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Quentin Tarantino hits the silver screen once again, deploying his familiar style in a hereunto unexplored cinema type, with the eagerly-anticipated Western flick, Django Unchained (“the ‘D’ is silent…”).

Though this may seem perhaps unfamiliar territory for the director, Tarantino is well-established as a director unafraid of new challenges, exploring new ground rather than simply rehashing old material. He’s the celebrated chameleon of cinema – and not just because he looks like a lizard.

Quentin Tarantino Chameleon

Chameleon – Tarantino

Tarantino has a penchant for genre deconstruction, comfortably immersing himself into entirely disparate cinema types with a confidence and eagerness. Of recent note is his dabble into modern military history with the Second World War counter-caust found in Inglourious Basterds. Less successful, in my Chan/Li/Lee/Hung loving opinion, was Quentin’s martial arts mishap Kill Bill. Now, we see him dive head first into the spaghetti western. The verdict? This spaghetti needs a little more meat.

For a film that approaches 3 hours in length, it’s surprising how linear and superficial much of the content appears. Now, I wasn’t expecting a thorough diatribe of pre-American Civil War slavery, but perhaps something more than a simple, and predictable, revenge narrative. The real problem is that Django Unchained is plainly too fanciful. From confused morality to the unconvincing romantic quest that drives the plot, there is perhaps too brittle a foundation for the audience to comfortably place their feet, spurs and all.

Take dentist come bounty hunter Dr King Schultz, a welcome return by Christoph Waltz. For a man whose compassion and support for the hero protagonist persists throughout the film, whilst also combating the racial hierarchy in the Southern states of America, there is an odd sense of calm surrounding his calculated murder of wanted criminals. It is interesting that Tarantino selected Waltz for this morally ambivalent role, particularly after his striking performance as Hanz Landa, a man whose undeniable hatred of the Jewish race suddenly dissipates at the end of Inglourious Basterds in favour of a quick deal. He is an opportunist through and through, much like Dr Schultz.

Schultz is a bounty hunter, mercilessly killing for financial gain; wealth is his ultimate goal. Though his targets are wanted criminals, and he does explain that he’s a man of the law, his efforts are entirely in pursuit of monetary reward, not as a result of some judicial desire for justice. This being the case, it seems incongruous that he would want to share his earnings, let alone risk his own life to help a man who he has no substantial affiliation with, particularly a secondary citizen, a slave. Schultz’s desire to partner up with Django is completely untenable.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that the dentist is an old romantic. Let’s pretend he’s a virtuous hero, unable to ignore the plight of a devoted, loving couple. Then, and I emphasise, only then, can we begin to understand his motives. Clearly this isn’t the case in Django Unchained though, this fragile argument further damaged by the notable lack of any substantial reference to the relationship between Django (Jamie Foxx) and his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Though there are a few flashbacks to earlier events in the couple’s lives, they revolve entirely around a bumbled attempt to flee their masters and the bitter punishment when caught. This is certainly believable fuel for Django’s violent quest for revenge, but the audience never witnesses any real tenderness, any sincere depictions of love. And if we can’t see it, how can Schultz? Their relationship is presented as fact: they are in love, they are destined to be free together, and we must simply accept it, despite feeling that it’s been sadly skimmed over.

High on the frivolity list is QT’s incessant use of the word ‘nigger’ in Django Unchained. Though he’s argued that it’s used simply to authenticate the language used in the film as a construct of its time, one feels that perhaps he gets a little carried away. I don’t feel so strongly as to censor the word entirely, and I agree that it’s useful as a point of verbal emphasis and linguistic accuracy. But 110 times?! Enjoying your cinematic freedom a little too much eh Quentin? Jackie Brown (1997) only had 38 mentions of the racial epithet, that’s an increase of 4.8 n-bombs a year. Yeah, I did the maths.

Not seen Django yet? Stop here!

Towering over all of these criticisms however, is Django’s hugely disappointing ending. Really, the film should be 20 minutes shorter, which would have helped my bladder to no end. The entire film builds in anticipation of the final showdown, as the heroes confront the figurehead of white oppression, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Django and Schultz make their way to Candie Land, one of the largest plantations in the South, with blood on the hands and a hankering for more. When a covert attempt to rescue Broomhilda fails, an explosive action scene ensues, one which sees the death of 2 key characters. The end of the film is nigh, it has to be. Suddenly, Django is alone, up against the wall facing waves of Candie’s men. But, as conventional heroes always do, he survives. White jacket after white jacket is splattered with blood as Django claws on to life. And then he surrenders…. What? After the intense build up, he simply gives in?

And then he gets captured, sold into slavery once again, only to return to Candie’s estate for his final revenge – all in the space of 10 minutes! This dual ending seems completely pointless, entirely breaking the pace and fluidity of the film up until this point. It deflates the ending, resulting in a needless anti-climax. Was this supposed to be some sort of plot twist? If so, it came far too late and had too little consequence. Surely the final scenes couldn’t get any worse? Well yes, throw in a poor quality cameo from the lizard man himself, including a horrendous Aussie accent I might add, and we’ve hit bottom.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of positives in Django Unchained: momentum gathers early on and is maintained throughout the film (until the final scene, anyway); stylistically, the film adheres to Tarantino’s acclaimed style, musical score in tow; action scenes are gritty and relentless but powerful, brilliantly juxtaposed with pithy humour, not delivered so gloriously since his cult classic Pulp Fiction. Samuel L Jackson executes a first-rate comic performance as institutionalised house slave Stephen, while the Ku Klux Klan scene engenders some unexpected comic relief, effective in its rarity and sudden transition to slapstick hilarity.

Django Unchained. Decide for yourself.

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Comments
  1. Similarly ambivalent. If you wanna find out why, you could check out my review on politicoid if you fancy hearing my view…

  2. CMrok93 says:

    Nice review. As a fan of Tarantino’s work, it is nice to see that he still is as good as he was 20 years ago.

  3. Jamie says:

    Nice thoughts on Django Unchained. I think that this movie shows Tarantino’s strongest qualities, but it also doesn’t hide his flaws. He explored a familiar territory of his – he is no stranger of spagetti western, though until now he hasn’t directed any. And all his trade marks fits nicely. It could have been an amazing movie if it wasn’t for its flaws which you have pointed out so well.

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