Django Unchained, 2012.
Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino.
Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, James Remar, Michael Parks, Don Johnson and Jonah Hill.
With the help of a German bounty hunter, a freed slave sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner.
Quentin Tarantino is not afraid of controversy. Just as he did when approaching Nazism in Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained breaches the delicate issue of slavery with all the subtlety that one would expect from the man that killed Hitler. It becomes clear early on that he is not interested in painting white slave-owners as flawed men, or products of a broken society. They are, instead, entirely malevolent; missing only a twirly moustache and cape. The twisted Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) resides in Candyland, walls red as Hell, and when he’s not spoiling his sister with an affection that borders on the incestuous, he likes to stage fights to the death between slaves. In contrast, those made to work as slaves, with one crucial exception, are good, and rightly vengeful, so when Django whips a former master to death our emotions aren’t conflicted. This is the point of Django Unchained. It is not a character piece, or an introspective reflection on America’s past. It is an unapologetically brash, loud piece of cinema. Django has a theme song (recycled from the *mostly* unrelated 1966 western of the same name). He can hit almost any target, and take not so much as a scratch. His accomplice and mentor, Schultz (Christoph Waltz), can talk himself out of almost any situation. There is no near-death encounter the two can’t seem to escape from. Realism, then, is not Tarantino’s forte.
There’s a widely held criticism of Tarantino’s work that he lost some of his edge after Jackie Brown, and that his work since has failed to match it, that he’s mired himself in exploitation-pastiche and homage. There’s truth to this, of course: Kill Bill, Death Proof, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained are all of a similar ilk. He may never match Pulp Fiction, and certainly never that film’s impact and influence on Hollywood. But for all it’s flaws, I’d take Inglourious Basterds over Jackie Brown any day. Moreover, I’d take Django Unchained over it too. That’s not to say Jackie Brown isn’t a great piece of work – it is. A surprisingly mature, gently paced film with a great lead performance in Pam Grier - but it’s a style that never really fit Tarantino. Aside from anything else, Pulp Fiction was giddily enjoyable – a procession of over-the-top set-pieces as funny as they were exhilarating.
The thing is, that’s exactly how I would describe Django Unchained. In a sense, Basterds and Django are a quite natural progression from that film. Just because his films have becomes more stylized, doesn’t make them insubstantial. Kill Bill is occasionally guilty of superficiality, and Death Proof, made with noble intentions, basically doesn’t work. But what Tarantino achieved with Inglourious Basterds and now Django Unchained, is a perfection of his style, the way he now makes films. He’ll probably always make films like this.
Once again, Django Unchained is not a perfect film, but it is a very good one. It’s as funny, and as exciting as anything he’s done before. The dialogue, as we’ve come to expect, is uniformly terrific. As well-done as the action is, the scenes that really captivate are those where the characters simply talk. There’s more tension in a scene such as the one at Candie’s dinner table than an armed stand-off in a border town. It is, as many have said, about 20 minutes too long; as satisfying as it is, the climax of the film is over-stretched ,and one or two scenes feel entirely superfluous to the plot (particularly when they seem to exist solely to give the director a speaking part). But it’s testament to Tarantino’s immense skill that there are several points where you feel he’s taken a scene as far it can go, only for him to justify it’s inclusion with the kind of joyous payoff that concludes the aforementioned director’s cameo. It’s almost enough to forgive his attempt at what may or not be an Australian accent.
The cast, particularly the central quartet of Waltz, Foxx, Di Caprio and Jackson, is terrific. Jackson and Waltz are Tarantino regulars now, but it’d be a shame if we never saw Di Caprio work with him again, when the pairing seems so obvious. The aforementioned exception to the rule of slaves-as-good is Stephen, the archetypal ‘Uncle Tom’, and Candie’s head house slave. To Django, he’s a traitor to his people: willingly, almost happily subservient, to his master. He wishes, and perhaps even believes, that he’s white. His loyalty is such that he is considered near-equal by Candie, as suggested in a scene where they share Brandy in a library, sitting by the fire. Stephen advises him, and Candie listens. Jackson’s may be the best performance in the film, Stephen’s intelligence and guile hidden under the act of a dithering old man – as ever, Tarantino brings out his best.
His photography too continues to improve. DP Robert Richardson has been with him since Kill Bill, and the pair seem to have worked out a style that suits the material perfectly – indebted to the films Tarantino loves, but beautiful in it’s own way. The winter scenes and the opulent, red-walls of Candyland being particularly memorable. When dealing with a filmmaker so unafraid to depict violence, you expect you’ll become numb to the almost cartoonish depiction within, so it’s all the more shocking to see a scene as genuinely brutal, almost unwatchable, as the first scene within Candyland, one of the aforementioned Mandingo fights. The violence here does not feel cinematic, but real, and it would seem needlessly cruel were it not so impactful. You realise all the more that these are people; Django’s motives are brought into focus. The film is, as both director and star have said, supposed to make you angry.
Django Unchained could reasonably be considered a more successful version of what Inglourious Basterds was trying to do: History as Spaghetti Western. But where Basterds was driven by wish-fulfillment, a fantasy version of events,‘Django Unchained’s thrust seems to come from a more tender place. Django isn’t driven by his hatred of his former masters, but rather by his love for Broomhilda (Kerry Washington); Schultz helps him not out of financial opportunism, but because he likes him. This isn’t a rewriting of events – slavery isn’t brought to an end by Django. it’s a film instead about a man trying to find his wife, and it gives the film a heart that it’s predecessor never had.
For those that were skeptical about Basterds, Django is enough of an improvement that it may win them over. For those that hated that film however, it’s not unlikely that you’ll feel the same about this. Comparisons can be made, particularly in the early scenes, with Mel Brooks’ great Blazing Saddles, and in it’s depiction of mercenary revenge against racial injustice, perhaps Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning. But Django is it’s own film. A messy, overstated joy. Self-indulgent, but too enjoyable to dismiss. Whichever side you stand on the debate, if Django Unchained is the work of a filmmaker off-form, then he must be a very fine filmmaker indeed.
Flickering Myth Rating: Film ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★ ★ ★ ★