Quentin, you infuriating cur. You’ve only gone and started making good movies again, haven’t you?
Yes, that means I’ve seen Django Unchained, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself, but of course – this is Tarantino we’re talking about here – with exceptions.
I’d previously fallen out of love with QT after tiring of the exhaustive references of Kill Bill and Death Proof and positively loathing not only the “fuck history” approach to Inglourious Basterds but also its lazy effort to garner sympathy for our heroes by simply stating their race rather than actually making them fully rounded, interesting characters. I’m of the Kermodian school of thought that Tarantino’s career peaked at Jackie Brown and he’s never reached similar heights in crafting three dimensional characters, a compelling narrative and a certain maturity.
And, well…I guess you could hardly call Django Unchained mature, despite its heavy themes of American slavery and revenge. But for 160+ minutes, boy is it compelling.
I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you the whole story, so here are the cliff notes: dentist-bounty hunter King Schultz (the ever-eloquent Christoph Waltz, pulling off genial barbs and wordplay with aplomb) frees the eponymous slave (Jamie Foxx, enigmatic and curiously tight-lipped for a QT protagonist) so they can save Django’s bride Broomhilda from moustache-twirling cotton plantation owner Calvin Candie (a spectacularly hammy Leo DiCaprio) and kill some nasty white folks along the way. Oh, and it’s 1858.
I’m not going to write a full essay about the film, but I’ll mention the things that stood out to me. First and foremost is the fact that Tarantino seems to have made a movie that (for the most part) values its characters and story above the director’s love of genre and need to reference EVERY. SINGLE. MOVIE. EVER. The references are there, of course, but you can ignore them if you want. Or rather the reverse: you don’t need to have seen every western made between 1966-1971 in order to get the joke, whereas in Kill Bill and Death Proof the experience was more akin to standing in front of a door that could only be unlocked with a tsunami of nerdy trivia, all the while hearing childish sniggers from within.
No, Django is less of a cartoon than its predecessors – not in its glorious use of ultraviolence, of course, but if you’re going to make a spaghetti western, you better be prepared to spill some bolognaise – and is all the better for letting us see King and Django’s relationship develop over the course of the movie. Some have said that it’s overlong, and I’m certain I can pinpoint the scene where most start to weary (hint: QT cameo + interminable Aussie accent), but I can honestly say that there was no part of the film where I got itchy feet. Not bad for almost three hours. The fights were raucous, the jokes were funny and the parts meant to make you uncomfortable made me very bloody uncomfortable indeed.
[Speaking of uncomfortable, Samuel L. Jackson’s performance as indoctrinated slave Stephen is one of the most disturbing I’ve seen in some time, and I mean that as the highest compliment.]
One of my favourite things about the film is Dicaprio’s teeth. Discoloured and falling apart, they represent what kind of man he is as clear as day: sugary in name and surface demeanour, but he’s rotten to the core, and if you get too much of him yourself you’ll start to rot too. We start to see this a little with Django himself, who plays a role he abhors a little too well, showing the true grey in his own soul.
It’s not all great, though these are minor quibbles: Kerry Washington’s imprisoned lover Broomhilda is never not helpless, rather disappointing for a movie that’s trying to shake things up, and Calvin’s sister – the only other major female role – seems to exist solely to hint at the villain’s incestuous leanings and, well, get shot. One prejudice at a time, thanks, Quentin. And Tarantino’s cameo may well be awful enough to unseat people from their enjoyment of the flick, but I just found it hilarious, though likely for reasons that’ll make me a hypocrite – I figured QT’s realised he’s no actor and decided to play up his performance as a nod to the frequently dodgy dubbing of Italian and Spanish actors in Sergio Leone movies.
But perhaps I’ve become a little too forgiving in my old age. I don’t think that’s it, because all I’ve ever asked from the cinema is to be entertained – if I’m given more than that, I’ll take that as a gift – but if I walk out smiling, that’s enough. I’m never going to learn any important lessons from Django Unchained (despite Tarantino’s apparent belief that he’s opening people’s eyes to the fact that SLAVERY FUCKING HAPPENED, MAN) but I can certainly say I won’t see anything else like it this year.
…er, unless I watch a bunch of westerns from the 1960s, that is.