Wednesday, April 10, 2013
I have a bad habit of underestimating Quentin Tarantino.
What I mean is, I keep thinking I've seen the best he's had to offer. Plenty of people have that problem. Some still think his best movie was his first one, Reservoir Dogs. Others think it's Pulp Fiction. Well, me, I've been thinking each new film since Kill Bill Vol. 2.
I've been proven wrong once again with Django Unchained.
I finally saw the movie that netted Tarantino a second Oscar for Best Original Screenplay at the second-run theater Picture Show. Previously I was sating myself with the comic book adaptation that has been illustrating his uncut screenplay, and it's been all I could do to hope that it would at least feature a performance from Christoph Waltz as memorable as his turn in Inglourious Basterds. The Academy thought it was, anyway.
When I say that Django Unchained is Tarantino's best film, it's from the vantage point of how it comments on his entire body of work to date, how it explains everything he's done. As it turns out, this filmmaker's obsession isn't with old cinema and swagger, but the nature of evil.
I say this based on one scene, where Leonardo DiCaprio's character, having learned the real reason for a visit from Waltz and Jamie Foxx, proceeds to go on a tirade of his particular justification for participating in the business of slavery. This follows a particularly vicious moment in which he allows one of his slaves to be eaten by dogs, a rare moment in the film where Waltz loses his cool. It's also the moment where we learn what kind of character Foxx is really playing.
Foxx is of course playing the title character, whom Waltz sets free early on in his effort to collect a bounty. At its heart, Django Unchained is a Western, in this case a Southern, part of what is arguably the great 21st century renaissance of the genre, quite possibly its best period ever. It is also a uniquely American experience, in the tradition of Twain's Huck Finn and Melville's Captain Ahab, or more recent literary material from Thomas Pynchon and Jerome Charyn, exploring the nature of the country warts and all but allowing there to be a redeeming heroic figure in case you get nauseated.
Tarantino's America is filled with violence. Anyone the least bit familiar with his films knows that. Sometimes it seems that this is the only thing anyone knows about them. Yet the violence is always a mask his stories wear, to help prove a greater point. In Reservoir Dogs it's a mask in the tenuous code of thugs that talks about honor. In Pulp Fiction it's what separates and then unites Bruce Willis and Ving Rhames, what Samuel L. Jackson is really talking about, what John Travolta discovers thanks to Uma Thurman. In Jackie Brown it's facing an ugly situation and keeping your dignity intact. In Kill Bill it's about an assassin learning that the biggest betrayal possible is always the human heart. In Inglourious Basterds it's Nazis. No one like Nazis.
And yet Tarantino is saying in Django Unchained that the worst evil he knows (at least to this point in his career) isn't Nazis, it's the institution of slavery, the most dehumanizing development in history. The worst thing that almost happened in the film is that mine Foxx almost finds himself in. This is the first time an American has addressed this so frankly. It's exactly why I say we've reached new heights in the Western, because without the rising reality in the newer ones, we couldn't have gotten the heightened reality of Django Unchained, and as such the new truths that only the movies can tell us.
It somehow means more when there are Germans running around being bounty hunters and teaching slaves to speak their language. Tarantino was able to pull this off because he met Waltz, and Waltz was able to pull this off because he plays opposite Foxx, who doesn't have to be flashy in the lead role because of it. His character has seen too much already. He keeps seeing the wife he's on his way to rescue, Kerry Washington, and that's the only vision he's able to keep in mind that isn't brutal reality, until Waltz gives him the idea to play certain roles. Of course, the greatest role Waltz gives him is that of bounty hunter.
Some critics have been flippant about the structure of the movie, that some of it simply doesn't make sense. Why would Foxx be so patient when the opportunity to reunite with his wife has fallen into his lap? Because the winter hits, the legality must be adhered to because it's the reality, and he needs to develop the tools to succeed his new mentor. These are simple things, and our hero takes up every new development of his life as if they're already second nature. It's all well and good. The point is that Tarantino is exploring the redemptive nature of catharsis. He's the eternal optimist, even when his stories let their characters down, even when history has told them differently.
To be American, he seems to realize in Django Unchained, is to overlook the adversity, to be the hero Waltz speaks of in the German tale of Siegfried. There's a mountain in there somewhere, but it's not insurmountable, it's just a necessary detail. This is the first time Tarantino has ever allowed himself to feature an unambiguous good guy, let alone two of them. Strange to think that, right?
As I said, Django Unchained has become my new favorite Quentin Tarantino film. I can't wait until the next one.