I hadn’t originally planned on seeing “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Django Unchained” in the same weekend, but there’s no denying they made for a fascinating double feature. Two films, each freshly nominated for this year’s Best Picture Oscar, each in its own way a tale of revenge, each a controversial commentary on a dark chapter in American history, also happen to be as dissimilar in every other way as two films could possibly be. Which, I suppose, is no more than one would expect from filmmaking sensibilities as different as those of Kathryn Bigelow and Quentin Tarantino. Interestingly, the sharpest difference isn’t in style but in ethos—specifically, the moral vision each film brings to the particular slice of history it tackles. One remains resolutely agnostic, refusing to nudge the audience towards any kind of clear judgment on the ugly choices it depicts, while the other whips up the viewer’s righteous outrage only to channel it into a baroque fantasy or alterna-history about what ought
to have happened if evil had gotten its just deserts just a little earlier.
In other words, it’s “The Hurt Locker” versus “Inglourious Basterds” all over again, echoing the last time Bigelow and Tarantino faced off at the Oscars, even though neither stands much chance of nabbing the top prize this time. And the juxtaposition once again highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of their respective approaches, which might be summed up as the difference between exercising too much
restraint on the one hand and too little
on the other. It seems unlikely these two directors ever really talk, which is rather a pity, as each could learn something from the other.
ZERO DARK THIRTY
directed by Kathryn Bigelow
written by Mark Boal
starring Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Harold Perrineau, James Gandolfini, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt
Too much has already been written about this movie, both good and bad, and coming to it after not the first or even the second but the umpteenth wave of controversy has a peculiarly insidious effect on a new viewer’s experience. It’s hard not to limit one’s reaction to the parameters set by those who have already seen and had so much to say about it. I.e., does it get the facts right? Does it incorrectly imply that waterboarding and other forms of torture led to the discovery of bin Laden’s whereabouts, and does it sanction such methods? And to the extent that it does endorse torture, or even if it doesn’t but still distorts history, how much should this affect our critical assessment of the movie qua movie?
Don’t get me wrong, these are all important questions to which I don’t have any particularly novel or insightful answers. I don’t know how much of the facts Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal got right; notwithstanding a blizzard of congressional and journalistic queries (some driven by nobler motives than others), accounts conflict, and much of the underlying information is, after all, still classified. On the torture issue, the film at most suggests that torture may
, indirectly, to the discovery of information that led to bin Laden’s personal courier. As to whether any of this matters in judging the film’s quality, I don’t believe it does. It would only matter if Bigelow or Boal glorified, or even sought to justify, the undeniably heinous acts committed in the pursuit of bin Laden. But that’s exactly what they don’t
do. They simply let the story speak for itself—a story presumably but not indisputably based on fact, which encompasses heinous acts—and allow the audience to draw their own conclusions about whether those acts were justified. And while some viewers, not without reason, may find this stance lacking in moral courage, that’s a far cry from finding it morally irresponsible, let alone indefensible.
For “Zero Dark Thirty” is, at bottom, America’s revenge story, and a good revenge story seldom keeps its morality completely black and white. The film opens powerfully with a black screen and the sounds of actual recorded 911 calls on 9/11, setting the stakes for what follows. Thereafter, the hunt for bin Laden is filtered primarily through the individual most obsessed with finding him, a young CIA agent named Maya (Jessica Chastain). Our first sight of her is in a ski mask at a CIA black site, silently witnessing an “enhanced interrogation” session; later, when the mask comes off, she looks uncomfortable but undeterred from her larger goal. Stationed in Islamabad and ostensibly assigned to a broader range of counterterrorism duties, she pursues all potential leads to bin Laden (including attending more torture sessions) with a single-minded zeal that isn’t always well received by her superiors, especially when the trail seems to go cold or subsist entirely on her hunches. Nevertheless, Maya’s combination of intuition and grinding perseverance pays off in the end, ultimately leading to the now-famous compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan and culminating in the SEAL attack that brought down bin Laden in May 2011.
That last scene is as gripping as advertised, notwithstanding that we all know how it ends. Foregone conclusion or no, Bigelow’s an expert at building tension in situations where the fate of an operation could hinge on a single wrong turn, or look, or missed signal. She shows it earlier in the film, in other set pieces as riveting, or even more so, than the raid on the bin Laden compound. But it’s what happens between the explosions that makes up the heart of ZDT, as Bigelow and Boal manage to cover a decade’s work of intelligence work, including various setbacks, false leads, and periods of stagnation, and condense it all into a thoroughly absorbing narrative. At times their interest in the details of the process and mechanics of the search calls to mind Steven Soderbergh (e.g., “Contagion,” “Traffic”)—and as with Soderbergh, this proves to be a mixed blessing. Because even as the film engages the analytical part of the brain on all cylinders, it tends to mute, or at least hold at a remove, any emotional response. While the thrill of fear, pain, elation, and anticipation comes through, there’s no real attempt to probe the deep-lying passions or motivations of those caught up in the chase.
The counterweight to this sense of detachment seems intended to be Maya, whose intense personal investment in finding bin Laden, in turn, calls to mind a non-bipolar version of “Homeland”’s Carrie Mathison. But even Maya remains something of an emotional cipher. The depth of her obsession, certainly, is apparent: she works ceaselessly, eats distractedly (and poorly), sleeps fitfully, and appears to have no friends outside of the CIA, no lovers, no family, not even a sense of humor to divert her attention from her main object. However, without context or self-reflection we don’t know what drives her obsession or what, if anything, she gave up to pursue it. Jessica Chastain is a fine actress, but there’s only so much she’s able to do here to make Maya feel like a real person rather than a symbolic projection of a national, collective need to get the man who did this to us
, whatever the moral, physical, and psychological costs. Ironically and somewhat disquietingly, it’s Maya’s torturer colleague Dan (an excellent Jason Clarke), who emerges as by far the more recognizably human character of the two. (Jennifer Ehle, too, is appealing as a fellow bin Laden hunter who tries to draw Maya out of her shell but inadvertently ends up reinforcing her hyper-focused resolve.)
In the final, pointed yet wonderfully ambiguous scene, Maya sheds tears—of relief? Regret? Loneliness? (She is, as ever, alone at that moment.) Uncertainty over what’s left for her now that her life’s mission is accomplished? The fact is we don’t know, because we never really knew why she was so fiercely devoted to the mission in the first place. Ultimately, for all the attention the film gives Maya, for all the painstaking care it invests in reconstructing her quest, it’s not really her
story. It’s the viewer’s story, a cinematic Rorschach test that lends itself to myriad interpretations of its meaning. And there’s little doubt that it will continue to invite different interpretations for years to come.
written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, Leonardo di Caprio, Samuel L. Jackson
There’s nothing quite like the experience of watching a Tarantino movie. Even at its most pleasurable, it feels like peering into the brain of a 14-year-old boy. Not just any 14-year-old boy, mind you: clearly a filmmaking prodigy, possessing exceptional skills joined with an irrepressible enthusiasm for movies (all movies, good, bad, and ugly) and a decided taste for the outré—a walking embodiment of Pauline Kael’s famous edict, “Trash has given us an appetite for art.” You marvel at the visions of this brain, at its ability to create compelling narratives out of reams and reams of pastiche and homage to countless genre movies of wildly varying quality. You may roll your eyes at the adolescent excesses. You may wince at some of the violence. Odds are, though, you will be highly entertained. But can you also be edified? Elevated? Hell, does it matter if you’re not?
It’s a question that’s been trailing Tarantino for a while now, especially as he moves physically further and further away from age 14, or even 29 (when he first burst on to the movie scene with “Reservoir Dogs,” and “Pulp Fiction” the year following). Now nearing 50, he enters what for many directors of his abilities would be the “mature” phase of their careers. But what, if anything, does that mean for QT? With “Django Unchained,” following on the heels of its kissing cousin, “Inglourious Basterds,” he appears to be taking on the kind of heavy-duty subject matter—history, war, genocide, slavery, race—that usually draws directors who want to leave a mark, but in his own, on-the-QT way. He dares to have fun
with it, openly and shamelessly, by rewriting historical wrongs into searing revenge fantasies wherein the oppressed get to turn the tables on their oppressors.
This approach has netted the director his fair share of controversy for supposedly trivializing or misappropriating the very real, historical sufferings of others. But that criticism, I think, is misplaced, and doesn’t give him enough credit for recognizing the gravity of the injustices he’s gleefully, if fictionally, righting. A more valid question is whether that glee
isn’t an oversimplified (and, let’s be frank, kinda porn-y) response to a complex problem. At first glance, Tarantino doesn’t especially seem to care why or how such pernicious evils as Nazism and slavery could be so broadly institutionalized in a civilized society; he just wants to go to town on them. However, a closer look at “Django,” at least, suggests he does have some interest in the subtler effects of such evil on the power dynamics between perpetrators and victims.
It takes some time to get to, admittedly. Initially “Django” plays like another entry in the “QT loves spaghetti Westerns!” and “QT loves Christoph Waltz!” canons, one that just happens to throw both these elements into the antebellum Deep South and make the gunslinging hero a former slave because—well, why the hell not. Christoph Waltz, so memorable as the totally evil-yet-charming Nazi Hans Landa in “Inglourious Basterds,” is almost as memorable as the good guy here, a German-immigrant bounty hunter named Schultz who seeks out a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx—not to be confused with original-recipe spaghetti-Western Django, played by Franco Nero, who has a brief cameo here) to help him track down a trio of slave-driving brothers on his bounty hit list. Schultz, who displays a marked distaste for slavery, takes a liking to Django, frees him, and trains him to be his partner-in-bounty hunting. Django proves a natural, especially at marksmanship, and the partnership flourishes. This first third or so of the film is a rollicking good time, apart from glimpses of brutal slave abuse that are generally matched, pound for pound, by slave payback. It’s also remarkably funny, thanks in large part to Schultz’s unflappable panache, as well as visual gags like the bouncing large fake tooth on top of Schultz’s wagon (formerly a dentist’s wagon), or the sight of Django strutting about in a powder-blue suit with a frilly white cravat (a costume of his own choosing), stoically ignoring the gaping astonishment of passersby, or a throng of none-too-bright Ku Klux Klan members who can’t see out of their own hoods.
Eventually, Django lets Schlutz in on his heart’s desire: to find and free his wife (Kerry Washington), Brunhilda (yes, that’s really her name), a fellow slave from whom he was separated when the two of them tried unsuccessfully to escape their previous owner. Kindly Schultz helps him trace her to one Calvin Candie (Leonardo di Caprio), a particularly nasty piece of goods even as slave owners go. Young and dapper, he’s also best known for buying and training slaves to fight each other to the death, and apparently has Brunhilda serving as a de facto comfort girl to the fighters. Schultz, not trusting Candie to simply sell her to them, concocts an elaborate scheme that involves his posing as an interested newcomer to the slave-fighting business and visiting Candie’s plantation to look at his best fighters.
It’s at this point that “Django” simultaneously darkens and moves into a higher gear. There’s a long, tense ride to “Candieland,” punctuated by polite chitchat laden with ominous undercurrents and a chilling encounter with an attempted runaway, followed by an even tenser sojourn at Candie’s house. These are extraordinary scenes, filled with a powerful sense of dread. (Not quite on par with the cat-and-mouse scenes in “Inglourious Basterds,” but close.) They’re boosted by outstanding performances by di Caprio as charming psychopath Candie and Samuel L. Jackson as Candie’s head house slave, Stephen—the sharpest from either of these actors in years. As the person most directly responsible for setting Schultz and Django’s plans awry, Stephen is arguably the most fascinating character in the movie. Even as he plays, alternately, a toadying, fawning clown and an irascible old coot in public, in private he wields no small influence over his master and a reign of terror over the slaves. His relationship with Candie serves as a kind of dark obverse to the Django-Schultz bond, and an illustration not just of the inherent immorality of slavery but of its morally corrupting
effects on everyone entangled in it. Stephen hates Django on sight, of course, and ultimately proves to be his most formidable enemy, as well as Tarantino’s best answer to the charge that the film is just shooting fish in a barrel.
Unfortunately, there’s plenty of fish-in-barrel shooting in the last third or so that doesn’t add much other than unnecessary length and the requisite QT cartoonish geysers of blood. (Which, incidentally, are a lot less disturbing than the scenes in which sadistic pain is suggested but not actually shown.) Tarantino has undeniable flair as a storyteller, but disciplined he is not—as evidenced by a totally superfluous sequence near the very end in which Django temporarily leaves Candieland only to come back with guns a-blazing. The film also suffers from QT's general tendency to linger too long on scenes and characters he finds funny. (Even the KKK scene, while hilarious, goes on a beat too long.) At 2 hours and 45 minutes, the movie really could have stood a heavier hand in the editing room.
Still, at his best no one can create more vividly memorable characters and moments
than Tarantino, and in that respect “Django” is right up there with his best work. More significantly, perhaps, his subversive treatment of the master-slave dynamic in the Schultz-Django and Candie-Stephen relationships shows a willingness to engage a serious subject—playfully and irreverently, yes, but not flippantly—and flashes of insight into the moral questions it raises. The latter aren’t fully explored, and remain largely subordinate to his love of gory revenge sagas and shoot-em-up samurai-inspired Westerns. But at least it's there, complicating to some degree the rather unholy visceral thrill of watching Django, in his own words, "shooting white folks and getting paid for it." The 14-year-old in Tarantino may never completely grow up, but he seems to be evolving.