A caveat for the review that follows: I feel like every Quentin Tarantino movie since Pulp Fiction has been something of a letdown, even though I’ve enjoyed every single one of them, and Django Unchained – Tarantino’s tale of a freed slave that exacts revenge on plantation owners in pre-civil war America – is no exception. Still, it’s better to set those standards high in the first place than to never reach them at all, and if this review at times seems unfair, it’s probably because I can’t help but compare Django Unchained to those early films. I wonder now whether Tarantino will ever make a film as good as Pulp or Reservoir Dogs, but I also wonder at the same time if that should even matter to me. That all said, there are few directors that can make me shiver in my seat with as much excitement when that opening credit sequence appears on screen and the first bit of music demands that you pay some motherfucking attention.
Few mainstream directors have a style as immediately recognisable as Tarantino’s, but it’s interesting to see that, over time, he has altered this slightly to keep things interesting. Primarily he has gradually removed the cultural references from of the dialogue of his films and incorporated them more and more into his visual style, notably the editing and camerawork (OK – obvious counter-point to this is you can’t have people sitting around discussing Madonna songs in a western, or a film set during the Second World War. But it does feel like there has been a shift in his movies of late whereby the cultural references are more subtly built in to the framework of the film). His cine-literate love of cheap 1970s blaxploitation, kung fu, westerns and schlocky horror can now be seen in the awkward, quick cuts and speedy extreme close ups that now pepper his work, and a kind of rougher, DIY feel that pays homage to (or attempts to strike up a kinship with) the cinema of his youth – which is of course completely affected and not the result of poor equipment, financial restraints or a heavy-handed, undeveloped technique, as per the source material he chooses to imitate. Has Tarantino become more confident in himself over time? Possibly, but unlikely given the confidence required in the first place to make those early 90s masterpieces. Have studios become more confident in their bankable auteur? Possibly, but he certainly had a lot of creative control twenty years ago as well. Has the director become more confident in his audience’s willingness to travel back to the grindhouse with him, when many of his contemporaries are striving to move forward with the available technology? Definitely.
After watching Django Unchained, I walked home thinking about how much I enjoy being dragged into this retro world Tarantino delights in revisiting with these movies. He has such a talent for clunkily forcing that huge mental library of obscure influences onto his audience, and crucially making it work within the film itself, that for me every single world Tarantino creates is an enjoyable place to hang out for a couple of hours. When the camera zooms into the face of Django (Jamie Foxx) right after he has shot and killed someone, I’m not thinking about Tarantino the magpie, flagrantly stealing ideas left and right from the wide world of cinema and not giving two shits about what people think. I’m simply thinking “hey, that’s actually pretty cool”. (Forgive me: I’m easily pleased.)
I wasn’t sitting there wringing my hands throughout all the brutal and comic violence, either, despite the Peckinpah-on-speed spurts of blood which spatter the sets throughout. Twenty years or so after his first movie, complaining about violent scenes in a Tarantino film seems to me to be as pointless as voicing displeasure that the sky is blue. Those of us above a certain age all have the choice to see a certain film or not, but hey, let’s get it over and done with anyway. Yes, Django Unchained is violent, and at times for my sins I found this violence funny and cartoonishly entertaining, and at other times I found it to be grisly and extremely unpleasant. The man is a master of veering between the humorous and the downright chilling, and it makes a mockery of the overly-simplistic criticism that ‘his films are too violent’. What does that even mean? Too violent by whose standards? Is violence acceptable if it’s meted out but swiftly followed by a funny payoff line? Is it a simple punch that causes such offence, an eye being gouged, a shooting or a slave being ripped to shreds by hunting dogs? Was it better for us when John Wayne, that great big red-and-blue elephant of the west, fired his bloodless bullets into offensive portrayals of Apache tribes? There are fifty shades of red in Tarantino’s films, and while some of it does test the stomach, nothing contained in these individual incidents is more abhorrent and disgusting than the notion of slavery itself, and the persecution of a man or a woman based on the colour of their skin.
This is a point made by the director himself. More generally on violence, it’s also telling that from his first film to this one, there are sights that Tarantino chooses not to capture; it’s not as though he is stubbornly, unthinkingly going as far as he can each time he makes a movie; the director’s decisions are clearly there for all to see. The ear scene cutaway in Reservoir Dogs is probably the most famous example of this implied violence, but he still delights today in teasing us, making us think we are about to see something terrible before pulling back from the very brink. Has any director connived as much with their audience, or tricked the audience into thinking they’ve seen more than they actually have, since Hitchcock? In the middle of some Tarantino scenes you feel unsure of the outcome simply because you know who was sat in the director’s chair. Django Unchained contains a terrific moment where the lead character looks like he may be about to lose his private parts at the hands of a knife-wielding plantation thug, and all the way through you’re wondering if a) Tarantino’s actually going to make the characters go through with it and b) whether you’ll witness it if he does. No-one creates an anything-can-happen aura that rivals Tarantino at his best; it’s edge-of-the-seat filmmaking, even if it relies to some extent on your knowledge of the director’s history.
Now, some balance is probably required here. I can’t think of many directors that are attacked as much as Tarantino, but equally I can think of few that are defended with as much vehemence by his fans. The more he is attacked, the more he will inevitably push back with moody, arrogant interviews (sad, really) and the more he will aim to provoke without giving a damn about the opinions of the chattering classes. It makes some people hate him, and others love him; the ability to force an opinion one way or another through his filmmaking is fascinating, whatever you feel about the films themselves.
The issue of Tarantino’s depiction of slavery has been an inevitable hot topic surrounding the film’s release. Ultimately, I feel if you’re looking to Tarantino to make either a definitive film about the subject or even a thought-provoking one then you’ve missed the point about what he does. Though slavery is dealt with – thankfully – very seriously in Django Unchained, there are surely better places to consider it as a subject than in a multiplex on a Saturday night with a bucket full of popcorn on your lap and a hip-hop-inflected soundtrack in your ear.
According to its director, Django Unchained does address the topic of slavery in a serious fashion, and while you could argue that statement is true, it equally just seems like part of all the promotional smoke and mirrors going on around the film’s release; it’s an attempt to gloss over and mask the fact that he just never gets to grips with how the plantation owners, the slave traders or – most importantly – the slaves themselves in his film actually feel. (And that even applies to the main character Django, despite one or two clunky attempts.) Tarantino is too busy writing cool dialogue to actually provide any trustworthy historical perspective or depth to the events depicted. On the one hand what we should expect from a blackly comic modern Quentin Tarantino spaghetti western is a blackly comic modern Quentin Tarantino spaghetti western, but on the other there’s the nagging feeling that this lets the director off the hook too easily. Perhaps the issue of slavery is one that shouldn’t be handled with such a lightness of touch, in a film where style is all and substance must always play second fiddle. We glean little reliable information about the experience of slaves in Django Unchained, only a few depictions of the most brutal treatment they received at the hands of caricature plantation racists. But ultimately why would anyone look to the man who riddled Hitler with bullets in a cinema for historical accuracy?
There’s a scene where young slave women are setting the table at the plantation house owned by the revolting Calvin Candie (Leonardo diCaprio, whose scenery-chewing double act with Uncle Tom-a-like Stephen (Samuel L Jackson) is utterly superb). Tarantino films this simple act with as much attention to detail and balletic style as he does any of the gunfights in the film, turning banality into something visually and sonically-entrancing. And this in a nutshell is what he is all about – it’s all surface, and little depth. These women are simply tools he uses to make a visually and sonically-entrancing scene; the fact that they are slave women is by the by. Yet who would realistically want to see Tarantino make a Spielberg film, or wish for him to make the film that Spike Lee would about life on a plantation? Despite all the criticism you can level at the guy, all I personally expect from Quentin Tarantino is a Quentin Tarantino film.
Tarantino is at his best when ridiculing horrific acts through comedy. Despite an irritating, shoe-horned in cameo by Jonah Hill, his portrayal of an early Klan gang as a bunch of dumb, arguing fools led by Big Daddy (Don Johnson) is one of the film’s funniest points (and there are quite a few laugh-out-loud moments), and it reminded me of the attempts to undermine the legacy of Nazi Germany through humour that can be seen in films by Mel Brooks, Charlie Chaplin and, more recently, Roberto Benigni.
Foxx’s Django and Christoph Waltz’s wordy Dr King Schulz whizz through the first hour in a blaze of bullets and speedy quipping. There are visual gags that work superbly, and the two display some decent comic timing without ever taking the film too far in that direction. When Calvin and Stephen appear, though, Tarantino struggles to do justice to the two characters that are the original focus of the film. While there are some great scenes involving three or all four of them – notably during a ‘mandingo’ fight and, later on, the tense dinner and subsequent contractual exchange involving Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) – it’s really diCaprio and Jackson that own the scenes and get to do all the raising of the eyebrows / shouting / bulging of the eyes.
Django Unchained is filled with moments that make you realise just how unplayful other directors tend to be on the whole. Tarantino takes risks, laughs in the face of conventional thou-shalt-not-steal ideals and thinks of bizarre set-ups and detailed ephemera that others could never hope to create in a lifetime. He’s not an educator, but he is a damn fine entertainer, and here he deals with a weighty subject like slavery in roughly the same way he dealt with Naziism in Inglorious Basterds. In both films its simply a horrible background against which the action can take place. In one he created a Jewish character that exacted revenge on Nazis by scalping them; here Django goes for the more conventional six shooter.
I’d agree with the general sentiment that this is probably Tarantino’s best film since Jackie Brown, but unfortunately he’ll never have the chance again to surprise us all, as he did in 1994. As it happens I retain a soft spot for the film he refers to as his worst yet – Death Proof. Much prefer that film’s short, punchy throwaway nature to the sprawling, repetitive Kill Bill 1 and 2. It’s half-arsed and ramshackle, and that’s part of the charm.
Violent, funny and unpredictable: Django Unchained is more of the same dizzying nonsense from QT. That might feel like an insult, or faint praise, but it’s far from the case. More of the same is just fine.
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Written by: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L Jackson, Leonardo DiCaprio
Running Time: 165 minutes