Along with box office buzz and Oscar talk, Quentin Tarantino’s latest period flick, Django Unchained, is provoking some hard questions about what happens when pulp fiction meets the heft of serious history.
In this defiantly deranged genre-meld, jovial German bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) teams up with freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx) to rescue Django’s wife from a plantation run by a depraved fop (Leonardo DiCaprio, looking like a cute boy gone rancid).
Even as Tarantino descends into the human misery of "this slavery malarkey," as Schultz calls it, savvy fans know that his trademark river of retributional blood is just waiting to flow.
The movie’s graphic depiction of atrocities, its cartoonish representations of antebellum Southerners and its casual way with the N-word have stirred some controversy, with the everprovocative Tarantino handily managing to enrage both white Republicans and African-American filmmaker Spike Lee.
Critics debate whether Tarantino is exploring the history of slavery or merely exploiting it, while audiences are left with some squirmingly uncomfortable moments where cinematic pleasure runs smack into moral disgust.
Some of the indictments are unfounded. It seems unfair to accuse Tarantino of messing with history when he obviously has no pretensions to historical accuracy — or any kind of accuracy, really, beyond the obscure exactitude of the film wonk. Just as the revisionist revenge romp Inglourious Basterds took place not in war-ravaged Europe but somewhere inside Tarantino’s big, weird, movie-loving head, the setting for Django Unchained is only ostensibly the American south of the 1850s.
This fabulously unstable mix of spaghetti western, revenge tale, Blaxploitation flick and Jim Croce music video really unwinds inside a grindhouse cinema, the air thick with sex, violence and cigarette smoke and the floors sticky with spilled Coke (or worse).
Tarantino lards his "history" with pop culture references, gratuitous cameos and comically ridiculous affectations. (DiCaprio’s evil is signalled by his florid taste in girl-drinks, Tarantino favourite Zoe Bell seems to be playing some kind of masked ninja slave tracker, and Jonah Hill is possibly the least likely Klansman ever.) In the end, Tarantino and his flagrant factual violations are much less dangerous than those movies that disingenuously combine conspiracy theories, tarted-up "research" and enough junk history to make things look vaguely plausible. (And, yeah, we’re looking at you, Mr. Dan Da Vinci Code Brown. And you, Oliver Stone.)
As well, Tarantino’s reckless freedom has advantages. Gleefully throwing History Channel accuracy out the window, he gains access to a core of terrible truth, conveying a bone-deep sense of the obscenity of humans treated as property. Unbound by the rules of respectable historical filmmaking, Tarantino is able to get deep into the violent, vicious heart of slavery. His facts might be off, but the film’s sense of physical revulsion feels real.
Django Unchained also reaches a broader audience than a documentary or even a well-intentioned drama could. Many of the young people who dodged Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s stately epic about the struggle to pass the constitutional amendment abolishing slavery, will head to the multiplex for their dose of patented Tarantino cool. (Come for the blood spray. Stay for the unexpected insights into race, power and the poisoned legacy of the past.)
One criticism that does seem warranted is the charge that the film is uneven. Unusual for a Tarantino movie, Django Unchained has moments of cinematic slackness, scenes in which Tarantino seems merely "Tarantino-esque," offering a parody of his own best work.
But maybe the movie is bumpy because Tarantino is driving through contested territory. Many viewers are reporting a "Django moment," an uneasy point at which humour morphs into horror, where super-stylized cinematic violence bleeds over into real, raw human violence, where the uncomplicated satisfaction of the revenge fantasy gives way to the fraught racial realities of today.
So, yes, Django Unchained is uneven. There are moments that, in one sense, don’t work. But in another way, they work just fine. Operating at the tricky juncture where the imperatives of narrative meet the demands of history, Tarantino makes us draw our own moral lines.