FILM REVIEW: Django Unchained

In the much-circulated interview for Channel 4 News between Django Unchained director Quentin Tarantino and newscaster (and Shaun of the Dead star) Krishnan Guru-Murthy, plenty has been said about QT’s reaction to KGM’s needling questions on the relation between violence depicted in films and violence in real life. However, what I found most interesting about the interview was Tarantino’s bold claims at the start:

“I am responsible for people talking about slavery in America in a way they have not in over 30 years…There is actually a dialogue going on about slavery right now that has not been happening at all. It’s a subject people are afraid to talk about, and now because of this movie, people aren’t afraid to talk about it.”

He then goes on to say how the Internet has enabled people who have seen the film to post reviews (like this one!), then others can join in posting comments below, and so on. But Tarantino, unsurprising given his penchant for hot air, bluster, and windbaggery, confuses people talking about whether or not they like his movie as somehow creating a dialogue about slavery. If he has at all, it is a side effect of him creating a film about it, rather than as a direct result of anything contained within. He’s a filibusterer, giddy with pride at a discourse he self-proclaims to have manufactured, yet “shutting down” another debate that rankles with him (the impact of cinema violence), albeit a tedious and well-worn one.  For if Tarantino believes Django Unchained in some way ‘addresses’ the slavery issue, then he is even more deluded than I gave him credit for. Because what Django Unchained is, is fucking stupid, is what it is.

In fact, forget that it is in even any way about slavery – what’s there is historically fudged to the point of irrelevance and barely touches on the full horror – merely providing him the context for another “roaring rampage of revenge”, and failing to really expand upon it beyond white folk gasping at a “nigger on a horse” (a running gag, but nothing that Blazing Saddles didn’t cover already). You’ll find a deeper discussion of America’s troubled relationship with its past in Black Dynamite spin-off comic Slave Island.

In the same aforementioned interview, Tarantino explains his reason for making for the film was to “give Black American males a Western hero…laying waste to a genocidal White racist class and the institution of slavery”. But when the revenge comes, it’s weirdly non-cathartic. Part of the problem is to do with the violence itself – painful, cruel and unflinching against the slaves (the Mandingo fight, the dogs, the hot box), but cartoonish and over-the-top against the slavers. As such, it never feels like the satisfying ‘blood for blood’ payback that’s a prerequisite of the genre. It doesn’t help that the proper climax is unnecessarily delayed, sabotaging its own send-off (say what you like about Death Proof, at least that delivers a great “kapow!” finale).

Moreover, we know Django has been wronged, and the baddies are fully deserving of their comeuppance but we only get hints and brief flashbacks of the brutality exacted upon Django and his wife, largely inferring through his encounters with other slaves on his journey the extent to which he as others have been terribly treated. In Kill Bill, we see and feel the Bride’s pain, betrayal and sense of loss, so you sympathise with her quest. Similarly Shoshanna in Inglourious Basterds. All we really have to go on for Django is “well, he’s a slave, and slavery’s bad, ergo anyone pro-slavery is fair game”. Is Tarantino positioning Django as the hero of his own story, or really the hero of a grander story, exacting payback on behalf of all black people? Because it sometimes feels far more like the latter, which seems pretty dodgy, and only works if you follow it through and end up with as audacious a rewriting of history as Inglorious Basterds pulled off. It wouldn’t have been much of a stretch, given how silly the rest of the film is, for Django to take it all the way to the “Honky House” a la the aforementioned Black Dynamite, kickstart the Civil War prematurely, or even, at a bare minimum, instigate a plantation uprising.

And yes, Django Unchained is too too goofy. It treads the line between fun and silly effectively for a while, but soon trips too often into the latter for anything else to be taken seriously. A scene involving the Ku Klux Klan would be funny in an episode of South Park, but here feels like you’re suddenly watching the trailer for Movie 43. It’s odd that this should be a sticking point considering how much I enjoyed Inglourious Basterds, which is less consistent in tone, but there is no one scene here which approaches the greatest moments of that film. Indeed, Django Unchained’s best bits feel like facsimiles of his previous work – the dinner is a retread of the tavern scene in Basterds, and the big Candieland shoot-out packed with Verhoeven-esque squibbage is basically Kill Bill’s House of the Blue Leaves massacre with guns.

It’s frustrating as there is still much of Django Unchained that does work, notably the performances. Jamie Foxx as the titular freeman starts off uncertain and muted, but comes into his own as his character realises he is the maker of his own destiny. Leonardo DiCaprio serves his slave-trading dandy Calvin J. Candie with particular relish, like some kind of foppish shark. And the impeccable Christoph Waltz as Dr King Schultz carries through all the charm and eloquence of Jew-hunter Hans Landa from Inglourious Basterds, but thankfully without all the Nazi stuff holding him back from being truly likeable. Indeed, the film is at its strongest in its opening act as Django and Schultz bond over bounties, developing an inseparable pairing as a successful scum-stopping wunder duo.

However, there’s no getting round the fact they are surrounded by a surprisingly badly-made film, half-hearted and devoid of spark or energy. Scenes drift by with little consequence; although sometimes amusing in of themselves, it feels like you’re watching the DVD-only extended edition, restoring deleted material that wouldn’t have been missed. The problems continue: the musical cues sound like we’ve heard them all before (its soundtrack is heavy on Luis Bacalov and Ennio Morricone from whom Tarantino has previously cribbed), original Django Franco Nero’s cameo is as sloppy and clunky as David Soul and Paul Michael Glaser appearing at the end of the Starsky and Hutch movie, but at least it’s not as bad as Tarantino’s bizarre appearance as an incomprehensible Australian, in possibly his worst ever screen performance (and that is truly saying something).

Sift through Django Unchained’s lazy excess, and there are flashes of excitement and entertainment, particularly when it just lets Waltz and DiCaprio run their mouths off (and especially at one another). But it’s slim pickings.

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