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Django Unchained, unmarked

I really wanted to love this movie. Some of the three or four best movie watching experiences in my life were at Tarantino movies. Not every film is great, but they're always interesting.

Django is not a great movie. It's a lot of fun for a cinemaphile but, in a movie with a substantial gory on-screen body count, it doesn't really draw blood.

Set in the antebellum South, Django (played with admirable swagger by Jamie Foxx) is a slave, freed from a chain gang by a German bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (a great role for Christoph Waltz). Schultz freed Django for the purpose of identifying three wanted criminals but the two later become friends. Ultimately Schultz agrees to help Django track his wife Broomhilda to a plantation owned by Calvin Candie for the purpose of buying her freedom. It's a Tarantino film, so that synopsis leaves out all the operatic violence, sharp dialogue, and atmosphere that makes one of his films entertaining. It all works really well for me right up until the last half hour or so, when Tarantino paints himself into a corner, ending-wise, and has to backtrack a few steps to pick up the loose ends where he had dropped them.

But I'm going to take a second and bring back to mind Tarantino's most recent movie to highlight where I see this film really went off the rails for me. "Inglorious Basterds" was not a universally well-received movie. Some people didn't like the talky sections, some people didn't like the gratuitous violence. Some really resented the, eh, 'deviation' from established history the ending represented. While, I'm not going to argue the movie was some kind of classic, I do think it represented a brave experiment for Tarantino. Not so much for camera work or twisted narrative structures, like his other works, but for a ballsy determination to make a film that matters.

When I was still in college, I happened to get into this discussion about Tarantino with one of my professors. She asked me if I liked Pulp Fiction and I said, yes. She asked me why. I think I said something about the nonlinear plot and Tarantino's darkly comedic style. Then she asked me what Pulp Fiction was about. What did it mean? Did I honestly think Jules Winnfield had a genuine 'moment of clarity,' that would change forever the direction of his life, or was this simply an extended allusion to old Kung Fu movies? To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, was there any there there?

I didn't really have an answer back then and I think it's probably fine I still don't have one now. Pulp Fiction was just one of those movies, a rite of passage, a cultural touch-stone. It's not really about anything besides how cool movies can be.

But Inglorious Basterds, for me, posed an interesting question. Is it ethical to watch war movies? This is supposedly a review of Django so I'll keep this digression short but here's the essence of why I like this question: in the movie, we follow a brutal gang of America commandoes on a behind-the-lines mission in occupied France. They are fighting Nazis with blood-thirsty relish, each soldier ordered to collect 100 scalps. This is horrific but we don't, as the audience care, because we're watching the Americans and their enemies, the Nazis are so obviously horrific and deserving of death. But here's the thing, Tarantino doesn't let us off the hook in this movie. Towards the end of the movie, we follow a German sniper backstage as a cinematic depiction of his war-time exploits thunders behind him. The audience, filled with Nazis and collaborators hoots and cheers every single American death at the hands of the sniper. In the last shot of the movie, we the audience adopt the perspective of a Nazi branded with a swastika. As the American soldier takes away his bloody knife, it is we the audience marked.

Do I think for a second Tarantino is calling his audiences Nazis? No, far from it. I think he is simply pointing out in very graphic terms that we can not be cozy in our self-assumptions as an audience that we are safely removed from the events of the screen. We are complicit in some way in the violence in the movie, involved in it.

So that is what I found lacking in Django Unchained, any sense that this was anything other than wish fulfillment. An awful lot of cartoonish blood gets spilled in the course of the the freed slaves quest to save his Broomhilda, but not much actual blood is drawn by the script. I admire how matter-of-factly slavery and its obvious evils are presented in the film. Tarantino presents human bondage, in every manifestation, as a perversion of natural order, a mutilation. From a runaway slave torn to bits by dogs to a house servant incapable of distinguishing his interests from that of his owner, this is a view of the antebellum south designed to provoke and outrage. The ex-slave rises up, gets well-deserved revenge against all who stand against him, and then rides off into the horizon in the classic Western mode. Our anti-hero is an African American and so the familiar tropes of the genre seem fresh, but the fact remains, this is a very standard story. It ultimately doesn't make any demand upon its audience more than watching garish violence for its own sake. If you dislike the violence, then you can safely dismiss the movie.

I think that's a shame. Django Unchained, other than its ending, shows a lot of heart and craft in its details. I just wish the movie had left more of a mark.

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