Director - Quentin Tarantino
Country - USA
Starring - Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz, Samuel Jackson
Running Time - 165 minutes
With the help of a German bounty hunter, a freed slave sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner.
There are few things less certain than the fact that Quentin Tarantino loves movies. He loves watching them, talking them and above all else making them. Beneath his signature excess lies a keen understanding of the codes by which film operates. He blends genres, reinvents archetypes and undermines the expectations of his audience constantly through the course of his films. I, for one have always sat at odds with him, on one hand he is clearly a very talented and intelligent director making some of the most original American works of the last two decades, on the other, I can never tell who he is making these films for.
Now with the release of his newest film, the Quasi-Western Django Unchained, it seems I have my answer; himself.
Tarantino structures Django much like his previous film Inglorious Basterds, blending pulp and genre pieces thickly layered in visual and audial references to a varied collection of influences. In this case blaxploitation meets spaghetti western, taking its title and main character from the Sergio Corbucci film Django, who's star makes a cameo. We open with a shackled and scarred Jamie Foxx led (along with a number of other slaves) by traders through a forest, when they are approached by Dr King Schultz with his wonderful dentist coach. He confuses and enrages the slavers with his turn of phrase, so when they refuse his sale, things turn violent. Schultz is a dentist turned bounty hunter and he needs Django to identify his next targets as he will come to explain.
Embodying his title, Tarantino's camera is equally free as he traverses the landscape by any means possible. Incorporating decades of Western film making legacy into every frame, the film is a visual feast of close-ups, cheeky zooms and gorgeous vistas. Django is a confident beauty of a film dripping but it never amounts to anything but homage. Think of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford which adopted it's melancholic atmosphere into it's visual tone, or Hillcoat's The Proposition which was shot with such blistering colours that it was often hard to look at. Django, for a film built upon anger, is far too preoccupied with honoring its sources, and obnoxious music choices doesn't help matters either.
The crux of the matter is Tarantino is not a director capable of understanding such anger, he engages with it only through his violence, this would be more of a problem if he didn't do it so well. This is, after all, a Tarantino film. He applies differing styles to the scenes, it becomes textual; the violence aimed towards blacks are shot in close-up, with highly saturated film stock, giving it a more visceral edge, including a horrific Mandingo brawl. Whites however are blown to smithereens in a ballet of blood and guts. The intention is clear, he wants us to get angry and then he wants that anger to force every bullet harder than the one before. The problem is he never stops to question how or why.
Slavery is constantly the subject of conversation, but it is just text, there is no judgement as to its nature nor a reflective note on it's repercussions. Tarantino is fascinated by his ideal of marrying the classic American image of freedom, the cowboy, to the horrendous crimes committed against the black people culminating in a violent revenge flick that he doesn't feel the need to give us anything more. It is a clever idea, but it lacks the depth to make it truly warranted.
Instead we are given wit and style in abundance, they satisfy on a surface level, supplying laughs and cheers as needed. Ironically for the title, Foxx is rather restrained. He is given a lot to do and chooses to play it through his physical performance, and the result is surprisingly endearing. Waltz is absolutely wonderful, nailing every line with his trade mark European accent. Whilst DiCaprio's vile, horrific Candie is a stylishly presented cartoon of a monster. Clearly both actors are having a total ball on screen and they manage to carry the film's plodding script even when it drags most.
Despite the sheer smugness in his performance DiCaprio is far to easy to hate for him to be the films main vocal point. This is not the result of writers error, but rather Tarantino's most clever move, the real villain here is Samuel Jackson's Stephen. 'Head house slave,' he is sneaky and observant but above all else he is an exploiter; one who condemns his own race for a favourable position with 'the master.' The contempt held by Tarantino for this character spills into his framing with excessive close-ups capturing every wrinkle in his grotesque grimace. He is not only the most important character in Django, he joins the ranks of modern cinemas most horrific and loathsome characters and his untimely demise is a moment of sheer cinematic catharsis.
At 165 minutes it is simply too long and too limited. Tarantino is regarded for his bloated dialogue-heavy sequences and Django is no exception. However, whilst each line is written with trade mark wit, to an almost distracting degree, it never goes anywhere or says anything about the events or characters. This is hindered further by the films structure, with the final act bringing the proceedings to a crawl, and by the time Candie's hack-saw orthopedic lecture came about my eyes were sore from the rolling. The inevitable explosive finale becomes something more of a relief, than an exciting climax. Speaking of which, the film has a fake-out jump cut that had it stayed true would have undermined the audience's expectations and provided a surprisingly sombre commentary on the nature of violence and revenge. Instead, Tarantino can't resist showing us more, and it sinks back into the fairly one-note story that only he is truly invested in.
Django is crippled by its bloated arrogance, Tarantino's indulgent style constantly undermines his thematic message. The result is a clever artist who is much more interested in showing off the grotesque nature of slavery than making a judgement on it - except for Samuel Jackson's Stephen, the films singular export. However the rest is relegated to surface level thrills that lack the brooding rumination of his spaghetti influences. Marred by pacing inconsistencies, only exasperated by it's gratuitous length. Django Unchained survives on the strength of its actors and of the determination to satisfy with wit and violence, and that it does.