I want to say, “It’s not you, Quentin. It’s me.” But I couldn’t say it with much conviction.
What’s happened? Why the sad face on my part? It’s this: ever since first watching Pulp Fiction, I’ve been a Quentin Tarantino fan. This doesn’t mean that I love everything the man’s been involved in – I wasn’t too keen on From Dusk Till Dawn or Natural Born Killers, for instance – but I’ve greatly enjoyed his directorial work. While most people would go, “Yeah, I dig Reservoir Dogs, but fuck Jackie Brown, man, what a bore!” or “Kill Bill Part 1 rules, Kill Bill Part 2 drools,” I came away from all of them with a big grin on my face. Yes, even Death Proof, apparently the litmus test for Tarantino fans.
So what was wrong with Django Unchained? Let’s mention the positive first: I found the film very entertaining. It was funny, it had its tense moments, it was well crafted, it had good performances. Christoph Waltz was a joy to watch, Jaime Foxx was effective in the part, Samuel L. Jackson played a very different role from what I’m used to seeing. It’s just… I expect more than “very entertaining” from Tarantino. I remember sitting in the cinema for Jackie Brown and being hooked in the very first scene, thanks to the perfect combination of actress, visuals and music. I remember being pulled into the film immediately when Kill Bill started with a black and white close-up of the bloodied Bride and Bill doing his “Do you find me sadistic?” monologue, followed by the blackout and Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)”. With Death Proof it took longer – up until the halfway point I was prepared to hate the film for, well, finding it sadistic, but then things fell into place in the second part. And the first scene of Inglourious Basterds is pretty much perfect in how it creates tension and then ratchets it up to unbearable levels.
I felt giddy about all of Tarantino’s earlier films, sometimes due to the sheer exuberance of what he was doing, often because of the virtuoso way in which he remixed styles and genres to amazing effect, usually because the films had a sharp wit and intelligence that might not be apparent at a first viewing. Django Unchained, though? I never felt giddy. I never felt excited at what Tarantino was doing. The closest the film came was Christoph Waltz’s character and performance, which were pretty much pitch perfect, but other than that the film was strangely flat. No surprising juxtaposition (and no, it’s not enough to have Ennio Morricone and 2pac on the same soundtrack any more), not much in the way of subtext. Especially after Inglourious Basterds, which did some pretty intriguing things with its revenge plot(s), Django Unchained is strangely, disappointingly straightforward – and often it’s the lack of straightforwardness, the eagerness to stray of the most direct path, smell the daisies and cut them to shreds in an ironically postmodern homage to grindhouse gardening (“Alan Titchmarsh stars in The Gardener and his Hoe!“) that make Tarantino’s work stand out.
I’m wondering whether some of my disappointment comes from slavery being much more of a cultural issue in the States, and accordingly it wouldn’t resonate with me in the same way that it might with an audience that is still confronted with its racial past. Perhaps that adds an element that simply wasn’t there for me. Or perhaps Django Unchained is Tarantino light, at least with respect to the things I like best about Tarantino. Anyway, I’m in no particular hurry to see the film again (I saw both Kill Bills three times each at the cinema), but perhaps the film will grow on me if/when I sit down to watch it again. And in the meantime I’ll finally see what Pulp Fiction looks like on my TV…