-hunter/vengeance pic. Jamie Foxx gets to do some real work again, Christoph Waltz promises to be mesmerizing, terrifying and silly at once, and there’s even have the customary career resurrection in the presence of Don Johnson. Not to mention legit movie star and legit serious actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who appears to be relishing his over-the-top role as a the black-toothed, lecherous villain, killing Jack from “Titanic” good and dead. It’s fun to see Leo let his guard down a bit and let his skills loose on a campy, scenery chewing part, but given his usual level of commitment, he’s likely to be dead serious about it too.
We know Tarantino well enough by now to anticipate what we’ll get. But do we really know? The man has a talent for combining his eclectic tastes in a surprising, pleasing fashion, so whatever we might expect, the form that it arrives in will be as fresh and vibrant as any of his other works. In a slate of film-by-committee, studio-noted pictures, a breath of fresh air, even if it’s from an old friend, is always a welcome respite. We know what we get with Tarantino: fresh, original filmmaking that pays tribute to film history even while it’s breaking new ground. Sorry, Rian Johnson, old man Tarantino’s still got it for now. – Katie Walsh
The Case Against:
I know it’s frowned upon to say aloud on the Internet, given that cinephiles and film fans are all expected to outright adore and bow at his feet, but the films of Quentin Tarantino are, gasp, wait for it… beginning to bore me. Wait a quick second before you stone me to death, and hear me out.
Whereas as Tarantino started out as a fresh bolt of lightning in Hollywood, practically upending movies and the zeitgeist as we know it in the 1990s with the pop-culture referencing gangsters and non-linear storytelling of “Pulp Fiction,” what we’ve received in the second half of his career is a pretty familiar version of revenge pictures filtered through a now-predictable pastiche of genre hopscotching. The filmmaker has essentially made five revenge films in a row (count ‘em), which makes us wonder if he can devise a storyline that goes beyond a payback concept. “Kill Bill,” “Kill Bill 2,” “Death Proof,” “Inglorious Basterds” and now “Django Unchained” all play with the central conceit of revenge, so maybe, just maybe, it’s time to move on?
More disconcerting is how similar “Django Unchained” the screenplay reads to the concept of “Inglourious Basterds.” Pick a historical milieu with inequitable social implications (the slaughter of millions of Jews in WWII/American slavery before abolishment), put a genre spin on it (men on a suicide mission in war/Spaghetti Western) and then slap on a dollop of unjust circumstances that demand cold, bloody revenge and voila, you’ve got yourself a Tarantino narrative. While the “Kill Bill” and “Death Proof” films were much more interested in exploring genre than they were history (Kung-Fu films meets Spaghetti Westerns in the Uma Thurman-led films, slasher/race car pictures in the latter), all three of them have unrelenting protagonists seeking vengeance. Both ‘Basterds’ and ‘Django’ also play with the idea of rewriting history (Hitler dies/slaves uprise) and then anachronistically throw elements of contemporary culture (generally music) on the fire to create Tarantino’s genre stew (see David Bowie in ‘Basterds,’ James Brown in ‘Django’).
Much of this may seem like nitpicking. Afterall, “Django Unchained” has the juicy idea of Leonardo DiCaprio playing a racist plantation owner who owns the wife of a African-American slave played by Jamie Foxx (and even better, Samuel L. Jackson plays a house slave who is friends with DiCaprio’s antagonist but is still treated like garbage by him in public). So these seem like some delicious ideas to explore and play with. However, the same could be said about “Inglourious Basterds,” which featured a redneck lieutenant who enlisted a group of bloodthirsty American-Jewish soldiers to reenact vengeance on Adolf Hitler and his fellow Nazis.
And so while there may have been some interesting ideas to be explored about the Jewish plight in WWII, “Inglourious Basterds,” for my money, didn’t serve an ounce of social commentary aside from pretty basic (and arguably unsophisticated) eye for an eye animus that’s pretty run of the mill in movies. So the worry is, for all Tarantino’s talk of taking a hot button issue of American history (racism) and reflecting a mirror back on society with it (like ‘Inglourious’ was supposed to do as well), perhaps “Django Unchained” is going to have similar issues of masquerading as a social issues film, while simply serving as a talky action picture about retribution.
Now, I’m not looking for a “social issues” picture from Tarantino; that would be dull. But so too would be a simple revenge picture with the latest genre exploration, with incongruent pop cultural music moments and overly clever dialogue. That would be all too familiar.
Then again, with n-words abounding and situations like whippings and slave fights to the death, perhaps simply due to its subject matter, “Django Unchained” will act as something more than reprisal via stylish violence. At this point, we can only hope. – Rodrigo Perez