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Django Unchained – Quentin Tarantino



Django Unchained – Quentin Tarantino

Django contains the many strengths and several weaknesses of Quentin Tarantino. As with all his best movies, he takes a well-established generic form, here the Western, and develops its elements to farce; to absurdity; even finally to destruction. With scabrous dialogue, scandalous amorality and an almost childish determination to shock, he repeatedly follows the internal logic of the genre to often funny, sometimes disturbing reductio ad absurdum conclusions that first fascinate, then alienate and finally leave us confusedly high and dry: like being taken on a wonderful, thrilling ride to somewhere we don’t want to be and wouldn’t have willingly set out for. He is also the ultimate ironist of contemporary American movies. Django is a natural companion piece in tone to the recent Seven Psychopaths.

However much Critics love the game, it can become tedious to pick out the cinematic references and homages that Tarantino delightedly exploits in every film he’s ever made in order to riff on generic themes and conventions we all recognize to varying degrees. But it is almost impossible to make sense of his movies without acknowledging some of their internal references.

Django unerringly plays to the dramatic truth that no emotion drives a narrative more certainly or satisfyingly than revenge, bringing to mind of course among other Westerns, The Searchers; and like Peckinpah’s revisionist conception in the Wild Bunch, Tarantino delights in rejecting the worthy herioc stoic moralism of Westerns like Shane and High Noon with an orgy of graphic, violent imagery. There are no high-minded nice-guys in this movie, laconic or not; even Jamie Foxx’s eponymous Django is forced into choices rigorously driven by the triumph of might over right. In this Tarantino, like Peckinpah, with contempt, literally explodes the myth that reverses these conflicting imperatives.

It is hard to take seriously Tarantino’s hints that Django is merely a victim of ethnic circumstance and Schultz a bounty-hunter with a sense of honour exercising his dubiously legal power of execution purely to rid the West of bad guys. Even (Dirty) Harry Callaghan wasn’t making a tidy profit from punks who felt lucky.

An American truth: first win – then discuss the rights and wrongs afterwards. (A sentiment by the way that not only drives American sport but also e.g. that other Oscar nominated film – Zero Dark Thirty about the search for, and assassination of, Osama Bin Laden).

Much of this is very good: at times wickedly funny bordering on farce; at others funnily wicked extending into explicit violence so graphic and extreme that only its ludicrous, fantasy excess rescues it from being pornographic. Tarantino stirs into this Western mix a central theme of slavery, 2 years before the Civil War to end it, with Foxx’s Django rescued from a group of manacled slaves by the eccentric Dr King Schultz (‘Dr King’? C’mon Quentin – really?) played by the incomparable Christoph Waltz. Schultz is a dentist who found bounty-hunting more lucrative and a great deal more exciting. Hunting for a trio of nicely priced little Outlaw earners, Schulz enforces his own version of compulsory purchase of Django because, he, unlike his emancipator, knows what the lucrative trio look like. Schultz simplifies the objective of his quasi-legal trade by reducing the disjunction ‘dead or alive’ to a single term.

Talking like a bearded Hans Landa (Inglourious Bastards – 2009) Schultz reveals a courteous but ruthlessly lethal negotiating style leaving one white guard dead with the other soon to follow. In Django, Tarantino over-uses and abuses the ‘n’-*gger- word to the point where it loses any shred of meaning and therefore power to offend. Well almost. But if it’s all right with Jamie Foxx and Samuel L Jackson – who am I to complain?

With an insouciant incredulity, the ‘colour-blind’ Schultz takes great delight in riding straight over any and every Southern racist cultural law, rule or custom with a slightly bemused Django in tow. These conventions and the racist assumptions driving them are expressed in Tarantino’s controversial but Oscar-winning script in graphic, repeatedly racist language that constantly makes our modern sensibility inwardly recoil.

When the intrepid pair catch-up with the original fugitive trio, Django dispatches two, leaving the third to the sneakily hidden Derringer of Schultz. Knowing a good thing when he sees it, the German angel of judicial death invites Django to partner him. In return he offers to help Django first track down then rescue his wife who, like him, was whipped and sold off separately some time before when their master objected to their marriage.

With typical Tarantino playfulness Mrs Django (Kerry Washington) is named Broomhilda Von Schaft and taught to speak German by a previous mistress who wanted someone to talk to with the bonus of having a slave a cut above the ordinary. Thanks to some ‘camp’-fire story-telling Quentin thus casts Django as a Siegfried to ‘Hildy’s’ Brunehilde – fabled hero without fear having to cross the fires of hell to rescue his love.

The intrepid odd couple track Hildy down to Candie-land, one of the biggest plantations in the South run by pretentious Calvin Candie (Di Caprio) whose unexplained Francophilia demands he is addressed ‘Monsieur’ but to whom one mustn’t talk French as he doesn’t speak it. The tyrannical overlords of the Western genre were all cattle Barons: just for fun and perhaps to maintain the dramatic claustrophobia of his tale, Tarantino’s villain loves ‘Mandingo’-fighting (slaves who bare-knuckle fight to the death) and trades in slave-fighters.

Knowing Candie wouldn’t be interested in parting with Hildy, worth only a few hundred dollars, to strangers, Schultz and Django arouse his interest with a mouth-watering offer for Candie’s best Mandingo. This subterfuge is picked up by Candie’s trusted life-long house-slave Stephen (another stock figure in films of the South) played with relish by an aged-up Samuel Jackson.

The unmasking of the scam is the trigger for Tarantino’s classic Western showdown: his being so violent and bloody that it puts Peckinpah’s excesses in the Wild Bunch in the shade. Even here Tarantino displays his characteristic trope that nothing succeeds like excess. Gallons of manifestly fake blood spurts and gushes from whichever part of the body the hail of bullets hits. As ever with Mr Tarantino it is touch and go in these set-piece bloodbaths whether participants are more likely to drown than be shot to death.
Tarantino is as exasperating as he is impressive. Like the Monty Python sketches we don’t remember now, he tends to let scenes go on too long; to the point where diminishing returns sets in. Although a critical cliché, Django would be a much tighter, better film 20-30 minutes shorter.

Tarantino should also take a vow of absence: he pops up at the end in a brief speaking part; and I’m sorry but he really sucks. Quentin – you can’t act: accept it. Even Hitch knew that walk on, walk-off was as much as he could get away with.

It’s always hard to know whether to take Tarantino seriously: we know he loves movies and rejoices in their conventions and relishes replicating their simple style and innocent panache. But with Django as with his other movies, we get no sense of what he cares about; what he thinks is important. This is no accident: he likes nothing better than to frustrate expectations, shock and surprise us. It’s like he knows a secret joke and the real secret is – there is no joke. Which of course is the joke.

Django is in my view his best for some time and is more consistent than the often very funny but for me, uneven Inglourious Bastards. Foxx, Jackson and Di Caprio along with an unrecognizable bunch of well-known names, are predictably very good and Waltz is just a slightly campy delight – worth every penny of his Oscar.

Django is a great ride: and if you end up at times in an uncomfortable place – well I guess it’s just movie. Isn’t it?

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