Quentin Tarantino, 2012
#9, 2012 Skandies
Full disclosure: while I tend to be uncharacteristically optimistic when starting up these movies — after all, from #6 onward on each year's list, I only watch the ones that look like they might be interesting — I went into this one biased against it. It played an upsetting role in my personal life at the time it came out (even though I myself didn't see it). I also suspected that it would be the latest example of Quentin Tarantino making the same movie over and over: someone is the victim of an atrocity, and then gets gruesomely spectacular revenge. Recently, this revenge has been exacted not only against individual bad guys but also against broad swaths of evil societies. Last time it was the Nazis; it looked like this time it was going to be the same thing, but with Southern slaveowners.
That turned out to be more or less correct. Django Unchained does rehash Inglourious Basterds's gimmick of building scenes around long conversations in which the participants struggle to remain perfectly polite while preparing for the moment that the proceedings suddenly erupt into a gunfight. It borrows from the rest of the Tarantino oeuvre as well. Like a lot of his other work, it's a movie about other movies, an homage to stuff he watched while working at that video store; in this case it's an ersatz spaghetti western. You've got the usual obtrusive songs on the soundtrack and the usual puerile celebration of the Bad Motherfucker. But this iteration of the Tarantino movie is a lot sloppier than his best work. The plot is weirdly lopsided, with an hour of episodic meandering bolted to an hour and forty-five minutes on a single plantation. But that's nothing compared to the tonal imbalance. I firmly believe that comedy can coexist with tragedy, but it's like putting sweet and salty flavors together — you have to make sure the ones you pick complement each other. Just because chocolate-covered pretzels are tasty doesn't mean you should frost your devil's food cake with anchovy paste. Django Unchained contains scenes of torture (whipping, hotboxing, and other staples of the antebellum South) that rightly evoke genuine stomach-churning horror. And they aren't undercut by Christoph Waltz's often amusing performance. But they don't mesh well with the farcical second-rate Mel Brooks schtick of the eyeholes scene. I might watch and even like the eyeholes movie. But it's a different movie.
(And nothing could possibly mesh well with the cutesy-poo clapping and horse dancing at the end. Come on now.)