Christmas Day may seem an incongruous release date for a bloody, vicious Western, but film fans know that a new Quentin Tarantino film is a true gift indeed.
Tarantino is the quintessential child of the movies, picking through the trash bins at cinema’s margins and, with unerring skill, transforming that disreputable detritus into his own brand of uniquely exhilarating film art.
“Django Unchained,” the story of a slave (Jamie Foxx) given a pair of six-guns and the chance to free his love (Kerry Washington) from the slave-owning clutches of the evil Leonardo DiCaprio (and to stick it to The Man a century before Shaft showed up), looks to incorporate all the hallmarks of the Tarantino oeuvre.
The film utilizes virtuosic verbal showdowns, action executed with brutal brilliance and a wealth of cult film references and actor reclamation projects (this time, look for ’70s stalwarts Dennis Christopher, Russ Tamblyn, Don Stroud and the original Django himself, Franco Nero). As ever, opening this holiday present from QT promises brilliant filmmaking and transgressive thrills.
But this present comes with a gift card reading “unease.” (SPOILERS ahead)
See, as with his last film, “Inglourious Basterds,” Tarantino is adapting his signature style, where his wronged protagonist avenges his/her betrayals with what Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill” refers to as “a roaring rampage of revenge.”
And more power to them — in Tarantino’s world (which is, to be fair, operating on at least one self-referential level of irony), there’s no offense so heinous that can’t be redressed by a well-placed gun, speeding car or samurai sword. Except, when “Inglourious Basterds” stormed into theaters, his application of Tarantinonic justice to, well, Hitler, left me feeling vaguely unsettled.
By using perhaps the real world’s worst tragedy as backdrop to his tale of Jewish commandos wiping out the Nazis, Tarantino invited criticism that his pulpy fantasies lacked the gravity to tackle actual atrocity. Of course, it was satisfying (who doesn’t want to shoot Hitler in the face about 100 times?), but, continuing with “Django,” where Foxx’s gunslinger essentially shoots slavery in the face, the collision of pulp fantasy and historical calamity could be seen as a little unseemly.
I wonder what’s coming next:
• An orphaned American Indian warrior fleeing the Trail of Tears to cut a swath of vengeance through the cavalry, eventually scalping President Andrew Jackson? (That actually sounds better than the Johnny Depp “Lone Ranger.”)
• A serf fleeing his burning farm to enact bloody vengeance against government poll tax collectors, culminating in a martial arts halberd battle with King Richard II?
• A rogue iceberg (Uma Thurman) setting sail to avenge the global warming that melted her sister, eventually freezing George W. Bush in a bloody (but very, very slow) martial arts battle for his refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol?
But I kid one of the greatest living filmmakers. I’m just concerned that Tarantino’s writing is regressing into an ever-more fantastical, hyperbolic alternate universe where his boyhood fantasies take precedence over creating fully rounded characters. (I’m the one guy who thinks “Jackie Brown” is his best film.)
None of which means I won’t be first in line to see “Django Unchained.” A QT movie, qualms aside, is the best thing coming out — no matter what day it is.
(Special thanks to Justin Ellis for helping inspire this article.)
Dennis Perkins is a Portland freelance writer.