Django Unchained (2013)
Like the film let’s start with a little controversy to get the blood circulating shall we, here’s film critic Ray Carney on the cult of Tarantino, circa 1999 ‘It’s only that in three films running something like seven hours in all-he has managed not to express one interesting insight into human emotion or behaviour. If it weren’t for daytime television, it might constitute some sort of record. All there is in his work is the Grand Guignol campiness, the chiller-diller suspensefulness, the kicky twists and turns of plot, and reversals of expectation. It’s not much to go on, if you are beyond the age of 18 (which, admittedly, most of his audience is not at least not emotionally).’ Well, apart from the inherent snobbishness in that last sentence this is a frequent jibe levelled at the films of Quentin Tarantino, and his efforts since that critique was published have not exactly challenged such handwaved dismissals of his work, with the double blow of the bloated Kill Bill indulgences and re-writing of history of Inglorious Basterds in 2009 not exactly signalling a new maturity or shift away from the genre sandpits, and the less said about the car-crash of Death Proof the better. But some commentators reject these knee jerk rejections of Tarantino’s post-modern pilfering, seeing in his inversion of genre tropes deeper levels that those normally associated with such ostentatious kitsch, and he has certainly gone for the pulsing jugular with Django Unchained, one part spaghetti western to two parts evisceration of America’s shameful slaving history, in perhaps his most broadly enjoyable film since the halcyon days of Pulp Fiction.
1858, two years before the explosive Civil War engulfed America and two slavers are leading a miserable chain gang of negro slaves through the frigid Texas wilderness. A spritely figure approaches, a dentist turned Bounty Hunter Dr. King Schultz (a magnetically loquacious Christophe Waltz) who swiftly secures the release of the prized specimen Django (a sibilantly seething Jamie Fox) in order that he may visually identify his previous masters, the notorious Brittle brothers, a triplicate quarry of Schultz’s avaricious eye. Nervously teaming up with the erudite foreigner the pair come to a mutually beneficial agreement, Django gains his freedom and secures a third of the dollar value of the bounties that the partnership macabre accrue, bloodily tearing through the winter months by gruesomely amassing a litany of murderous contracts, until the spring arrives and Django reveals his ultimate quest to his intrigued colleague. In a righteous act of vengeance Django needs to travel to the most dangerous part of the country for a man with his biological history, the famous Mississippi plantation where his wife Broomhilda von Shaft (a barely vocal Kerry Washington and no, I’m not making her name up) is now the property of the charismatic Calvin Candie (a slitheringly superb DiCaprio), she being imprisoned in his sprawling family grounds since she and her husband were separately sold to new masters, her new prison ironically known as ‘Candyland’. Hatching a devious plot to masquerade as slave traders themselves Django and Schultz ingratiate themselves with Candie and his brutal troupe, nervously entering the nest of serpents to attempt a daring and hopefully blood-free rescue mission….
This terrifically entertaining, occasionally hilarious and superbly performed film with terrific turns from Foxx, Waltz and even Dicaprio is tremendous fun, but it just seems to lack that one ingredient which can pitch a film over from the ‘good’ to ‘great’ stratification. The formula that was deftly employed in Inglorious Basterds – take a horrific injustices in history and transform it into a vengeance fuelled mission driven narrative in order to provoke some cathartic release when the dominating evildoers are exterminated with an incendiary fury drives the DNA of the film, but it has some severe problems with its pace and spiky tempo, particularly in its overweight final act. I have had a problem with the recent pacing and structure that Tarantino has chosen to emulsify his films so I was pleased to see that this piece felt like a coherent whole 9(at least until the botched finale) rather than some terrifically written sequences locked together like immobile blocks, there is a definite sense of an arching quest that pistons throughout the film with a relentless cantor, the sad passing of his longtime editor Sally Menke in 2009 seems if anything seems to have solidified some of his more flagrant structural decisions, although this thoroughbred falls at the final hurdle as after one expanded show-down (which as usual Quentin excels at it) is further bookended with a final twenty or so minutes which is drearily anticlimactic, and made me exit the theatre with a resigned acceptance when I should have been bellowing Django’s name in glee.
The film doesn’t so much as untangle the knotty and difficult history of racial politics in America as much as it shotgun blasts it in the face, the genteel civility and politeness of the South’s famed hospitality squatting in uneasy symbiosis with some absolutely horrific images of stark brutality, but they are earned and appropriate to the tale, I always groan when QT gets the inevitable ‘violent filmaker’ sobrquiet hurled at him as in Django there are two specific instances of horrific violence that are conceptually chilling, but unlike Refn or Noe who show their grotesque fantasies details in unvarnished full frame CinemaScope, Tarantino keeps them off-screen through framing and composition, just as he did with the infamous ear slicing in Reservoir Dogs you don’t see anything, but he still gets the achy accusations of being irresponsible and immature – frankly its nonsense. The shootouts when they come are frankly hilariously entertaining, urging us to uncomfortable celebrate in casual brutality where human bodies detonate like crimson hued water balloons, whilst the casual cruelty inflicted on the people of colour is extremely uncomfortable and nausea inducing, as is the frequent deployment of the word ‘nigger’ (someone has counted 110 instances) which is culturally appropriate given the period, and curiously through repetition seems to dull the disgusting words wider semiotic emanations, in much the same way that the gay community co-opted the phrase ‘queer’ as part of their struggle for equal status.
But the films more convincing pleasures rest more on the cast from an exhilarating character perspective, in particular Waltz is utterly charming even if is reprising his Hans Landa persona from the good guy benches, and Di Caprio must be applauded for accepting the role of an utterly disgusting specimen who orchestrates gladiatorial fights to the death amongst his enslaved stock, he is utterly, completely repellent beneath his cultivated veneer and there isn’t many stars of his wattage who would subvert their persona so poisonously – remember that this film had Kevin Costner, Kurt Russell and Will Smith all signed on then rejected once they got a look at the script. The unquestionable glaring omission of the Academy was its failure to heap praise on Samuel L. Jackson whose utterly electrifying performance as a chilling coadjuvant ‘Uncle Tom’ is absolutely outstanding as one of the best supporting actor turns of recent years, he is easily the single best element in the entire film, his doddering, fragile, facile persona cloaking a truly Machiavellian intelligence churning under his menacing obsidian exterior. But there are flaws which one assumes are intentional, for someone whom is known for writing intriguing, independent and provocative women in his films Kerry Washington does nothing more than look forlorn or screams, she’s a damsel in distress cipher and I think QT deliberately choose this path for her to generate some emotional ammunition in the final stretch, although this strategy simply didn’t work for me. It’s also curious that I don’t think there is a single Native American in the film, perhaps not even as an extra in the city scenes, there is certainly no speaking roles but this is very much a ‘movie world’ movie if you catch my drift, hyper-realised and stylishly accelerated, with everyone communicating in quips and rehearsed lines utterly divorced from any semblance of reality. Considering the pedigree Django is also fairly light on the references and homages that QT’s indulges in although Franco Nero makes a clumsily handled appearance, with supporting turns from an unexpected Bruce Dern and a curious use of James Remar (probably best known as Dexter’s Dad) in two gunman roles which is perhaps a sly nod to the same faces cropping up in the original cycle of Spaghetti Westerns, Finally QT’s really needs to stop casting himself in his movies, his terribly accented cameo as an Australian trader toward the end of the film might in some senses be explosive, but it stops the film stone dead when it should galloping onward to victory.
Speaking of collaborators special mention should be made of Robert Richardson’s splendid photography which provides the mission with a seductive semblance, using his usual halo lights to parse away specific elements of the frame, and I really would like to know if the masked figure in Candyland (played by Quentin’s frequent actress Zoe Bell) was meant to have more of play in proceedings, as he kinda sets up this mysterious figure which subsequently gets no play off at all and appears to have been relegated to the cutting room floor. Oscar nominated films usually get dismissed as facile, populist fare without the gravity and integrity of the Sight & Sound best of the year lists but consider this, we have two movies explicitly concerned with the racial history of the country and its relationship with violence and firearms coincidently unleashed within a month of the re-election of the most polarizing President in American history, as the film rather uneasily cowers in the shadow of the America’s most horrific and numbing modern era massacre – that is curious in its timing and relevance of so-called ‘mainstream’ cinema. I do think that Tarantino is smarter than people give him credit for and like the grindhouse and drive-in movies he so adores there is a subversive purpose and message fermenting away under the surface of his apparent juvenile, gleeful torrents of viscous violence and grevious dialogue, even objectively taking a magnifying lens to the film it riffs on themes of performance, theatricality and crucially a black / white duality, with a white European and black native in combat with a white slaver and black collaborator. Like the debris of a dynamited saloon bar Django throws up all sorts of spiked and controversial elements – audience complacency in violence, cheering on shady characters who kill for money yet are somehow the moral champions, historical accuracy in the stories we tell each other about challenging epochs of human history – all these themes are not hectored or sermonised to the audience as you’d expect in say a Haneke movie, but they burst along the screen with his unique blend of exuberant kinetic and chaotic controversy.
As is my idiom I have amassed a wealth of supporting material which should provide you with a wider context to the movie, beware though they are insufferably heavy spoilers buried in that treasure, so enter at your own risk. Tarantino’s embarrassing claim that his film has sparked a debate on slavery may just be a little overheated but like Von Trier he’s also a showman and he knows how to generate the requisite controversy driving column inches, while I find him an immensely irritating and self-centred jerk in numerous interviews he frequently makes terrifically exciting movies steeped in cinema history, whilst I loathe the Kill Bill films Dogs remains one of the most assured American film debuts of the past thirty years, although wildly overrated Pulp Fiction has its iconic moments and Jackie Brown is an almost unheard of rarity in modern cinema – now only is it a film with a central female protagonist which isn’t some tediously insulting Rom-Com the woman also happens to be African-American and also (gasp, shock) – she’s middle-aged!! That’s quite the rare achievement. Now, can I share with you for me the worst story about him which think was printed in GQ when he was being interviewed in a Hollywood diner around the time of Kill Bill. He instructed his waitress to inform him when it was 4.00pm as he had to leave for another appointment as the journalist sat down, then of course went ballistic when the rushed off her feet waitress who dared to presumptuously prioritize her job by serving other customers failed to tell him the time an hour later as the interview ran over – I mean can’t you tell the time Quentin? Why should some random service staff suddenly become your de facto personal assistant? What a cock. Nevertheless you can admire the message even as you detest the messenger, Django Unchained is sensational in both senses of the word, conjured by a flawed and complicated consciousness he is inarguably an important and occasionally infuriating filmmaker, and this is the first essential film of the year;