Flatiron Hot! Review: Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained
There’s something to be said for an artist who is out to please only himself. But when the product of the ensuing creative narcissism is so arcane as to be unfathomable to those who do not share the artist’s fetishes, then it is deprived of a certain universal quality present in the greatest of art. It has long been said that Quentin Tarantino has abandoned making movies in the traditional sense and has instead taken up the postmodern indulgence of making movies about movies.
To an extent, this has been the case since Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino’s most critically acclaimed and greatest cinematic achievements possessed more than a few elements of pastiche. But beneath all the allusions and arcane stylistic flourishes, one could still discern a beating heart. With Death Proof, which Tarantino correctly deemed his creative low point, the director completely abandoned any pretense of traditional cinematic ambitions with breakneck style over substance.
Inglourious Basterds was indeed a movie about movies, but it still had a distinctive soul of its own, largely because no other director had ever transmuted the weighty subject of the Holocaust into a meditation on topics only remotely connected to its historical significance. The result was a self-indulgent, but nevertheless transfixing hodge-podge of stylistic elements, set against the backdrop of an event so profound in its tragedy that no one but Tarantino would dare to co-opt it as a personal artistic statement.
With Django Unchained, Tarantino takes a similar approach to the spaghetti western and blaxploitation genres. Alas, this time others have beaten him to the punch (such as the Coen Brothers with 2010’s True Grit). But, by far, Tarantino’s greatest inspiration is himself. He has spent years refining a signature stylistic technique, and the result is predictably a combination of off-kilter camera angles, political incorrectness, and cathartic sprays of white-man gore.
For the die-hard Tarantino enthusiast, Django should certainly please. The gunplay is exhilarating and the dialogue snappy. As always, it is a pleasure to watch Tarantino’s fine roster of A-list actors play ridiculously over-the-top characters (Jamie Foxx’s runaway slave, Django and Leonardo DiCaprio’s cruel plantation owner, Calvin J. Candie come to mind.) Nevertheless, the film itself is missing an essential ingredient that is challenging to pinpoint but difficult not to notice.
The feeling is of an artist going through the motions, reveling in his cinematic obsessions because he knows he can get away with it. But there is something disheartening about a complacent genius. Part of what made Tarantino’s early masterpieces so riveting was their bold novelty. A couple of decades down the line, the iconic director needs to relearn how to surprise his audience, not just shock them, although in today’s Hollywood, the distinction between the two concepts often seems lost.