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Since patching that script together nearly 20 years ago, Tarantino and Avary have fallen out; also, in 2010, Avary spent eight months in jail after he drunkenly crashed his car, and a passenger was killed. Avary, his friendship with Tarantino and his contribution to the Pulp Fiction screenplay are not mentioned in the extensive biographical documentary material on the recently released box set Tarantino XX, which Tarantino told me he considers to be "pretty definitive." Given that he has exactly as many Oscars as his ex-con, ex-collaborator, it makes perfect sense that Tarantino would want an honor all his own.
"How much do you care about Oscars?" I ask.
Without missing a beat, he answers, "It would be really nice."
The Weinstein Company has roped off just two rows of the 600-seat DGA theater for VIP guests, and the room is full; the rest of us waited in line for hours to ensure a seat at the first-come, first-served first screening of Django Unchained. Moments before the movie begins, Ennio Morricone's score for Once Upon a Time in the West starts to play over the PA, and the anxious audience quiets. The crowd at a typical L.A. industry screening is, shall we say, rather blasé. But here, the feeling in the room is that everyone is fucking psyched that they got in.
Django begins in 1858; an on-screen title reminds us that this is two years before the start of the Civil War. As it charts Django's journey from slave to superhero, his introduction to empowerment and his efforts to reunite with lost love, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the movie presents the American South as a land without pity, where white men are all but expected to invent identities for themselves, and women and blacks are violently encouraged to conform to the identities to which they have been assigned. The past it references is also present: Django himself is like white, ultra-conservative America's worst nightmare of the Angry Black Man, a cartoon symbol of the brown people they've treated like chattel rising up in revenge.
As an anatomy of how a society evolves by following the lead of heroes who murder in the name of the greater good, defending the value of human life by exterminating those who treat it most cheaply, the film works as both a fun-house analogue to Lincoln and a kind of prequel to Inglourious Basterds.
For some, Django might bear too many similarities to Tarantino's last movie. Like Basterds, it's a revenge epic informed by identity politics, and it hero-worships con men who, under deep cover, exploit a moral license to kill. Like Basterds, it climaxes with highly symbolic, pyrotechnic destruction.
But those similarities aside, what's most striking about Django are all the ways in which Tarantino either sidesteps or messes with his patented "tricks" — for better and for worse. For a female lead in a Quentin Tarantino movie, Kerry Washington has incredibly little to do. Broomhilda is squarely a damsel in distress who watches the action scenes from afar rather than chip in. The plot is a MacGuffin built on familiar beats; there are long stretches of almost unbearable suspense but ultimately no real surprises. As ever in a Tarantino script, conversation is used as a delay tactic, and thus as a kind of weapon, but here there is no such thing as even seemingly tangential conversation. When Django and Schultz kick it by the campfire, they don't have time to chatter over the 1858 equivalent of the Royale with Cheese; almost every line in the movie is direct or veiled exposition.
And there's no equivalent of the scene set to David Bowie's "Cat People" from Basterds, in which Mélanie Laurent mentally and physically prepares for her movie-house kamikaze mission — a pause in storytelling for an indulgence in aesthetic pleasure, which enriches the story without actually extending it.
The closest thing to a classically Tarantinean aside is the film's funniest scene, a kind of micro-flashback to the moments just before a gang of proto-Klan thugs rides over a hill to attack our heroes' camp, with the racist morons bickering amongst themselves over the subpar quality of their disguises.
Oscar voter standards aside, Tarantino doesn't hold back the gore entirely — in the first scene, a slave shoots his owner, and a red fountain of guts splashes up from the corpse — but he does suggest more than show. When a slave is eaten alive by a pack of dogs, the horror is mostly relayed on the faces of the bystanders. (At the end of the scene, Leonardo DiCaprio's Candie suggests to Django that his partner Schultz "looks a little green." Django responds, "I'm just a little more used to Americans than he is.")
The flashiest sequence, a massive shoot-out inside Candie's house, is arrhythmic and visually chaotic, with a lack of flow that draws attention to itself. A hip-hop song starts about halfway through and then abruptly stops; the action becomes abstracted by the red mist of spraying blood. In its staging around the staircase of an absurdly opulent home and its bloody totality, the scene seems to reference Scarface, directed by one of Tarantino's idols, Brian De Palma. The choice of music apparently reflects the way De Palma's film, a flop on its release, was reclaimed as a cult object by hip-hop culture. You could read this as an act of fandom — a wishful, YouTube mashup–style homage born out of Tarantino's obsessive study of prints in his home theater and his sessions of writing to a soundtrack of mixtapes out on the balcony of his mansion.
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