Django Unchained

Posted: January 21, 2013 in Film reviews

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson.

And so my cinema viewing in 2013 starts with Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, this time an epic western.

It’s 1858, two years before the Civil War will start, and Django (Foxxe) is a slave who’s been torn from the arms of his wife and sold to the highest bidder. Whilst being marched across Texas to his new owners, he encounters Dr King Schultz (Waltz) a travelling dentist, although it quickly becomes apparent that he hasn’t practiced in a while and now has a new vocation, that of Bounty Hunter, and he needs Django, because he’s the only man who can identify three wanted men who Schultz wants to kill.

What begins as mere mutual interest (Schultz will free Django once he’d identified the three men) soon becomes something more when Schultz realises Django has a natural talent with guns, and though their immediate mission is a success, Schultz convinces Django to spend the winter hunting bounties with him, in return he agrees to help Django rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the plantation known as Candie Land, owned by Calvin Candie (DiCaprio). Suffice to say things do not go smoothly.

I’ve had an interesting cinematic relationship with Tarantino for some time now, in fact maybe even from his beginnings with Reservoir Dogs. I was never a huge fan of his first film, but Pulp Fiction is a triumph, and would probably be in, or just outside of, my top ten films of all time. Jackie Brown was good, though I’ve never felt the urge to see it again, and since then I’ve probably enjoyed/hated his films in equal measure. I loved Kill Bill volume 1, yet hated volume 2, and Tarantino’s increasing desire to jam multiple genres together into one film is often jarring. Taken separately the two halves of Death Proof aren’t bad, but they don’t sit well together as Stunt Man Mike goes from terrifying, malevolent force to comedy idiot. And then of course there’s Inglorious Basterds, a film I found myself hating, despite some quite phenomenally directed/acted scenes. Probably the film that most showed Tarantino’s greatest strengths and biggest weaknesses, and a film it was kinda hard to root for anyone in.

So I was interested to see what I made of Django Unchained, interested to see what Quentin would do with a western (although as has been remarked elsewhere, it might be fairer to call it a southern).

The first thing to stress is its length. My précis above might seem short, but it really doesn’t do justice to an epic of a film that’s close to three hours long, and though the film never quite reaches the point where you just wish it’d end already, it’s still a flaw of the director that he can’t/won’t edit his work down—although let’s be fair he isn’t alone in this, see also Jackson, Nolan etc.

On the whole I found Django highly enjoyable. Maybe it’s just me, but it seemed Tarantino has scaled back his ego, not a lot, but enough to make this a more pleasant watch. It is violent, and the violence swings from the comedic to the wince inducing (the Mandingo wrestling match literally had me squirming in my seat) but on the whole it never quite plumbs the depths Inglorious did, and though neither Schultz or Django are completely whiter than white (if you’ll pardon the pun in a film so heavily about slavery) they are clearly the good guys by a wide margin, so I had little problem in seeing the bad guys get what was coming to them.

The issues around slavery are not shied away from, however, though probably historically accurate, for people of our generation the excessive use of the N word in this film does feel a trifle uncomfortable, and at times the flip between light/comedic and dark/hateful doesn’t quite work, though for the most part the film walks a surefooted fine line between the two.

Cast wise the film is a treat. For starters there’s Waltz, imbuing his German dentist-come-bounty-hunter with true nobility, and for vast swathes of the film it is he who acts as the focus for the audience, and it’s a clever trick of Tarantino’s to introduce an outsider who can view the horrors of slavery as we would. Even Django can’t do that because however much he hates slavery, he is at least inured against it by being part of that world, whereas Shultz has no such armour, and Waltz makes you feel it every time he sees some new torment.

He’s almost upstaged by Samuel L Jackson, whose turn as the elderly houseboy Stephen is, to a point, a revelation. A malevolent, vile character, stooped and deferential to his white master in a way that almost makes you hate him more than Candie, he is, for the most part, almost unrecognizable. It’s curious to remember there was a time when Jackson actually acted, rather than just trotted out another riff on his cool bad ass persona. Unfortunately the mask slips too often, and the Jackson we know all too well peeks out a bit too much. It’s a shame because if he’d kept the performance consistent I see no reason he shouldn’t have been in with an Oscar shout.

Leonardo DiCaprio was actually more subdued than I’d expected, although when the volcano finally blows, boy does it blow! He’s a seething, nasty little man clothed in civility and fine clothes which almost makes you imagine he’s human, until he shows you that he’s far from it.

If anything the weak link is oddly Django himself. It’s not that Foxx is bad, he’d a decent enough actor and a decent enough screen presence, but all too often he kind of fades into the background, Tonto to Watlz’s Lone Ranger, which would be fine except that the film is called Django. He’s also a little too well spoken, not rough enough around the edges. He’s a likable character you can empathise with, and he does get his moments, and maybe I’m being a little hard on him, after all he is playing the strong silent gunslinger for most of the film.

Add to this the usual plethora of cameos one would expect from a Tarantino film (Don Johnson is especially good) and Washington does her best with limited screen time, and it’s all good…almost. There is one awful performance in the film, but luckily Quentin Tarantino’s cameo is brief!

As I (pretty much) always say, the film does have flaws. It’s longer and more epic than it needs to be, and the truth is Tarantino could have trimmed some of the running time and the film would have been just as enjoyable. The film suffers from the same kind of schizophrenia as other recent Tarantino  films, but luckily the join between knockabout western and deadly serious commentary on slavery is nowhere near as obvious or jarring as the similar join between the two radically different parts of, say, Inglorious Basterds. The film does leave a few questions, such as what Zoe Bell’s masked gunslinger is all about and what’s she doing looking at old photos, and for a film that doesn’t shy away from the horrors inflicted on slaves, the nature of Broomhilda’s role at Candie Land is glossed over.

All in all a good film, if a little long. It lacks the stand out moments that Inglorious had (the conversation at the farm and the bier Keller scene) but overall is far more enjoyable and consistent, and as such is probably the best Tarantino film in a long time. Dexcellent (The D is silent…)

 

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