“Pulp Fiction” was an exciting innovation; “Inglorious Basterds” was a masterpiece. But hasn’t Quentin Tarantino crossed the line in “Django Unchained” (wonderful title) by targeting American slaves with his love of ferocious violence? It is one thing to visit cruelty on Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan, but should any one of us play games with the deepest scar on our national history? To throw a slave to a pack of wild dogs, to order two slaves fight to the death of one of them, to splatter the blood from a body explosion all over a bed of white flowers? And this in addition to the regular beatings and humiliations administered to men in chains?
As a Quentin Tarantino fan and not quite trusting the strength of my own response, I contacted fellow movie lover Keenan Ellis for a reaction from a different generation. His response: “If there were no reason for the violence I would agree with you, but the violence is there to help tell the story. The shot you’re talking about with the blood on the flowers was one of my favorite shots, and I’d think you would like it too. First, they’re not flowers, they’re cotton, and splattering blood all over them gives them a profound visual metaphor that slavery and the cotton industry and America are built on blood.” I stand corrected.
Freed from anger, I looked calmly at the rest of the picture which is pure Tarantino and full of counterweights to his own horrific imaginings. Things get off to an inspired start when Dr. Schultz, former dentist turned bounty hunter, buys the freedom of one man from a chain gang to be the partner he needs in his new profession. Django (Jamie Foxx), now unchained, becomes the talented equal partner and asks the doctor for just one favor: can they please find his wife who was sold to Calvin Candie (Leonardo diCaprio) a monstrous plantation owner. The violence unfolds - to our often closed eyes - on the plantation.
Tarantino’s great gift is the creation of Dr. Schultz as the con man with an inborn set of principles. The good doctor shoots people dead whenever they violate his code and his code clearly embraces equality on all counts for Django. Christoph Waltz creates a stylish, original character in the best supporting performance I’ve seen this year. Jamie Foxx, despite having retribution at his fingertips, seems very uncomfortable as Django, unable, perhaps unwilling, to invest his performance with the sly irreverence that Tarantino wields so cleverly. That is a discomfort I share.
Acute discomfort with the subject gets in the way of a positive response from anyone with a heart or a brain, but if you focus on Dr. Schultz’s fair play and Tarantino’s creative metaphors, you may be okay. Let’s hope that next time out Quentin Tarantino will choose a more deserving subject for his visual violence – Wall Street traders, say, or perhaps the contemporary Tea Party.
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