What is the point of Quentin Tarantino?

What is the point of a Quentin Tarantino film?

As a filmmaker he is in a truly enviable position. Able to write and direct more-or-less any movie he wishes, with scores of big-name actors of prodigious talent practically begging to be allowed to speak his dialogue, his films are relatively inexpensive to produce, virtually guaranteed to be profitable and he regularly wins awards for his cinematic creations. What is he doing with this power?

Much as I enjoyed the experience of sitting in the cinema watching Inglourious Basterds, it seemed to me to be a little hollow. It’s all tinsel and no substance. The void inside is filled partly by the raw power of some of the individual set-pieces, notably the agonising opening scene with Hans Landa and the farmer. It’s also filled partly by the elegant structure which avoids the frequent Tarantino trope of telling the story out of order, and replaces it instead with an approach which at first feels very disconnected, but gradually braids together its diverse strands. And the sheer demented chutzpah of the ending goes a long way as well. No other mainstream filmmaker would conceivably have adopted such an irreverent stance to such a dark period of human history.

His latest effort, Django Unchained continues this recent trend of revisionist historical revenge fantasies – probably too niche to be a true sub-genre. It also continues a longer trend of recycling material from earlier movies, but where Reservoir Dogs recycles elements of Hong Kong mafia and American seventies heist movies, or Kill Bill reproduces tropes from Shaw Brothers chopsocky films, Django Unchained is composed less of bits-and-pieces from spaghetti westerns (although it definitely does contain those elements) but, more troublingly, devices from Tarantino’s own previous movies.

So, here’s the historical revenge fantasy from Basterds, as noted. Here’s the singular character bent on revenge from Kill Bill from which is also derived the blood soaked finale where that revenge is first enacted on dozens of minor or non-speaking characters. Here’s the torture scene from Reservoir Dogs, only about a tenth as effective. From Pulp Fiction, here’s the pair of hired guns – one black and one white – who find time to discuss other less vital matters before executing their victims. And here’s Christoph Waltz, essentially playing an 1850s Hans Landa with a faceful of beard.

I also was constantly reminded of two other instances of prior art – neither of which I suspect were genuinely influences. One was the excellent FX tv show Justified which also recently featured an elegantly-dressed character with a Taxi Driver-style sleeve gun, and has two cast members in common with Django in the forms of Walton Goggins and MC Gainey. The other, less helpfully was Blazing Saddles, especially when Django rides in to town next to Schultz for the first time.

When not being distracted by these issues, there is plenty to enjoy here. If Waltz hasn’t many new acting tricks to show us, he certainly gets some choice lines to speak, and Django’s slow growth under his patient tutelage is accurately portrayed by a carefully restrained Jamie Foxx. There are laugh-out-loud funny moments, such as the exchange between Schultz and Django as they debate whether or not to shoot the last remaining Brittle Brother or the incompetent redneck hood-wearers who try and exact revenge on them for the same murder.

Following this fairly lengthy set-up, we arrive at last at Calvin Candie – possibly a career-best performance from DiCaprio who has enormous fun as this preposterous caricature of southern venality. But I dearly wish his plantation had not been called Candie Land which smacks to me of bad British sit-coms of the 1970s in which people called Teacup ran a café – that kind of thing.

Warning – here be spoilers. Watch the film before reading on.

When we arrive at Candie Land (ugh) we finally get the dose of Samuel L Jackson that the film has been missing. On first impressions, Stephen is a truly remarkable character, impressively bald, walking with a cane, laughing hugely at the master’s jokes and given enormous licence to joke himself, but mistreating the other black slaves with a confounding enthusiasm. This characterisation brilliantly turns out to be a Keyser Soze style front, behind which is a perfectly fit and shrewd man, Candie’s trusted confidante and advisor, who rapidly sees through Django and Schultz’s deception.

But after negotiations between Schultz and Candie fall apart, so does the movie. After an orgiastically blood soaked shoot-out (with a number of human shields in various states of health), Stephen produces Kerry Washington (wasted as Django’s wife in need of rescue) with a gun to her head, and forces Django to give himself up. It’s pretty hard to believe that these vile individuals who hold black life so meaningless don’t just gun him down for fun. It’s almost impossible to believe that, having taken him captive, they don’t just put a bullet through his wife’s head out of sheer spite. Keeping her alive has no purpose at all, except to ensure that if Django does evade their clutches, he will definitely have a reason to come back for them all.

Stephen’s character just collapses at this point too. Of the many things that made his earlier appearances so fascinating, the most interesting was his devotion to his master. Calvin Candie owns Stephen, and regularly has people like Stephen torn apart by wild dogs or made to gouge out each other’s eyes or beat out their brains with a hammer. And yet Stephen appears to love him – the animal howl which he lets out when Schultz puts a bullet through him is terribly affecting.

And yet, in subsequent scenes there is no grief, no sense of loss, no mourning. There is a certain amount of irritation, but in his scene with the captured Django, he seems more like a headmaster pondering how to reform an unruly child.

Anyone who has seen even a couple of his earlier films knows what Tarantino is capable of when bad men have sympathetic characters at their mercy. Officer Nash loses an ear before being casually blasted away by Nice Guy Eddie. Mr White cannot forgive Mr Orange his treachery and puts a bullet in his brain even though it means suicide-by-cop for him too. Maynard and Zed anally rape Marsellus Wallace and are promised torture by blow-torch for their efforts. On learning of her part in the plan to blow up the cinema, Hans Landa strangles Bridget von Hammersmark with his bare hands. Even Beatrix Kiddo removes Sofie’s limbs before sending her back to Bill.

Billy Crash certainly has Django at his mercy – trussed up and gagged, naked except for a Hannibal Lector style muzzle. He talks earnestly of his plan to castrate Django and approaches his scrotum with a blade when – in a particularly dreary movie cliché, Stephen interrupts at the crucial moment to announce that the white folks have a much better plan, which is essentially to let him escape, come back and kill them all. So Django gets to keep his balls, but I can’t help feeling Tarantino has lost his.

Drawing a veil over the director’s ill-judged cameo, everything that follow is by-the-numbers, almost perfunctory. Django returns, kills all the white people, kneecaps Stephen who continues to say and do absolutely nothing of interest, and then blows up the plantation before riding off into the sunset, with his bafflingly-preserved wife.

To be clear, I don’t harbour a deep and sadistic desire to see Jamie Foxx graphically parted from his testicles. It’s just that the writer has painted himself into a narrative corner and rather than stay true to the characters he has created, even if that means we don’t get the ending we want, he just abandons the rules of the world and has Django (as Jamie Foxx put it on Saturday Night Live) kill all the white people in the movie. I parted company from the story when Kerry Washington’s life was spared and didn’t believe a single thing that happened after Stephen sold Django to the mining company. It might even have been better if everything after that point had been a near-death fantasy as in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. A sudden cut back to Django bleeding out like a stuck pig would have been genuinely shocking.

And that’s another point. This is arguably the least complex narrative of any of Tarantino’s films, but it’s also presented in the most straight-forward way. There’s no cutting around in time, there are no multiple viewpoints, it’s entirely linear. It’s certainly possible to flatter a flimsy narrative by presenting it in an interesting way. With so much else recycled from earlier movies, it’s baffling to me why he didn’t also borrow the non-linear narrative. And it doesn’t even have Basterds hubristic irreverence to keep it afloat – this is much more respectful. Tarantino’s depiction of slavery is largely accurate and Foxx never becomes a one man Emancipation Proclamation backed up by dynamite and six-shooters.

This is a pretty harsh critique of a film which never bored me and which contains at least four outstanding performances, maybe more. But eight films in to the Tarantino canon (depending on how you count) it’s possible to view this prodigious talent as engaged in a fairly determined flight away from meaning, truth, insight or realism and into fantasy, fakery and trivia. Given how concerned with his own legacy Tarantino seems to be, I hope he notices this trend in time to arrest it.

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