Like Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino has now made an American slavery film to go with his Holocaust film (Inglourious Basterds, 2009)—and like Spielberg, he secured Best Picture nominations for both of his epic journeys into shameful human history. But while Spielberg treats his topics with terrified reverence, Tarantino does not. Quite the opposite. Their grand themes are deployed almost exclusively to provide shock value.
By using these unimaginably horrific examples of human evil and suffering as the backdrop to visceral revenge fantasies, Tarantino gives undeniable oomph and emotional resonance to his true lifelong purpose. That purpose is really quite astonishingly narrow: paying homage to the disreputable exploitation films of the 1960s and 1970s he loves so much. A peculiar ambition, to be sure, but becoming famous and respected and garlanded for riffing off disreputable junk must have its perverse rewards for Tarantino, who is among the most perversely talented moviemakers in movie history.
The junk films that inspire him—spaghetti Westerns, Japanese and Hong Kong gangster flicks, European sex romps, American blaxploitation pictures—were in such bad taste that they went beyond conventional categories into some new realm. These movies really did make explicit all the things that had long been implicit in the cinema: the charged pleasure that comes from watching staged violence, the crazed joys of plotted revenge, a woman’s breasts. But all those transgressions crossed into the mainstream fairly quickly. The literally titled Bad Taste, made in New Zealand, was the can-this-really-get-any-worse outrage of 1987; now its director, Peter Jackson, makes drippingly sentimental films about hobbits in the Shire with $300-million budgets.
When he was starting out in the early 1990s, Tarantino took the American cinema to places it had never been. He had a character cut off a guy’s ear while dancing to “Stuck in the Middle with You” in Reservoir Dogs (1992). In Pulp Fiction (1994), he had John Travolta’s character plunge a hypodermic needle into Uma Thurman’s heart to keep her from dying of an overdose, and he had a vicious black crime-boss tied up and raped. Tarantino wanted the violence to sting, to provide a buzz like touching a tongue to a nine-volt battery, and he succeeded.
These weren’t the only elements of his movies that caught everyone’s attention. It was his ability to mix such barbarities with amusing bits of repartee, funny exchanges, and hyper-wordy monologues that gave them their special kick. But after he staged his one-man assault on the American cinema, he struggled. He made the languorous Jackie Brown in 1997, which I quite liked for its evocation of middle-age disappointment, but others did not. And he struck out entirely with the two Kill Bill films in 2003 and 2004, in which Uma Thurman slaughters many people and is tortured by many others for a total of four hours. Nothing Tarantino did in this misguided project was all that surprising, and the plot motivation—a woman trying to get her daughter back from a kidnapping father—was, in the end, little more than you’d get in a Lifetime movie.
Then, in a burst of demonic inspiration, came Tarantino’s decision to make brazen use of historical calamities to deepen his tales of revenge. By doing so, he would test every possible limit of taste, as his idols had. His method was perhaps even more transgressive, though: He turned topics that present-day standards of taste and comportment now deem fitting only for low-lit exhibitions staged at funereal museums into blood-soaked frenzies.
In Inglourious Basterds, a crew of Jewish soldiers hunts down and tortures Nazis during World War II in preparation for what may be the greatest plot twist in modern cinema—a twist so startling that, even though the movie came out years ago, I don’t feel comfortable repeating it here.
In Django Unchained, Jamie Foxx plays the title character, a tortured runaway slave who, in 1858, enters the service of Dr. King Schultz, a German dentist turned bounty hunter. Schultz is played by Tarantino’s greatest discovery, Christoph Waltz, an unknown Austrian TV actor who won an Oscar for playing the multilingual Nazi Jew-hunter in Inglourious Basterds. Waltz is, if possible, even better in Django, the first Tarantino movie that actually attempts a bit of character development and moral growth amid the mayhem.
Django and Schultz become partners and devise a complex scheme to liberate Django’s slave wife from a notorious Mississippi plantation. It is the home of an infernal would-be charmer named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose primary pleasure is watching slaves try to beat each other to death. The narrative trick up Tarantino’s sleeve in the last third of the movie (comparable to the one in Inglourious Basterds), involves Samuel L. Jackson, who plays a 76-year-old slave at the Candie plantation. He proves to be a very formidable and dangerous player indeed.
The mark of how audaciously (or nihilistically) Tarantino turns history to his own pulpish ends is this: Ultimately, both Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained are actually comedies. Stanley Kubrick once said of the most revered film of our time: “The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler’s List was about six hundred who don’t.” That brilliant bit of criticism is really made flesh by Tarantino’s wildly irresponsible but also irresistible romp, Inglourious Basterds, which truly is the Holocaust with a happy ending.
Django Unchained is, at times, out-and-out farce. Don Johnson appears as a plantation owner made up to look exactly like Colonel Sanders of KFC fame, who attempts to lead an early version of the Ku Klux Klan. Their raid is foiled when none of them can see through the holes in their hoods, and they fall to squabbling. Later, an escape right out of a Road Runner cartoon is made through the fortuitous use of some dynamite.
The relationship between Schultz and Django is out of an old-fashioned buddy movie. Indeed, Django Unchained is an unacknowledged remake of a little-remembered 1971 con-artist movie called Skin Game, with James Garner and Louis Gossett Jr. In Skin Game, set in the 1850s, Garner and Gossett are friends—Gossett was born a free man in New Jersey—who trick plantation owners by having Garner sell Gossett to them and then securing his escape.
Skin Game is gentle and surprising, defiantly odd; it was probably the inspiration for another peculiar and memorable white/black con-artist buddy comedy 20 years later called Diggstown, which also stars Louis Gossett Jr. By contrast, there’s nothing gentle about Django Unchained, in which a gunshot is inevitably followed by a flying piece of flesh or innards. Tarantino is still the giggly teenager who really, really wants to gross you out, and if you gross out easily, you must avoid this thing at all costs. But if you don’t, and if you don’t mind your history revised and rewritten and reconceived without principle—my, oh my, is this Django Unchained a wild and entertaining piece of work.
Now, if Tarantino is really daring, he’ll make his next movie about the suffragettes.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is THE WEEKLY STANDARD’s movie critic.