Having worn thin many by his previous attempts, Tarantino’s new film Django Unchained is a brilliant return to form – and for some it may not even be a return at all, but a step towards something else. Regardless of your previous thoughts on the matter, Django Unchained strikes you as a film made by a director who is on his best behaviour, given the subject matter and the excessive use of the n-word that such an attempt must involve.
Django (Jamie Foxx) is a black slave who is granted emancipation by an unconventional German Dr. Schultz (Christopher Waltz) and together they earn a living by hunting bounties in the Wild West. As the months go by, Schultz helps Django grow into a new role as a free man, and offers to help him take revenge for the injustice he has suffered – to which Django has but one desire, to find his lost wife. Tracing where she is enslaved, they hatch a plan to win back the love of his life, and rescue her from the largest plantation in America.
Building on a Western tradition, every aspect of the film, from the writing and its production all the way to its soundtrack and final execution, know its history, and it is in this rich history of cowboy films that the work can be shown at its best. It is not reverance that this tradition is upheld, but a knowing insollence with which Django Unchained swaggers, trying with every act to punch convention in the gut, and set fire to it’s twitching corpse.
Yes, it’s violent – but Tarentino manages to balance a playful violence that is far more splatterly and grotesque than the minimalist and subtle destruction that permeates Hollywood. Rather than hide an inherited desire to destroy, Django Unchained instead revels in this destruction, gesturing towards the tradition that it hopes to transcend, and does so superbly well. The violence may not be to everyone’s tastes, but then again progress is rarely achieved through gestures of good taste and decency.
The controversy aside, Django Unchained is utterly cool. From the moment that our protagonist is given a chance to dress himself, you realise that you are watching something special – costuming as unconventional, and unrelentingly awesome. It is in these subtle gestures of disobedience, with which the film occupies its time, which contribute to the construction of a film that surpasses others in its field – and which never feel out of line with the general mood of the film.
This is no more evident than in the superb soundtrack, the backbone of which is a mixture of brilliant evocative original compositions (from no less than the only western composer worth his salt, Eric Morricone) and other, more modern, gritty rock and pop tracks from the present. In fact, it is perhaps easiest to understand the film if you consider it as an elongated rap video, elaborated by a man with a keen eye for direction. The sheer look of the thing wants you to consume and enjoy it; l every shot and breath of the film (emphasised by the heartbeat of a 35mm print if you get a chance) immerses you in an intense artistry of that moment, grabbing your balls by the teeth, and only occasionally granted you relief.
However, once again (as I find myself considering so often in film criticism) I am left contemplating if this would not all sit better as a videogame than a film. Given the excessive use of violence – which is both ridiculous in it’s gore, but strangely more realistic and truthful in its overly disgusting and bloody rendering of the effects of guns – mean that it’s audience have to be intimate with that kind of level of almost slapstick realism. In a game, one could so easily employ this level of exaggerated realism without it being too much of the focus of the work, which would benefit it greatly. The one flaw of Rockstar’s superb “Red Dead Redemption” was it’s lacklustre narrative, and thinly drawn main character, that just happened to inhabit one of the most incredible and engrossing worlds that have been put to disc. Having a chance to play as a black protagonist in this context, and with as much care and attention to the dialogue and performance as are given in the film, would have meant an unenviable production. .
There are still a number of problems that cannot be ignored. Despite the short leash that the studio must have allowed Tarentino to work (much longer than most directors for sure), he does not ignore indulgence completely, and once again this becomes the weak link in an otherwise strong offering. His cameo in the film is an embarrassment on so many levels, not only as his performance is inconsistent and even farcical, but as it arrives at a time when such a break in tension is completely unnecessary. Knowing that such a performance is to arrive at some point, this too becomes a distraction in itself.
The matter that most seem to struggle with is the length of the film; though rarely dragging in a way that is the hallmark of a film struggling to fill it’s length, the problem simply comes as a double ending limps in a circle, unable to finish at the comfortable crescendo that we imagine. As a film, this circuitous end feels unnatural, but within a game this might be a valid conclusion, the final level of Candieland would have felt far more deserved in a video game as a destination, rather than the end curtain in itself. The pacing of the film just drops at the end – significantly after the aforementioned cameo from the director – meaning that something of the vision of the piece is let down by the very figure who does so well to craft it. But in a medium when pacing is becoming subservient to content, this kind of ending could work where in a film it struggles to have the punch against convention for which one might imagine Tarentino was aiming.
Similarly, even despite attempts to create a kind of subversive history – addressing a black protagonist against a racist background that is so often disregarded in other films of the genre – but there remain some labouring pretentions to the current status quo that are nor pushed or exploded as much one might hope. For example, the female lead in the film is painted throughout as a strong character, a figure of subversion herself, and desireable far beyond the simple beauty of a damsel that most Hollywood fare would fall foul. However, when the final chapter emerges, this character is reduced to a fainting, squealing wreck of a woman, a shell of the incredible figure we are shown before. How faithful this may be to some other reasoning aside, it is still a shame that for all the good the film does to address racial history, it only really manages to do so with the same dominating masculine sentiment that ruins other films.
It just seems that Django Unchained‘s greatest strengths – it’s vision and uniqueness – are testament to the same thing which let the film down – the director. What this film demonstrates is that Tarentino can make a stunningly good film, easy to watch and action packed, while also pushing boundaries of convention and making something more meaty than the usual Saturday night garbage pumped into most eyeballs, but short of true brilliance. You just wish someone somewhere could have the capacity to stop him doing the silly things which let the whole formula down. The truth is, Django Unchained feels like there is one truly great masterpiece to emerge from Tarentino, but this just isn’t quite it – finding just how much leash to let him have is the delicate and dangerous balance that is yet to be discovered.
For those that have seen the film, it might not be surprising to see how few categories for which it is in contention. It certainly deserves its nomination as a best film, but it couldn’t deserve to win such an accolade – Django Unchained simply does not feel like an Oscar winning film, without usual tropes associated with the academy awards, which makes it all the more significant that it has been nominated at all simply as a nod to its significance. The underlying race issues allow it to be, to a certain extent, worthwhile, and to have that in such an enjoyable film is a wonderful addition to cinema – but for it to be given the award would be bizarre. The one category in which it might achieve success is Best Supporting Actor, were it not for the fact that Christopher Waltz, undeniably brilliant in the film, has to contend with such big names as Robert De Niro, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Tommy Lee Jones in an incredibly strong category. I can see it winning something – best original screenplay or sound editing being likely categories – but if you are looking for a Best Picture, this isn’t it.
For a more in depth look at the possible racism in the movie, you should all take a read of JustinStruggles wonderful post on http://justinstruggles.wordpress.com/2013/02/08/django-deconstructed/