This is a sentence. At the end of this sentence, after this comma, I’m going to put a period. See? It just happened. Soon, there will be a paragraph break, but not until I tell you why I’m doing this. You’re reading a review of Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Django Unchained, and reading the beginning of this review is just like watching it. Here’s that break I promised.
Django Unchained tackles very serious and provocative issues like slavery, racism, sexism, capitalism, greed, arrogance, and violence. And somehow it’s Tarantino’s least serious and most excessively watchable film (including Death Proof). That’s the brilliance of it.
When we’re watching a white guy whip a slave to death, Tarantino injects the images with filters, choppy slow-motion, and distracting whip-pans. Anachronistic music blares over the soundtrack. All I could think of was a father, clutching the shoulder of his son, reminding him that he’s only watching a movie.
Maybe that’s the best way to handle this material. Tarantino is white, rich, arrogant, and hip. Maybe he has no business making a movie with this kind of racial sensitivity. But he did make it, and he reminds us constantly that it’s just a movie.
“Never break character,” Christoph Waltz’s Dr. King (a name that is almost too cheeky to believe) tells Django before going on a hero’s journey steeped in fable. A fable that is told to us, using the names of the characters, by Dr. King himself.
We are always aware of Django as a character, because he himself is aware of it. Whenever he enters a room, the film slows down. Music plays. He whips off his sunglasses. He is our hero, and we never forget it.
Tarantino is, above all else, a storyteller, and he likes to tell stories about good and evil. Unlike most “important” filmmakers, he is not interested in ambiguity or making things difficult for his audience. He’s the anti-Michael Haneke.
With this film, we absolutely know who the bad guys are. Leonardo Dicaprio plays Calvin Candie, this movie’s super villain, with gleeful, mustache-twirling perfection, completely stealing the show. Like Hans Landa before him, Candie is the ultimate bad guy. He is smart, devious, powerful, and charming. Infinitely charming. He’s funny and joyous. He’s the life of the party. He’s respectful of his guests. And, when he wants to be, he’s explosively, terrifyingly violent.
It’s a flashy role, and it’s the most fun Dicaprio has had on screen in years. It’s also the most fun Tarantino has had since Marvin got shot in the face.
The artiface of everything on screen is aided by the soundtrack, which contains the hisses and pops of vinyl. A woman sings along to what is happening on screen. Credit crawls inform us of what passes during montages.
In a scene involving the KKK, we are treated to a distracting cameo from Jonah Hill, who sort of just stands there to the side. “It’s only a movie,” Tarantino is saying. “Look,” he says, “it’s Jonah Hill. This is in no way the real KKK.”
The Old West (or, in this case, the Old South), doesn’t exist the way it does in the movies. Tarantino doesn’t care about the real west. He prefers the movie one, and he won’t let us forget that nothing we’re watching on screen is even close to something that happened in the real world. That is Tarantino’s genius.
For years, people have mocked the director for just making collages of better films and taking credit for them, and yet we champion the great Jazz musicians of the twenties, who did the same thing with music. Tarantino is THE American director because he understands what America is. Not a melting pot, like Spielberg or J.J. Abrams, who stir all of film history until it’s vanilla, but a tossed salad. Tarantino throws every disparate part of filmmaking history and gives it a moment. Sometimes it’s out of place, or distracting, or tangential, or self-indulgent, but so is Jazz.
Django Unchained isn’t his best movie (that distinction is held by Jackie Brown), but it’s the most fun to watch. It’s Tarantino embracing the medium and enjoying its unreality. He’s a class clown the school can’t expel because he’s making straight A’s. He is a master of his craft, followed by legions of fans, making movies in which he has complete control, and it’s some of the most fun a person can have in a movie theater.
If you want a great film, go see Les Miserables, if you want a great movie, go see Django Unchained.