By Jay Sizemore
Quentin Tarantino is one of the most polarizing directors to ever step foot behind the camera. It seems no one can agree whether the man is a genius or an ego-maniac in love with his own excess. In my opinion, his filmography already stands as a testament to his prowess and talent for turning homage into originality, but Django Unchained is arguably his crowning masterpiece as a filmmaker and film lover, serving as a giant middle finger to anyone who uses their critical platform as a soapbox. In other words, this is the film to either alienate those who have been critical from the start, or finally push them into the category of his admirers.
Throughout his career, Tarantino has been blasted for his use of language, his directorial flamboyance, his gratuitous violence, and walking the tightrope between boredom and finesse. You will find all of these characteristics in Django Unchained, along with enough obscure movie references to give even the likes of Roger Ebert a case of memory recall overload. (Tarantino is the only director I am aware of who has an entire website devoted to analyzing and cataloguing the film references in each of his own movies). Django Unchained does not stray from this signature style and, continuing from Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino uses the “flaws”, as critics perceive them, to his advantage, attempting to take his work to an even higher platform of achievement.
For starters, there’s the script. Tarantino deftly weaves a tale of mythology, using clever role-reversal archetypes of legendary figures from American history, set against the mythological backdrop the country’s troubled past; i.e. the Wild West and slave trade, enlisting such characters as Django, a black slave named after the famous white jazz guitarist, and Dr. King, a white bounty hunter with a distaste for slavery that shares the name of the famously non-violent Civil Rights activist. Samuel L. Jackson plays a black man who is happy to serve his white master, while Leonardo DiCaprio plays a sadistic manifestation of racially motivated brutality. When these giant personalities are placed into one setting, the dramatic tension and explosiveness that occurs nearly rivals the gunfire sure to follow.
The cinematography and stylization used throughout are gorgeous, and obviously were the labors of meticulous perfectionism, one personality trait of genius. A longtime lover of Sergio Leone, Tarantino shows his love for his favorite film The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, while simultaneously crafting a spaghetti Western that could easily rival many of the genre’s classics. He manages to make the audience feel at home in the familiarity of the Western setting, while setting us at unease with unflinching use of language and violence (“nigger” is uttered no less than 140 times throughout, something that reportedly caused Spike Lee’s twitter fingers to spasm). The director lures the viewer into a kind of comfort zone with lavishly photographed landscapes and an eye for realistic detail, expertly weaving that into his stylistic choices, such as color motifs, and different types of film effects and edits in the exposition, only to sucker punch us later on with gruesome scenes that must have given the MPAA ratings board a difficult time. The classic elements are there, but Tarantino makes them his own, creating a story that feels outlandish and true at the same time.
When people are beaten, we hear every crunch of bone and muscle, we feel every tear of tooth on flesh. When people are shot, blood and guts splatter in graphic slow motion, and people lie on the ground and scream, as Peckinpah would have wanted it. But these details are not meant to desensitize us, they are meant to ground us in the gritty reality of this world. They are shocking, but the sentiments are true. Racism is an awful, ugly thing, and slavery is a cruel stain on the memory of America. Tarantino rightly reminds us of this, while showing us a twisted revenge fantasy that should feel like a vindicated revisionist version of history, one where the underdog triumphs without resorting to hate of his oppressors. The cognitive dissonance in the minds of racist movie goers must be painful, especially if they are fans of Pulp Fiction. If this revisionist trend continues, Tarantino’s next project might be to make a film where Native Americans await the landing of the first European ships, standing on their shores armed with machine guns gifted to them by the first time travelers. Quick, someone write that down.
Jay Sizemore is film critic for The Missing Slate. You can read more about him here.