Django Unchained (Tarantino, 2012), The Grey (Carnahan, 2011) and character development

I’ve read quite a bit about criticism about Tarantino’s latest film.  Nobody writes about it better than Richard Brody (but then again, rarely does anyone write about film better than Richard Brody.  Even when I disagree with the man I find myself struggling to come up with a rational explanation for why).

One complaint that I’ve heard more than a few times (not indicating Brody’s article here) regards the lack of character development in Django Unchained.  I liked Tarantino’s film for the most part.  As with his last several films (really, anything post-Jackie Brown), I think his cartoonish style gets the best of him and veers the film a bit off track, but it’s still entertaining and has a good message at heart.  The lack of character development is, however, not one of Tarantino’s problems.

I’m using Carnahan’s The Grey only as a comparison piece here for a very specific purpose.  I don’t think they are similar films.  Here’s the issue that I’ve heard: Django (Jamie Foxx) and his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) have a relationship.  But we never get to see that romance fully developed and thereby don’t care enough about it.  Bullshit.  There’s something to be said about the time-honored concept of love.

Let’s look briefly at The Grey here, which was a surprisingly good movie given its piss-poor marketing.  Ottoway (Liam Neeson) and a handful of others are stranded in a frozen wilderness after a plane crash.  What keeps Ottoway going?  Well, similarly to Django’s drive, it’s the distant memories of his wife.

Now I haven’t heard any complaints about the lack of character development in The Grey.  Is it because it didn’t receive as much hype as Django and isn’t written about as much?  That people expect more from Tarantino than they do Carnahan?  Or – and what I suspect to be true – that there’s actually no real issue at all, and some critics, bloggers and the like, are creating a problem to create one.

Here’s the basic gist of the development of the relationship between Ottoway and his estranged wife in The Grey:

Picture 1 Picture 2

 

It’s a dream sequence and a great one at that.  Ottoway remembers his wife.  Then she’s torn from him as the plane crash concludes.  If you’ll recall there’s a similar, albeit less dramatic technique in Django where the eponymous character sees Broomhilda on several occasions during his trip to Candyland.  There’s also the weird flashback with a mean-looking Bruce Dern.

Almost identical ideas, yet one has a criminally underdeveloped relationship.  There are some types of films where it’s essential to show how the characters are in love. Maybe why.  Think of a classic romance.  I’ll use The Pajama Game since I just saw it.  It’s essential to show that Doris Day and John Raitt are in love through various interactions, time spent together, arguments and resolutions…because the film is about their romance more so than it’s about the strike.  Django asks us to take love for granted in a number of ways: 1) hopefully playing on our basic human passions (as every damn movie does); 2) by the various expressions on Jamie Foxx’s face throughout the film; and 3) by the very fact that he’d go against his nature in order to get this woman back.

The term “underdeveloped” in film should be reserved for those film’s that seek to develop and fail, or that require said development to make the heart of the plot beat.

Why Django‘s ending isn’t like Taxi Driver‘s: whatever you want to call Django’s improbable escape – poor writing/the hand of god/inevitable – it has led at least one critic to compare it to the ending of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.  That latter film’s close is frequently read as a dream – Travis Bickle’s final rampage happens only once he’s dead.  To make the same comparison here in Django is overlooking technique.  In Scorsese’s film, Bickle is stunted.  He has little outlet for the sexual and violent urges boiling beneath his surface.  Therefore, the end, when all hell breaks loose, is an anomalous part of the film.  Bickle has, by and large, tried and failed to that point.  To set the final section of the movie as a blood-soaked shootout is also to put it at odds with that which happens in the preceding 100-odd minutes.

Such is not the case for Django.  At the point that Django is released, prior to his run-in with the Australian slave-traders and his own “Bickle-like” rampage, the audience has already been treated to violence-a-plenty.  We’ve already seen Django’s full arc, from unwilling assassin to reckless angel of death.  The ending of Django then, when he returns and truly gets his vengeance, is nothing anomalous at all.  It’s just violence running its course.

To make this comparison then, is to what the comparison to exist, and not to look at the textual material at hand.  Scorsese and Schrader make the end of Taxi Driver readable as a dream through entirely created means – the general suppression of violence to that point.  Tarantino goes out of his way to avoid a similar tactic.

A few random other thoughts on The Grey:

Frank Grillo gives the best performance in the film as the thorn-in-the-side-turned-good-guy Diaz.

The Grey is kind of like this year’s Unstoppable: a solid actioner that doubles as a bit of a bromance despite the heterosexual love that is mostly played out off-screen.

The ending of the film is so damn silly, but also so risky.  It pays off.

There’s some damn great sound design around the 50:00 minute mark of the film.  The howling of the wolves is suddenly interrupted by a screeching/squealing sound.  To my ears it sounds like the audio designer threw in the subtle sound of a tire screech.  It’s really effective.

My favorite sequence of the film is probably the race to the tree line as the wolves attack. After finding one of their friends dead behind them the group continues on their way and Carnahan cuts to a wide-shot:

Picture 3

He moves into a tight medium-shot behind them following a series of shots of wolves eyeing them.  Keeping the camera behind them is a nice way to intentionally frame out that which is immediately behind them (and us) and to keep that voyeuristic appeal.

Picture 4

The best part however, is how effectively he and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi use the foggy surroundings.  Below is one shot.  Starting with the wolves just starting to race towards the men, the camera whip-pans left finding the men running, and then continues past them to see another set of wolves coming from the opposite side:

Picture 7 Picture 6 Picture 8

 

It’s a great camera move, a nice use of light and shadow, and a good way to show that the men are immediately surrounded.

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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