Django Unchanged is Quentin Tarantino’s seventh movie I am told. And it is very good. It is not his best, by quite some margin I might add. I don’t know if this is because his style remains unchanged after more than 20 years or that the world has simply moved on and it has become less cool or if it is probably his most un-Tarantino movie. It is certainly his most expensive looking and lavish which is very un-Tarantino. I do find most of this hard to believe as QT’s last feature, Inglorious Basterds, was such a dazzling and enjoyable flick with so much of his trademark dialogue, gore, anachronistic music and editing ticks. Django does most of this but it feels rather token. Tarantino really feels like he was attempting an Oscar movie for this one so the dialogue is not necessarily period correct but certainly amped down from the blink-and-you-miss-it banter of previous films, the gore is excessive as ever but attempts to be more realistic, the music has no stone cold classics in it and is not as inspired but more traditionally sympathetic to whats happening on screen and there are a few customary crash zooms and silly bits of screen texts but these are few and far between. No, QT seems to really want to get this story across in this one.
It’s a shame its not that good a story.
Django is a stock revenge movie plot. Bounty Hunter finds an accomplice, teaches him the trade and have a few adventures before going after the bad guy who has his wife. That’s it. You know what’s going to happen in the end within the first few minutes. The point should be the journey getting there but sadly the incredibly flabby script bogs us down in, even for Tarantino, unnecessary guff. For once it is not QT’s flare for cinema that makes this a worthwhile film, it is actually its topic.
Django uses every frame of its three hour run time in pointing out what a bunch of brutal, murderous, evil, oblivious, ignorant, arrogant, wankers white men are. Despite what Tarantino’s incredibly blinkered view of the world thinks, he is not the first person to tackle slavery in cinema (he has apparently become a gross egotist since his heyday) but he is the first person to show it in this way. Due to Tarantino’s well established style we expect certain things from him which is normally used to great effect in juxtaposition, here however gratuitous violence and searing language is, sadly, apt.
Many years ago Mel Brooks made an incredibly funny film called Blazing Saddles. People seem to have forgotten about this which is frankly bizarre as the parallels between it and Django are remarkable: A black slave is freed, has dead shot white man as a friend who set out to kill a rich and stupid white man slave trader whilst dodging the slings and arrows of the common people and their complete contempt for a black person with any sort of power. … While people say Nigger a lot.
Yes I wrote the ‘N’ word. I tried writing this post without it but it doesn’t work so live with it. I am not using it in a pejorative sense I am using it as reference and citation. Lets just hang a big “I’m Not Racist” banner over this whole review before you knee-jerk pricks try to jump down my throat. If you’re offended by strong language please fuck off now. Also there may be spoilers from here on out so be warned…
Much has been made of QT’s liberal use of the word Nigger in Django and it is understandably wince inducing to some. For me however, – which made me feel rather ill afterward – was the fact I stopped noticing it after the 2nd or 3rd time (within the first 20 minutes or so). Tarantino uses Nigger in almost all his films but normally spoken by black people which, due to reclamation, is more acceptable if not ‘pleasant’. Django is a period piece and frankly it would be a very strange period piece about the grotesqueries of slavery if people didn’t say Nigger when referring to a black person. This slipped in unnoticed to me and was only afterward I realised how horrendous that is and is indicative of the success of the film. QT displays better than any other film how appallingly we treated slaves (and I do mean ‘We’) and is horribly resonant today when Racism is still pervasive in our society yet not as explicit or flagrant. The violence and abuse meted out to the slaves in this film made my stomach churn. There is a great deal of graphic violence in the film but a lot of it is preposterous and regarding gun fights that are pretty standard action movie fare, a slave being ripped apart, two slaves being paid to beat each other to death, whippings, brandings and castration are shown to us on screen and like the abundance of the word Nigger force us to recognise exactly what we did in graphic detail. It is uncomfortable to watch needless to say. Spielberg films like Amistad and no doubt the tandem slave cinema epic ‘Lincoln’ will talk about these horrors or you might see watered down versions of the above but due to QTs style he does not flinch and confronts us explicitly with that which White Men should feel truly be ashamed of. This kind of violence is normally contested as unnecessary or gratuitous, not in this case. This is probably exactly what happened.
The film has a lot of negative points against it though, sadly. It is much, much too long and needed some more than judicious editing. Tarantino has clearly grown fat on his own hype (and just plain ‘got fat’ actually as his truly dreadful cameo reveals) and his excesses are growing more grand by the film, this proves the tipping point it would appear. Foxx does not turn in the powerhouse performance I was told to expect, he is by no means bad but it is pretty run of the mill for this sort of film. DiCappuccino continues his long campaign as “Most Overrated Actor in History” but turning in a completely hollow and shouty performance that, despite top billing, accounts for little more than extended cameo (again due to the film’s length). FUCKING LENS FLARE needs to FUCK OFF from cinematographer’s “look, we’re so retro and gritty” handbook. By and large the cinematography is very pretty, the shot of blood splattering white cotton is a lovely bit of cinematic imagery, but PISS OFF WITH THE LENS FLARE! The ending reeeeeeeally annoyed me. It should have ended 20 minutes before it did but for some reason rattles on and on for no good reason. Whilst one of those gloriously wordy, subtext ridden, tension-cranking scenes around a table is present it doesn’t reach the dizzy heights of Basterds. And sadly, for the most part, it is pretty much a standard western.
However, Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson turn in near perfect performances that charm you flat and make your blood boil in equal measure. Don Jonson’s cameo is bloody funny too. There are some real laugh out loud gags as well, which make me forgive a lot, the Klu Klux Klan scene being a particular hoot. But in general it is Tarantino’s desire to actually show the Slave trade in all its tooth and claw that is its most enduring feature. He did not, as I say, finally bring it to light but its the first example of a film that grabs us by the collar and wipes our noses in the massive turd which just did on the carpet.
Not a brilliant film but a necessary one.