Tarantino’s incoherent three-hour bloodbath

"Django Unchained" has action, comedy, fake history and oceans of blood -- but it's an endless, undisciplined mess

Topics: Movies, Action movies, Quentin Tarantino, django unchained, Race, slavery, African Americans, Jamie Foxx, samuel l jackson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Editor's Picks,

Tarantino's incoherent three-hour bloodbathChristoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx in "Django Unchained"

Quentin Tarantino no longer makes movies; he makes trailers. “Django Unchained” feels like a three-hour trailer for a movie that never happens, a slavery-revenge melodrama cum salt-‘n’-pepper action film that would be awesome if it actually existed. Like so many trailers, it’s packed with memorable scenes that don’t go anywhere, and keeps promising payoffs that remain theoretical. It’s got Western scenery on a grand scale and scenes of madcap comedy involving inept members of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s got veritable geysers and fountains and gushers of blood, an ocean of fake gore even by Tarantino’s standards. You could claim that he’s “quoting from Sam Peckinpah” with those slapsticky water balloons full of blood, except that that’s not quite it. It’s more like he’s quoting from crappy ‘70s drive-in movies that were quoting from “The Hills Have Eyes,” which was quoting from something else that was quoting from Peckinpah. (I may be missing an intermediate stage there, such as a cannibal film that was dubbed from Italian into Spanish and projected once, with the reels out of sequence, at a downtown Los Angeles theater in 1983.)

It’s got 783 uses of the word “nigger” in dialogue, which is not merely a new high in Tarantino’s personal anti-P.C. campaign but may also outdo the lifetime output of former Congressman and KKK Grand Wizard David Duke. (OK, I didn’t count. But that’s close enough.) It’s got “Mandingo fighting,” or gladiatorial combat between African-American slaves, which was not something that happened in the real world but definitely happened in a notoriously dreadful 1975 movie starring James Mason, a genuinely great actor who was in lots of garbage but also played the lead in Stanley Kubrick’s “Lolita” and a bad guy in Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.” (That sentence became increasingly irrelevant but gained velocity; I’m just trying to simulate Quentin Tarantino’s thought process.) It’s got Don Johnson. It’s got black people speaking German. Well, OK, one black person: Kerry Washington, in what could maybe be called the leading female role, does only three things: 1) Standing in a pond, in Jamie Foxx’s imagination, and looking alluring; 2) Lying in a hole in the ground with no clothes on; 3) Speaking German.

She speaks German, of course, to Christoph Waltz, the charismatic Viennese actor who won an Oscar working with Tarantino in “Inglourious Basterds” and may get nominated again this year for playing pretty much the same worldly Kraut charmer, this time as a good guy. Waltz is Dr. King Schultz, a German dentist turned bounty hunter in the pre-Civil War Wild West, who abhors slavery but doesn’t mind murder, and purchases and then frees the eponymous slave Django (Foxx) in order to help him commit more of it. I’m not objecting to any of that on ethical grounds or whatever, but it’s an awfully complicated setup for two characters who never come clearly into focus and a wandering, episodic narrative that takes a long time to get anywhere.

If you’ve seen any of Tarantino’s movies, you don’t need me to explain that he sees the universe in terms of random explosions of ruthless, farcical violence. Schultz and Django eventually turn their attention to hunting down sadistic slavers and slave-owners, where the moral equation seems clear enough. But they spend early portions of the movie wandering all through the West and South collecting the “dead or alive” bounties on wanted men whose guilt or innocence is unproven and unknown. In one scene, they shoot a farmer who’s plowing his field, right in front of his son. I recognize the moral argument that is hypothetically percolating below “Django Unchained”: Tarantino is suggesting that white Americans who benefited from a slave economy were guilty of historical crimes whether or not they personally owned slaves, just as he implied in “Inglourious Basterds” that German soldiers were guilty of atrocities they did not personally commit. But give me a break. In both cases he’s just pretending to raise these so-called questions in order to create the framework for an emotionally arid, ultraviolent action movie whose characters and audience seem to be emotionally stunted adolescent boys. For Tarantino, history is just another movie to strip for parts.

I don’t want to spend much time on Waltz’s loquacious but cool-headed Schultz and Foxx’s stone-faced Django, because they’re actually pretty boring, and once you get the gist – some scenery, a few gentle gags, then they kill a bunch of people – their journey has few surprises. “Django Unchained” comes abruptly to life in the last hour with the outrageous performances of Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson, as an effete, Francophile plantation owner and the superficially obsequious “house slave” who dominates his domicile. These are powerful, taboo-breaking characters with a perverse but somehow believable relationship redolent of the deep weirdness of race relations in the Old South: DiCaprio’s poncey, Van Dyke-wearing Calvin Candie is actually under the thumb of Jackson’s grinning, jiving Stephen (who looks almost exactly like the guy on the old Cream of Wheat box), but both are hopelessly doomed by the soul-crushing institution of white supremacy.

That fascinating and troubling subplot feels like it ought to be the dramatic center of “Django Unchained” but completely isn’t. It’s maddening to detect traces, amid all this passionless and self-indulgent rambling, of the adventurous storyteller and precise stylist who made “Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction” and “Jackie Brown” (a film, by the way, that has much more to say about race as a lived experience in America than this one). Lately Tarantino appears to have drifted into the hipster equivalent of George Lucas-land, where everyone around him agrees with his dumb ideas and nobody dares to observe that the movies are fatally undisciplined and way too long and not really about anything.

I realize I’m supposed to say something about Tarantino’s use of revisionist historical fantasy — making Jewish warriors the protagonists of World War II and inserting a black action hero into the antebellum South — but I just don’t think either of the movies is serious enough to make that a worthwhile topic. For the record: The idea behind “Inglourious Basterds” was genuinely subversive, even if the results were ludicrous, but there’s nothing revolutionary or new about depicting a black man as violent, vengeful and monosyllabic. It’s always chancy to agree with Spike Lee about anything, but his recent tweet saying that he didn’t see the story of his slave ancestors as a Sergio Leone movie hit home with me.

Let’s back up for a second and stumble over the meaningless detail that Kerry Washington’s nearly invisible character – the wife forcibly separated from Django, previously slave to a German-speaking master — is named Broomhilda von Shaft. I mean, OK. But on the other hand, what? It’s just a gag, I guess, and within the movie it’s clear that the character is actually named after Brünnhilde, the valkyrie and shield-maiden of Norse-Germanic legend who must be rescued by the hero Siegfried. But it’s a gag that explains a lot, especially the fact that “Django Unchained” is full of memorable images and ideas but isn’t tethered to any remotely coherent universe, either historical or imaginary, and the related fact that Tarantino is the kind of overamped class clown who can’t help making two different, totally unrelated meta-meta-meta-brain-fart 1970s jokes when he’s giving a name to a character from the 1850s.

There’s unquestionably an audience for the antics of the amped-up class clown, especially when presented with Tarantino’s undoubted cinematic verve, wrapped in a nostalgia for trashy movie genres most of today’s audiences have never seen and served with an overlay of progressive and/or outrageous racial politics. I understand that for many viewers the crazily overstuffed, one-damn-thing-after-another quality of “Django Unchained” will offer a fun alternative to more predictable fare, and have no doubt that some of my fellow critics will proclaim it a postmodern masterpiece, equally inspired by Jean-Luc Godard, the spaghetti western and the screen careers of Jim Brown, Fred “The Hammer” Williamson and whatever other ex-NFL stars of the ‘70s made movies in which they got to kill white people. I love to make those kinds of proclamations! And that combination of ingredients sounds intriguing, in theory – just about enough for a great trailer.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>