Django Unchained, the new film by Quentin Tarantino, shares a lot in common with Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And no, I'm not talking about the n-word. Both are potential masterpieces that almost ruin themselves by an inexplicable, tragic collapse in the third act. The similarities are quite striking.
I was an English major in college, and I remember spending several days in a seminar pondering how, with Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain had written three-fourths of a masterpiece, and one-fourth meandering mess. It isn't simply that the book drops off in quality; the end of Huckleberry Finn actually reads like a different novel than the preceding two hundred pages. Tom Sawyer and other new characters show up. Pointless adventures take place. A happy ending is tacked on.
It's amazing how similar this is to Django Unchained. In Tarantino's film, it's antebellum America and two morally superior men, one black, one white, travel through the wilderness -- a metaphor for freedom -- and deal with the evil of racism. In Mark Twain there are Huck and Slave Jim, in Tarantino Doctor Schultz, a white dentist and bounty hunter, and Django, a slave he sets free. Both Jim and Django want to be reunited with their wives, and will go through hell to do it. Southern whites are depicted as nefarious, barbaric and stupid.
In both cases the renderings of the natural world, and the world of slavery, are mesmerizing. It's been years since I read Huckleberry Finn, but I still remember the magical scenes with Huck and Jim on the raft, especially the ones at night. Tarantino's shots of the mountains of the American West are equally gorgeous. And both Twain and Tarantino reveal the micro evil of slavery, the quotidian offenses to human dignity and small details of life in a chattel system.
In fact, it is here that Tarantino is downright brilliant. There are whippings, beatings, near castrations and gallons of blood in Django Unchained, but what struck me were the small touches that revealed the ridiculousness and stupidity of slavery. The dinner scene at the plantation house of Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is devastating in its details, from a simple shot of a row of slaves serving dinner while standing in front of the lush red wallpaper to the amazing performance by Samuel L. Jackson as a house slave Stephen. As in the early pages of Huckleberry Finn, the pacing is perfect, the tone flawless, and the plot enrapturing.
And then, it all goes bad. Very bad. Somebody needs to quietly take Quentin Tarantino into a room and explain to him that he actually has negative charisma -- that when he appears on screen in one of his own movies, the film doesn't just stop cold, it immediately sinks into a negative zone (he also needs to push himself back from the craft services table). In Pulp Fiction, it was Tarantino's cameo as a drug dealer who stood there and said the n-word for two minutes. In Django Unchained, he appears as the same character, only in a different setting, this time as an Australian slave trader. It's exactly like the late appearance of Tom Sawyer in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn -- an unwanted character from a previous work by the creator that almost ruins, or perhaps does ruin, a masterpiece.
When the film kept going after what should have been the natural climax of Django Unchained, I actually found myself doing what I consider a criminal offense -- I began talking in a movie theater. Not obnoxiously, and very much sotto voce, but I began to argue with Tarantino the way I used to argue with Mark Twain at the point when The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn begins to fall apart. "No, no, no," I said. "You have a near-masterpiece on your hands. Stop. Please. Roll credits. Stop."
But of course, it's Tarantino, so there has to be a bloodbath, and climax stacked upon climax stacked upon climax. It was like watching someone create a magnificent banquet and then stand on the table and piss on it. Mark Twain, of course, wrote many great short stories. Tarantino's next film should be 45 minutes long, and with no blood. Just to see if he can do it.