Django Unchained

Django Unchained ★★★

Director - Quentin Tarantino
Writer - Quentin Tarantino
Cast - Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington and Samuel L. Jackson


*Sticks contrarian cap on*

I’m joking. I do realise that I’m in the minority here though. Allow me to begin with a caveat; Quentin Tarantino and I don’t get on. Or, more accurately, I’m not the man’s biggest fan. He’s obviously a talented guy, and I have a lot of respect for what he does, but I’ve never been able to buy into his films in the way that a lot of people do. I love Jackie Brown and I think Reservoir Dogs is a cracking directorial debut but other than that I find most of his films to be somewhere on the border between average and good. I tend to find that Tarantino is a man who manages to achieve the almost impossible task of combining glorious ultra-violence with mind-numbing tedium. It was, therefore, with a due sense of trepidation that I went to see Django Unchained. My mind was open to the possibility that it would be the long-awaited ‘return to form’ but, alas, the film is just another in a long line of Tarantino movies that speaks so much and says so little.

Lumbered with poor plotting, dodgy characterisation and a running time that borders on the absurd, Django Unchained is classic Tarantino, which might explain why I’m not its biggest fan. In fairness, there is a lot of decent stuff on offer – which I’ll come to shortly – and I can’t help but admire Tarantino’s sense of purpose and ambition but unfortunately, whilst this is one half of a very decent film, it’s also one half of a tedious slog. It follows the story of a black slave by the name of Django (Foxx) who is granted his freedom by a German bounty hunter called Dr. Schultz (Waltz). In return for his freedom, Django assists Schultz in tracking down and executing three murderers known as the Brittle Brothers. Once these men have been disposed of, Django and Schultz then set about rescuing Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Washington), from the fourth biggest cotton plantation in America, run by a Mandingo trader by the name of Calvin Candie (DiCaprio).

The themes of the film – those of revenge, justice and exploitation – are everything we’ve come to expect from a Tarantino film and this is part of the problem. The only thing that Django Unchained offers us that we haven’t seen before is a Western setting. Now, in fairness to Tarantino, his stylistic choices with regards to the Western elements of the film were absolutely spot-on. As always, Tarantino seems to have a lot of respect and appreciation for the style that he’s trying to mimic (and lovingly mock) and it definitely shows. The landscapes are magnificent, the little nods to classic Westerns, in the form of words scrolling up the screen, are great and the town settings are absolutely spot-on. Unfortunately, there’s only so far this can go before you want to see something new. As with much of Tarantino’s output, the film lost my interest for the simple fact that it is just much too long. I have no issue whatsoever with long films, but Django Unchained simply doesn’t have enough going on to keep me interested. DiCaprio’s character almost got it right – the film held my curiosity all the way through but it never really grabbed my attention. The plot is solid enough for a two hour film, even though it’s a bit shaky at times, but it just goes on and on and on. There were a number of times when it could, and should, have ended but it didn’t, and from the moment the two leads arrived in “Candieland” the whole thing began to fall apart. It probably didn’t help that I spent about ninety minutes of the film desperate for a piss but even so, I just felt that Tarantino took it all too far.

This brings me nicely onto my other problem with this film. I get that Tarantino’s “thing” is to indulge in lashings of violence and gore but it seemed so ridiculously out of place in this film that it almost served to trivialise the brutality that the slaves actually suffered. The whip scars that Django and Broomhilda have were a brave and realistic touch. Rose red blood as someone’s head is blown of their shoulders was the complete opposite. I have no problem with ultra-violence, and I’m with Tarantino when he asserts that there is no connection between cinema violence and real-life violence, but I just didn’t see the point of it here. It took away from my ability to enjoy the film because it was all so predictable and standard for Tarantino. Similarly, the use of the N-word, by far the film’s most controversial aspect, made me feel uncomfortable. Allow me to explain; during the slave trade, the use of that vulgar little moniker was absolutely standard and I’m sure its use was much more frequent and extreme than even Django Unchained demonstrated. I have no objection to hearing it on screen, partly because it’s not a word that I have any connection with and partly because I believe that cinema needs to be realistic and edgy, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that Tarantino had set out to use it as much as he possibly could. At times it seemed to be used simply to get laughs out of the audience (and there were people in the audience who did laugh at its use) which I find incredibly off-putting. I don’t for a second believe that Tarantino is a racist, nor do I believe that he wants to pander to racialist prejudice, but I do think he suffers from an inability to know when to rein himself in.

However, none of this means that Django Unchained is a bad film. For a start, Django and Schultz are an absolute joy to watch and both Foxx and Waltz absolutely knock it out of the park as the unlikely pairing. The concept of the film is great and the plot starts off very well indeed, with the perfect mix of humour and social commentary. Despite the unnecessary violence, there’s no denying that the choreography of the shoot-outs was utterly superb, and I do think that the film will spark a debate about slavery in the way that a film like Lincoln won’t be able to. Though some of the jokes fell flat (the ‘eyeholes in the bags’ scene was just cringe worthy), much of the humour was dark and perfectly handled and the script was very solid. I thought DiCaprio’s performance was hammy, and I was left rather uninspired by Washington too, but everyone was so strong that I didn’t care too much about them.

If you’re a big Tarantino fan, then you’ll probably love this. It doesn’t appeal to me all that much but I totally get why people love it as much as they do. I just wish Tarantino would make another film like Jackie Brown one day, because he’s clearly talented enough to do so.

Jay liked these reviews