Look, we’re going to have to make a decision about Quentin Tarantino.
Is he the genius auteur he gets so much credit for being, maybe the most original voice of his generation? Or is he simply a regurgitator of the cinematic styles and subjects too obscure for most of us to have seen before?
Are his movies rich, layered texts full of meaning and dimension? Or are they skin-deep symphonies of blood, dialogue, and spectacle, style for the sake of style?
Is he the symbol of everything that’s right and distinctive about indie Hollywood, or everything that’s wrong, insincere, and vacuous?
Is he, as a friend recently described him, an unthinking cinema savant, a bundle of impulses that sometimes hits “the cultural soft spot,” but generally by accident? Or is he mindful of every move he makes, a sophisticated writer and cunning storyteller?
Do you love him because he’s brilliant? Or because he’s entertaining?
If you’re unsure of where you stand, Django Unchained, his new Western (or “Southern” as he prefers to call it), won’t help you decide. Because Django Unchained is everything above and more, either further confirmation of his audacious creativity, or another example of his inability to create a whole, mature, and focused movie.
Like most revenge films, Django is built on the simplest (and in this case, flimsiest) conceit: a bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), is trying to find three fugitives, the Brittle Brothers (M.C. Gainey, Cooper Huckabee, and Doc Duhame), but has never seen them. However, a certain slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), has seen them. Schultz buys Django, grants him his freedom, and makes a bargain: you help me identify the fugitives, and I’ll help you find and free your wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). They find and kill the Brittle Brothers with relative ease, and then (somewhat illogically, if we’re to believe that Django and Broomhilda have a great love), they spend an entire winter hunting down unrelated bounties before finally, in the spring, creating an unnecessarily complex plan to rescue Broomhilda from an infamously brutal plantation called Candyland.
If Django’s quest was more focused, the story might have had a building, gradual, Odyssey-like quality, the inevitable showdown with Candyland’s owner, Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), might have had more force, and the characters they encounter along the way might have added up to something more than a who’s who of antebellum stereotypes: slackjawed hillbillies, foppish plantation owners, sadistic slave drivers, preening Southern belles, cowardly townsfolk, and slaves from the mutinous to the comfortably supplicant. To say that Tarantino paints these characters broadly is an insult to cartoons everywhere. They’re not just generalized, they’re parade floats: plantation owner Big Daddy (Don Johnson; who knew he was hilarious?) swaggers and glowers in the whites and vandyke clearly intended to make him resemble Colonel Sanders; Candyland’s head house slave, Stephen (Samuel L Jackson), is adorned with white tufts of hair that make him look like a scowling Uncle Ben. The only one missing here is Aunt Jemima.
This cast of caricatures calls to mind Tarantino’s last film, Inglourious Basterds, with its sociopathic Jews and shrieking Hitler. But if that movie has genius, it’s in its anarchic, precisely timed shuffling off of the strictures of anything resembling historical accuracy. In other words, it worked because it put the broadness of its characters and their quest in service to a bold, satisfying fantasy. Maybe the problem with Django is that it isn’t broad enough.
This is not to say that Django Unchained isn’t entertaining. It is. It’s bloody and it’s funny and it’s tense when it needs to be and explosive when it should be. A Tarantino fan recently lauded his ability to use dialogue to build tension within a scene, and that’s on display here. And when he isn’t busy with ironic, stylized zooms and tiresomely redundant violence, he can pack his frame with beauty and meaning: Big Daddy’s white horse, galloping in slow-motion, shown from the saddle down, suddenly sprayed with blood, Big Daddy’s body tumbling off the far side and crumpling in the dust; Calvin Candie holding a clean, white chunk of a human skull at chest level, so that we can compare it with the white of his boutonnière. Everywhere, Tarantino juxtaposes savagery and civility, beauty and death, and the impression is of a world where human cruelty and violence are wrapped in the brightly colored tissue paper of Southern hospitality and custom that here looks at best absurd and at worst monstrous.
But I want more from Tarantino, especially if I’m going to be asked to accept him as a great filmmaker. He can do all these things, he’s technically skilled, but it’s like being able to rebuild a car’s transmission: it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good driver. Django supposes itself to be a powerful anti-racism statement, but really it’s an anti-19th-century-American-slavery statement, and Tarantino doesn’t seem to realize that these aren’t automatically the same thing. Slavery may be the origin of our national race problem, but it hasn’t been the problem itself for almost 150 years. Tarantino is drawn to it because it offers moral clarity, and, like most adolescents, he’s satisfied by raging against obvious, simplified evils: white people perpetrated it, and black people (for the most part) were the victims; it’s easy to know who to shoot in this scenario. But as we all know, there are generations upon generations of much more subtle and complicated American racial history that have echoed (and continued to echo) out from slavery, and Django isn’t necessarily meaningful to any of that. Vilifying plantation owners and slave traders may be fun, but it isn’t new or terribly useful. If Tarantino is going to give himself credit for creating an important, cathartic movie essential to the black experience of racism in this country (“I think [Django Unchained] could become a rite of passage for young black males,” he told the L.A. Times) he better bring more to the table.
And then there’s Django’s half-baked morality. As Django and Schultz make their way through the movie, gunning down bounties, it’s easy to watch these men die if you don’t stop to think about it. But the movie’s central conceit—that these murders are justified because, by proxy and implication if nothing else, they’re cogs in the machinery of American slavery—is fatally flawed: most of Django and Schultz’s victims don’t die for their complicity in slavery; they die because their corpses are valuable. We’re expected to enjoy their deaths simply because they’re white and southern. This robs the story of most of its righteousness, and many of the film’s images, seemingly ripe with meaning, are nothing more than interesting. For example, one of the Brittle Brothers is shot as he rides across an open field, and Tarantino shows a spray of his blood hit the white tufts of cotton—it’s arresting. But his death has no meaning. The difference between a filmmaker who can create that image and a filmmaker who can make it mean something is the difference between a good filmmaker and a great one.
In another scene, Django and Schultz are perched on the top of a ridge, a bounty in their sights, but Django hesitates because the target is with his son. Schultz makes it clear: these are bad men, and they deserve to die. It’s not pleasant, he tells Django, but in his world, “you have to get dirty.” But this morality remains as distant as the target is from the shooters. In Django, close-range shootings are never conducted with anything but a catchy song, a clever line of dialogue, and a tone of ironic detachment.
In another scene, near the end of the film, after our heroes successfully rescue Broomhilda (albeit not in the way they’d intended), Schultz sits brooding over the failure of his plan, while a genteel Southern woman plays classical music on a harp. For the first time, Tarantino takes us inside Schultz’s character, and we see him tormented by memories of an especially brutal murder of a slave earlier in the film. He jumps from his chair and insists that the woman stop playing—the juxtaposition of man’s high, artistic accomplishments and his savage nature is finally too much for Schultz. Has this loquacious sociopath with a heart of gold developed a conscience? Maybe. But Tarantino doesn’t linger on it, or bring it to any point. He’s onto another entertaining gunfight. He has things to blow up, blood to shed, and white, Southern people to kill with a panache he substitutes for insight.
(Incidentally, forget his famously liberal use of the N-word: Tarantino’s decision to name a white, German murderer “Dr. King” succinctly illustrates the overreaching liberties he feels comfortable taking with African-American history and culture.)
I’ll always see Tarantino movies, because they’re unlike anything else being made; you’re not allowed to simultaneously complain about the sameness of Hollywood product, as I do, and fail to support things that are different. But uniqueness doesn’t equal greatness. Great filmmakers explore big issues in a big way, and Django Unchained is the work of an impulsive, shallow lightweight. His anger toward racism feels genuine, but it’s also generalized and shrill; it’s a wealthy, white man’s anger at something he read about in a book, not something he’s ever experienced. It’s a child’s emotion. I believe Tarantino has a great movie in him, but he’ll be 50 next spring. Will he ever make it?