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Django Unchained

The spaghetti western sprung up in early 60s as a revisionist take on the tired John Wayne-style westerns of the previous decade. Created in the wake of Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, the movies were made in Italy by Italians and kicked new life into the Old West. The genre is known for a specific series of traits, such as vast mountainous scenery, extreme long-shots coupled with extreme close ups, tense talky scenes punctuated by intense, sudden bursts of extreme violence, and operatic, Ennio Morricone scores. It’s no secret that Tarantino worships the genre – the cover of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly DVD displays a sticker quoting Tarantino – ‘cinematic perfection’ – and his movies have increasingly fallen in line with the genre. Kill Bill was essentially a spaghetti western with swords, and Inglourious Basterds opened with Once Upon a Time in Occupied France, a tongue in cheek homage to Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. And so it’s fitting that his latest movie, Django Unchained, would follow suit. Essentially a spaghetti western set in the deep South – what Tarantino has referred to as a ‘southern’ – it’s an interesting, tense movie with a lot to offer, though it does occasionally fall short of Tarantino’s previous work.django unchainedThe film tells the story of Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave freed, rather violently, by German bounty hunter and dentist Dr King Schultz (Christopher Waltz). The two make a good team and carve across the South, hunting murderers for money. But there’s an issue – Django needs to find his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) – who happens to have been sold to nefarious Southern aristocrat and plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Schultz, moved by Broomhilda’s ties to the Mother Country, offers Django a plan to infiltrate the plantation and bring her back.django It’s a simple plot but the setting has garnered a fair amount of controversy. It’s says a lot about Tarantino’s clout as a director that something like this could get made, let alone receive such a wide-spread release. America has tip-toed around it’s brutal history for a few hundred years and in a country laden with white guilt it’s surprising this got off the ground. But maybe Tarantino was the perfect director for the project. It’s a subject of racial horror and historic abuse and a lot of directors would have floundered with tone. Tarantino doesn’t have time for that, and it’s actually relieving. Setting out to make, in his paraphrased words, ‘the movie America was too scared to make, but that other countries didn’t have the right to touch,’ Tarantino tackles the issues at hand by making a bold, balls-to-the-wall bloody revenge comedy; mocking the horror undercuts it, and whilst some will say the movie is in bad taste, perhaps bad taste was the only way to handle this. It’s in the same vein as the revisionist romp of Nazism we saw in Basterds, which mocked horrors in a similar way; however, Basterds didn’t hit so close to home, and it’s probably easier for America to caricature and align against an evil force if it happens to be Hitler, and not their own cultural history.django unchainedAnd whilst some have criticised the film’s casual depiction of racism and constant use of the word ‘nigger;’ Tarantino essentially makes racism into a joke, and it works. Mock something and you take away it’s power. The Ku Klux Klan scene is a great example of this – it’s absolutely hilarious, probably the funniest scene Tarantino’s ever written, and does more damage to that institution than a serious movie ever could have. Of course this sort of thing is nothing new – South Park did something similar years ago – but to see it on the big screen is something different. And across the whole, Django is Tarantino’s funniest movie. The dialogue is brilliant and for a film built on such a painful setting it garners a lot of laughs.djangoTarantino isn’t so much driven by a political agenda, more uses the background to shape his latest spaghetti western. It’s mythology here, as the Nazi’s were. The revenge plot is simple but doesn’t need to be any more complicated than it is, and is structured to echo spaghetti westerns of old, featuring a lot of the same plot traits, primarily the buying of the villain’s trust and resulting shoot out climax. The movie looks beautiful too – with sun-soaked fields, billowing trees and grand snowy mountains; looking back at Tarantino’s filmography, most of his action is interior, and it’s nice to see him revel in the scenery for once. The visuals really set the film aside from his previous work and tap into a pleasing Leone heritage. Though the standard traits arise – heavy violence on the tail of long, tense conversation and of course the Morricone score, this is more of a spaghetti western in plot and structure than style – there’s nothing as blatant as the Bride/Elle Driver stand-off in Kill Bill Vol. 2, or the opening chapter of Basterds, and in some ways, this makes the film feel more Tarantino’s own. It’s also his least post-modern movie since Jackie Brown – there’s very little of his usual narrative and visual techniques deployed here – the plot is chronological, there’s no split screen, no chapters – though his does include some great anachronistic songs on the soundtrack – James Brown, 2Pac – which really work and give the film a cool, blaxploitation edge. The soundtrack is of course, amazing, and in terms of violence, it’s too over-the-top and cartoony to be offensive (as Kill Bill‘s was), and the controversy gathering over the movie’s bloodshed really needs to back off.django4The cast are fantastic too. Jamie Foxx is cool and collected as Django – he gets few lines, mirroring the silent, Man-with-No-Name archetype, but manages to portray a lot of emotion without saying much; at times naive and scared, rising up to a furious anger, calm witty cool, and all coated in a constant, yearning to be back with wife. And when he does speak, Foxx displays an excellent sense of comic timing – this is his best role, easily. Waltz however gets all of the movie’s best lines and is hilarious – it’s a very different role to his previous Landa, less restrained and more swayed by pride, though it’s equally verbose with wonderfully clever dialogue, delivered with spark by Waltz playing the most likeable character in the movie. Schultz maintains a powerful pride and hatred for inequality too which Waltz layers on so subtly – it’s a genius performance, and shocking that it took the world so long to discover this actor.django3Kerry Washington gets very few lines as Broomhilda, yet her presence hangs over the movie and she literally haunts frames. When we finally meet her, Washington follows Foxx by saying a lot without speaking, and particularly in scenes where she’s under threat, is really powerful and believable. It’s been criticised that we don’t know enough about her to care about her, but really, it works – we don’t need more development in our revenge spaghetti westerns. Special mention however has to go to the villains. First, Leo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie, an utterly corrupt, racial monster who makes slaves fight to death and stands as a real dig at the poisoned well of the Southern gentry. DiCaprio gives one of his best performances here and seems to relish in the role, having a perversely good time as the bigoted maniac, which means when he’s on screen the audience can’t look away. He’s over the top though there’s subtly – the moment when he lets Schultz explain the meaning of a word so that he doesn’t have to speaks reams about the character’s pride and stupidity, and DiCaprio turns on a dime too, moving from comedic to threatening in seconds, primarily in a very tense dinner scene which reflects the tavern in Basterds. It’s a shame DiCaprio didn’t get an Oscar nod. It could be argued that the character is too easy – racism is bad, this man is bad – but within the broader, cinematic mythology of the film, it works. Samuel L. Jackson gives his best performance in years as Stephen – 20 years ago, the guy would have made a great Django – now, he’s the lecherous head-house slave, hilarious in the role, Jackson proves to be the true villain of the movie, with a nasty streak made more unsettling by a genius Parkinson’s tremor, and like Leo, Jackson lights up the screen when he’s on.samuel l jacksonWhilst Django is an amazing film, it’s not Tarantino’s best. It’s mainly hurt by the pacing – it’s simply too long, and has an awkward structure. The lack of Tarantino’s usual editor Sally Menke (who edited all previous Tarantino movies, and sadly died two years ago) is really apparent here, and you get the sense that Tarantino needed her to reign him in. The main plot takes forever to get going, and whilst this does allow Django and Schultz to bond, it does mean the movie drags. There’s also a strange duel climax which really staggers the ending. It’s the length that’s the main issue. Basterds was long yes, but was based on a large collection of characters, a complex dual plot system and had the benefit of plot relating to saving the world; it was bigger in scope, and needed more time. Django is much smaller in scope, based really on rescuing one woman, and the sprawling length really doesn’t suit it. A leaner film would have been stronger. It’s also in some ways, a step back after Basterds, which was a triumph of post-modern cinema, playing with audience expectations, narrative structure and genre styles in a way few previous films have done – Django is rather straight-laced in comparison. Nor is it as fun as Kill Bill, as mature as Jackie Brown, or as revolutionary as Pulp Fiction. There’s also on top of this, the nagging concern that Tarantino needs to do something new. Move away from the big revenge fantasies, the spaghetti westerns, and the grindhouse – he’s been working in these terms since 2003 – why not try something different? Tarantino tackling another genre all together – science fiction, straight up comedy, horror movie – would really be something to see. For all that’s great about Django, there’s little that’s new about it.django8Django Unchained is a fantastic movie on most fronts – cast, characters, style, but suffers from a sense of having seen it before and a bloated running time. It’s not Tarantino’s best work but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a amazing movie, and it’s good qualities do over power the bad. It just would be nice to see something a bit different next time though.



4 thoughts on “Django Unchained

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