Like parting shots at the end of the year, Kristen Stewart in “On the Road” (opening today) and Samuel L. Jackson in “Django Unchained” (Tuesday) deliver the season’s two most subversive performances. Stewart’s teenage sex provocatrix in Walter Salles’s film of Jack Kerouac’s beat novel, set in 1947, and Jackson’s black-hating black retainer in Quentin Tarantino’s ante-bellum “Western” are not only calculated to offend the national guardians of good taste but might upset a few liberals, too. They are not linked by anything but a flagrant disregard for political correctness (a risible concept in Tarantinoland).
Except in one scene where she dances with uncharacteristic wildness, Stewart brings her trademark impassivity to Marylou, based by Kerouac on LuAnne Henderson, who married his road buddy Neal Cassady when she was 15. Garrett Hedlund is Cassady stand-in Dean Moriarty and Sam Riley is Sal Paradise, the Kerouac character.
Even after Dean has divorced her and married the long-suffering Camille (Kirsten Dunst), Marylou is game for providing in-car entertainment for the boys on one of their endless road trips. In one scene, she goes down on Dean as he drives, in another the three sit naked in the front of the car as she jerks them off simultaneously. Later the three go to bed together, a happening that reveals the diffident Sal is not as free-spirited as he thinks he is.
Salles films and cuts each of these moments discreetly (without resorting to a long shot as Roger Michell did when showing Daisy Suckley masturbating FDR in his car’s front seat in “Hyde Park on Hudson”). For all its prophesying of liberation for women and free love 20 years before the hippie era, the comic raunch in “On the Road” has a contemporary, post-porn flavor, and it’s disarming to see the actress and teen role model who played Bella Swan and Snow White at the heart of it. More chillingly, when Marylou and Sal are dumped by Dean in San Francisco, she automatically puts on thick red lipstick and takes a look around the streets, indicating what she might do to get the next meal. (A genuine adventuress, who carried a torch for Cassady all her life, Henderson raised her daughter as a single parent and ran a successful club.) When last seen, Marylou is about to go straight, returning home to marry a sailor. In an alternative universe, the one I’d like to see her settle down with is “The Master“’s Freddie Quell, her exact contemporary. Imagine the kids.
On a psychodramatic level, it’s as if the 22-year-old Stewart, the cause of so much prurient tut-tutting earlier in the year, was making a statement in “On the Road” about her right to be sexual. Whereas her very moving stripper-prostitute in “Welcome to the Rileys” was clearly damaged, her Marylou is, if not exactly promiscuous, cheerfully self-possessed in her slutty aplomb – a girl to make parents in the audience flinch.
African-Americans attending “Django Unchained” may feel the same about Jackson’s Stephen, the surly, vicious house manager on the Southern plantation owned by Leonardo DiCaprio’s suave and monstrous Calvin Candie, whose favorite sport is mandingo wrestling matches fought to the death. Stephen — who nurses a limp, redolent of his inner corruption — fawns over Candie in public while threatening the house’s black women servants cum whores. He metes out a particularly horrendous punishment to the wife (Kerry Washington) of Django (Jamie Foxx), whose search for her drives the story.
In private, Stephen drops his twisted Uncle Tom act and addresses his boss as his equal, even with arrogance, while chomping on a cigar. But as a portrait of a freedman speaking his mind, it contrasts sharply with that of the black soldier in Stephen Spielberg’s “Lincoln” who caustically complains about the lack of progress that’s being made on behalf of blacks to the President, who takes his points to heart. Stephen is close in spirit to the cruel Albert Johnson (Danny Glover), who treats his wife as a slave in Spielberg’s “The Color Purple.” Whereas Spielberg redeemed Albert, though, Tarantino has another fate in store for Stephen.
What is Tarantino up to here, in a movie that ferociously denigrates slavery? It’s hard to say. As a fosterer of white evil, a character not without stereotypical tics, Stephen is a weird stroke of counterintuitive egalitarianism, a beyond-the-pale Blaxploitation nightmare. He’s guaranteed to offend as many viewers as Django pleases when he’s transformed from a slave into a noble, lethal gunfighter. According to a Playlist interview with Jackson, he phoned Tarantino after he read the script and said, “Well, this Django character was written 15 years too late for me, so you do want me to play the most hated negro in cinematic history, right?” Jackson, incidentally, is riveting in the role — you can’t take your eyes off him or what you’re seeing. Just to see if it scrambles my brain, I’m tempted now to watch “Lincoln” and “Django Unchained” back to back.
Tags: Dean Moriarty, Django Unchained, Graham Fuller, Jack Kerouac, Jamie Foxx, Kristin Stewart, Leonardo DiCaprio, Lincoln, Marylou, On the Road, Quentin Tarantino, Sal Paradise, Samuel L. Jackson, Steven Spielberg, The Color Purple, Walter Salles