I like Quentin Tarantino. “Pulp Fiction” is still one of my favorite pictures ever made. It was at the very top of my list of Best Films of the 1990’s. But “Pulp Fiction” is now 19-years-old, and Tarantino has fallen from the lofty perch of Our Greatest Young Director to merely a caricature of himself. His latest, “Django Unchained” is a lot of fun, but it mines territory Tarantino has long since extensively covered.
Like 2009’s “Inglourious Basterds,” this is another re-imagining of history – this time in the form of a western which takes place just prior to the Civil War. In “Django Unchained,” Jamie Foxx plays a slave named Django who is rescued by a bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz, to help him identify three murderers. During their partnership, Schultz discovers both Django’s marksmanship and his intelligence. The two team up for more bounties, and eventually infiltrate a Mississippi plantation in an attempt to reunite Django with his wife, Broomhilda (Don’t ask – this is Tarantino).
Christoph Waltz, who won Best Supporting Actor for “Inglourious Basterds,” returns here as Dr. Schultz, the bounty hunter, and he’s the one person who seems to be taking this material seriously. His is a fully-developed unique character, whereas the others come off simply as Tarantino’s props. I wish Schultz had been the primary character, and not Django. And as big a Leonardo DiCaprio fan as I am, here he is all wrong as the Mississippi plantation owner. I never got the idea he was particularly temperamental until he explodes in an angry rage at the dinner table.
Now, why do I refer to this as a re-imagining of history? Because it’s too modern. The whole point of “Django Unchained” is to see a freed slave wreak havoc on bad pre-Civil-War Southern white people. And while that’s great fun for a 2013 audience, it’s not historically accurate. Furthermore, the music is too modern, as are the speech patterns, and the attitudes. Jamie Foxx’s sunglasses are certainly “cool,” but sunglasses didn’t even exist in 1858. And while the Klu Klux Klan scene is probably the funniest individual scene in any movie since the talent competition in “Little Miss Sunshine,” The KKK didn’t even exist back in 1858! Tarantino knows this isn’t true history. But he doesn’t care. You see, the historical inaccuracy is part of the joke. And we’re all in on it.
I’ve heard two primary complaints about “Django Unchained.” First is the overuse of the word, “nigger.” That didn’t bother me. It seemed correct for the time period, just as it was in Harper Lee’s novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It may be the only historically accurate speech pattern in the entire movie, but its use here doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it does when today’s rap stars throw it around in a pseudo-complimentary fashion.
The other complaint I’ve heard is that “Django” is too violent. And indeed, its release was pushed back a few weeks so that it did not coincide with the recent Connecticut shooting tragedy. But here’s my take: Yes, “Django” is very violent – and the bloodbath at the end is like nothing I’ve seen since “The Wild Bunch.” But unlike Sam Peckinpah’s “Wild Bunch,” this violence is all tongue-in-cheek. We can almost see Jamie Foxx winking at the camera every time he blows away a bad guy. By contrast, the bloodshed in “The Wild Bunch” was downright frightening. That film was a warning against violence. Tarantino’s is a celebration of it. I can’t see anybody watching “The Wild Bunch,” and then going on a shooting spree. Heck, people were scared to pick up a gun after sitting through that one. Here, the violence looks all too fun. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it. But I also don’t own a gun, and wouldn’t point one at another person. I’m no psychiatrist, but others might watch “Django” and decide it looks fun. And that’s my problem with it.
I put the blame squarely on Quentin Tarantino. While it certainly had its funny scenes, “Pulp Fiction” was a serious film about serious hardline criminals. “Django Unchained” is one long joke. These criminals aren’t serious. The story isn’t serious. And Tarantino is merely taking us on a three-hour ride through an old spaghetti western crossed with one of today’s video games. It goes no deeper than that. On this reduced level, “Django Unchained” works. I recommend it. But it continues the slide of the man who was once our greatest new director. He’s long since been eclipsed by Paul Thomas Anderson, whose recent film “The Master” is odd, but it takes itself seriously. It stays true to its own reality. “Django” does not.