Mini-Reviews: Django Unchained, On the Road
The problem with Django Unchained is how entertaining it is. Quentin Tarantino’s slavery revenge flick is perhaps his most straight-forward comedy to date, full of visual gags, redneck buffoonery, hilariously over-the-top squibs, and quippy one-liners. Its performances are typically strong, especially by Jamie Foxx as the uber-cool hero and Christoph Waltz, who simply seems to have a way with Tarantino’s words. It stays on its narrative course far more effectively than his last few films, and thus doesn’t have nearly as many pacing problems as a result. In fact, on the surface, it’s as entertaining as anything he’s ever done. However, the problematic element contained within is… slavery. Tarantino includes many horrifically ugly images of slave brutality, torture devices, whip scars, and casual cruelty, just to follow it up immediately with a punchline, sight gag, or “cool” visual stylistic device. This has a two-pronged effect, both deflating the impact that the comedy can have and undercutting the dramatic value of the slave cruelty. It’s having your cake and eating it too: I understand wanting to not simply immerse the audience in non-stop torture horror without comedy to entertain us, and I understand how you can’t have a “slavery comedy” without exposing us to the brutal reality. However, the combination of the two is tenuous at best and uncomfortably forced at worst.
The N-word used for cruelty followed by several scenes in which the N-word is clearly used as a contemporary style punchline clouds whatever message Tarantino might try to say. Kerry Washington’s character, a one-note sack of skin to be tortured and abused throughout as she wordlessly shrieks, could’ve been an opportunity for an emotional connection between Django and his wife– why brush that aside? Why make their reunion, which could have been rich, a stupid gag in which the wife faints and Chistoph Waltz lands a sitcom-esque one-liner follow-up? (I longed for the connect of Pam Grier and Robert Forster in Tarantino’s best film to date, Jackie Brown.) After some thought, you’ll realize as I did: it’s because Tarantino has zero interest in the emotional impact or historical meaning or even potential tonal conflict. He wants to create something cool, something funny, something violent. Shades of grey or intentional moral complexity aren’t necessary. This isn’t a dig against people who like it: there are plenty of beautifully crafted cartoons made. Django Unchained looks great, sounds great, and feels fun as you watch it, and for many, this is absolutely all they want– and they’ll get it. But while tackling subject matter that begs for some depth and forethought, Tarantino eschews the idea that you need depth or forethought at all. He’s more interested in giving forethought to his homages.
Postscript: Django Unchained should win at least one award this awards season: the Razzie for Worst Supporting Actor, given to Tarantino himself for his increasingly awful acting, this time with an inexplicable Australian accent. He appears immediately after a brutal scene in which Foxx is hung upside-down completely naked and nearly castrated. Any lasting impact that image might have had on the audience disappeared when Tarantino’s outrageously bad cameo started. Please, Quentin, stay behind the camera.
On the Road:
It’s a shame the title The Neverending Story was already taken. I’m not familiar with Jack Kerouac’s book, On The Road, and I have the utmost respect for Walter Salles and Jose Rivera for adapting it into a film that certainly looks great and is rife with moments of sharp, poetic dialogue. Yet I don’t think I’m making a giant leap of logic here when I say if this is a faithful adaptation of the book, then the book must contain absolutely nothing cinematic within. It’s the sprawling (and I don’t mean that as a compliment in this case) tale of Sal (Sam Riley), the young writer uninspired until he meets Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), a sexually charged hoodlum who really, like, lives life to the fullest, man. We watch Sal from the time he meets Dean to his final encounter, years and years later. Along the way, we meet a number of people, many of whom are played by distractingly well-known actors for roles so inconsequential (Amy Adams isn’t even in this film long enough to call it a “cameo”). This isn’t a narrative so much as a travelogue… and sadly, movies tend to need a narrative. The only way to make a non-narrative work would be to have a bewitching leading man. Again, sadly, we’re stuck with Sam Riley, and while Sal might indeed be a cypher in the book, as he watches far more than he participates, without charm or intrigue in his eyes, we simply don’t care how he’s affected by his journey. Garrett Hedlund is outstanding, as is Kristen Stewart who plays his wife: they are both incredibly sensual and soulful, something their big-budget work in Tron: Legacy and Twilight respectively simply doesn’t show. The journey is definitely gorgeous, as the cinematography is rich and full of dazzling Americana imagery, but the movie simply doesn’t go anywhere. It tried my patience, with its lack of pace and its needlessly long run time. If this is what it takes to make a loyal adaptation, perhaps some disloyalty was necessary.