24 January 2013

Review: Django Unchained

(Dir: Quentin Tarantino, 2012)

Quentin Tarantino's reinvention of b-movie genres continues unabated. So far he's tackled blaxploitation (Jackie Brown), samurai (Kill Bill) and pure grindhouse (Death Proof, the vastly under-rated latter half of Grindhouse) as well as making gangsters cool in his first two films and most recently giving us an excellent Second World War film. So where to explore next? Django Unchained is his take on the Italian westerns from the late sixties and early seventies, predominantly influenced by the Django series of films starring Franco Nero as the titular coffin dragging gunslinger. I wish I could remember which Django film I've seen (there are many of them), but it's all a blur with memories merging with that of Jodorowsky's El Topo. Intriguingly with Django Unchained we get hints of blaxploitation too - typical of Tarantino's mash-up approach.

Django here (Jamie Foxx) is a slave, freed by German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) due to knowledge that will help Schultz catch his latest targets, which ultimately leads the pair into a chain of events where they set out to dupe plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and rescue Django's wife (Kerry Washington). It's a solid enough story in principle with plenty of interesting diversions, that ends up hindering itself by taking one too many unnecessary turns.

From the outset it's clear that Tarantino is sticking to his comfortable tropes with Django Unchained - no matter whether a film is set in Nazi occupied France, Japan or the US in 1858, he approaches it in his own way, even if that does stem from lifting from other sources. That's not a criticism as he's perhaps the most interesting cultural magpie we possess - always revelling in interesting twists on sub-sects of underground culture. The music here lifts from those Italian westerns and throws in something more modern too: of course it works, his soundtracks are legendary. Visually the way shots are framed and the camera moves feels kinda retro but oh so Tarantino. And the dialogue... well let's parlay. No matter where his characters are they're hyper-literate and typically verbose. Yes it's still appealing.

The films two biggest strengths are Foxx and Waltz. You remember that wallet Samuel L. Jackson's Jules had in Pulp Fiction, the one that said "Bad Mother Fucker"? That's the most apt description of Foxx in Django Unchained. He plays it superbly but with some hidden depths in there; a man biding his time to exact revenge. If anyone clocked his surname in the film and thus the lineage he is supposedly the basis of then it all makes sense - can you dig it? Waltz on the author hand is the true silver tongued devil here as he makes Tarantino's dialogue sound easy and is never less than compelling to watch. We all need to thank Mr Tarantino for making us aware of his superb acting ability a mere four years ago.

So why doesn't Django Unchained feel as satisfying as his other films? The problem seemingly lies in the journey we have to take to get to the end result. Some scenes go on too long with unnecessary dialogue and the story meanders at times, meaning I ended up feeling bored at points. Apart from one scene early on, there are none of the tense high-quality set pieces that Tarantino is renowned for, such as the bar scene with Michael Fassbender in Inglorious Basterds. Likewise the inevitable mass shoot-out feels more forced than the stunningly choreographed The House of Blue Leaves fight at the end of Kill Bill: Vol.1. Everything here feels like it's been done better before by Tarantino.

Django Unchained has all the right constituent parts but doesn't fit together quite as easily as it should. Watching it felt somewhat like how I imagine trudging across empty states on horseback felt at the time - a journey enlivened by the visitors you meet and sensory treats, but a sapping trek nonetheless. Waltz and Foxx are always thoroughly engaging, whilst DiCaprio and Jackson are good too alongside a typically fascinating group of supporting actors. The film also gains depth by not shying away from the racial issues. But I remain on the fence about the film as a whole. It's entertaining, frequently funny and suitably ultraviolent as well as having some great ideas and throwbacks, but it would've seriously benefited from tighter editing. Although it's good, it's just not as enjoyable as any of Tarantino's other films in which you've seen him do everything here better.


  1. The first hour of Django Unchained is where it is at its strongest. Where it is played out as a buddy western with a pretty simple objective and fun dialogue between Jamie Foxx and the great Christoph Waltz, but by the second hour, it gets even better and darker. Great review David.

    1. Thanks! Agree that the first half was more fun. Second half was where it lost its way for me. Need to watch it again I think.