I’ve been wondering why I thought Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009) was so smartly wrathful, creative and magnificent and why I was so disappointed with Django Unchained (2012), the second in what one can only hope are a series of willful rewritings of history. With its wonderful acting, costuming and lighting, the film was certainly as much of a pleasure to simply look at as Inglorious Basterds was.
It wasn’t the ultra-violence that bothered me so much. In Django Unchained, the blood splooges out of Tarantino’s characters more comically than ever. Its function goes demonstrably beyond the representational.
It wasn’t the perverse gloss on slavery, which seemed to be a degradingly apt commemoration of a far more perverse economic system. (The terribly hard-to-take mandingo fighting scene also seemed to me to be a degradingly apt portrait of contemporary prizefighting).
It wasn’t the sexism–while a distinct sign of directorial laziness, it was unsurprising and tired enough to be pretty innocuous.
I suppose it was all of these things put together, but above all: Django Unchained doesn’t take the time to reflect upon itself as Inglorious Basterds did. If the leitmotif of Tarantino’s films is exquisite vengeance, his most interesting films have a key moment that calls revenge’s rewards into question. In Inglorious Basterds, this moment takes place inside and outside of the narrative at the same time: Shosanna burns the Nazis alive in a cinema, using nitrate film as fuel. Her malevolence seems to extend to the film we’re engaged in viewing, as well, asking us what any symbolic entertainment featuring good guys and bad guys can ultimately mean.
Perhaps self-reflexivity is Tarantino’s ersatz moral code. It provokes an interesting kind of doubt that gives the revenge added significance, and I couldn’t find that doubt in Django Unchained.