This is a very long post about a very long film.
Over the course of the last week, both Clive and I have seen Tarantino's latest, the spaghetti blaxploitationer Django Unchained. We feel that it's nowhere near his best, and we feel that you need to be told that, at length. We apologise in advance for the inconvenience.
Clive: A man with piercing blue eyes staggers out of the desert into a Western frontier town, dragging a coffin. That’s the striking opening of Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 Spaghetti Western, ‘Django’. Then after many years, and many more sequels (both official and unofficial), another movie bearing the ‘Django’ name hits town. This time, the man dragging a heavy burden behind him is Quentin Tarantino. That’s because every movie he brings to town is “A Film by Quentin Tarantino,” and must carry all the baggage that comes with that.
However, for the moment, let’s have Tarantino lay that burden down and go check those mean looking six-guns in with the local sheriff, while we look at: ‘Django Unchained.’
In the pre-Civil War American South, Django (Jamie Foxx: ‘Ray’; ‘Miami Vice’) is a slave. After winning his freedom and learning a new trade, he teams up with former dentist Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz: ‘Inglourious Basterds’; ‘Carnage’), on a mission to rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington: ‘Ray’; ‘Fantastic Four’) from the clutches of monstrous Mississippi plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio: ‘Inception’; ‘J. Edgar’).
Tarantino’s movie-making has explored the notion of the elaborate revenge fantasy for some time. ‘Kill Bill: Vol. 1’ and ‘Kill Bill: Vol. 2’ took the personal revenge movie, stripped it down to its scanties, then dressed it back up with some of his favourite genre tropes. In ‘Inglourious Basterds’ he rewrote World War Two as a revenge story where Jews are able to exact personal revenge on the Nazis. So it was natural to expect ‘Django Unchained’ to similarly reinvent slavery-era American South as a revenge movie.
However – initially at least – Tarantino eschews that path. The first part of the movie plays out in a humorous spaghetti western mode. Django learns the bounty-hunting business from another of Tarantino’s amoral but heroic killers. Indeed, Dr. King Schultz could be the most polite killer the Western has seen since Klaus Kinski’s character in Sergio Corbucci’s ‘Il Grande Silenzio’ (aka ‘The Big Silence’/‘The Great Silence’). Django and King’s encounters with stupid rednecks are played broadly comic, and would not be out of place in ‘Blazing Saddles’.
Rob: and here we start to get to my big problem with the film. It's two stories rolled into one, with the accompanying hit in screen time. Django Unchained is two hours and forty-six minutes long. It's over an hour before we hear mention of the supposed main villain of the piece, let along actually meet the guy. We'll talk more about the unacceptable amount of bloat in the screenplay in a bit, because MAN, does DU start to drag its heels. I don't normally have this problem with Tarantino–my favourites of his both feature extended longeurs, and I delight in his big dialogue-heavy setpieces. And indeed, I like slow elegiac Westerns. But this film is being sold as a pulpy slavengeance cowboy film. It should move more quickly than this.
Clive: In the second half of the film, the two allies journey to Candieland, and we get the main action of the film. To my surprise, I was reminded very heavily of the Michael Ritchie film ‘Midnight Sting’ (aka ‘Diggstown’). Django and King are essentially trying to pull a con on Calvin Candie. There are nods to ‘Mandingo’ too, in the framing of this con. Then, there is a final section, which I will skip over to avoid major spoilers.
Rob: About that sting. I don't get it. Django and King Shultz are successful bounty hunters, with a decent bankroll. Calvin Candie, for all his shortcomings as an evil slave trader and all, is first and foremost a businessman. Why not just buy Broomhilda back? Maybe the reason for that was outlined at the point where I had to take a pee. I'm getting on, can't hold it in like I used to and did I mention that this film is getting on for three hours long? It's not surprising that my attention wandered.
Clive: The good news first: ‘Django Unchained’ has all the strengths of Tarantino at his best. He still knows how to write great scenes which utilise suspense and twist off in unexpected directions. His flair for dialogue and monologues remains undimmed, and in Christoph Waltz, he has found an actor who can speak Tarantino-ese as though it were his native tongue. He coaxes some fine memorable performances from his cast and in particular from his chief villains: Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson. There’s also the trademark use of excellent music, both found and original.
Rob: Yes, yes and yes. The acting is uniformly outstanding. Christophe Waltz rolls Tarantino's dialogue round his tonsils like a fine wine. DiCaprio shows some threat and venom as the villainous Candie, and Sam Jackson plays the house slave Stephen with reptilian brio. A real nasty piece of work. He's stated in interviews that he wanted people to hate him in this movie. He's done a damn fine job.
Clive: As the film progresses though, the problems begin to mount up. For all the fun stuff you get in ‘Django Unchained’, you have to put up with lot of bloat and repetition. There’s a point in the narrative where it feels like a climax, but then the story crawls on for another half an hour before it ends. If he’d just reworked the first climax, he could still have got the resolution he wanted – and without us having to suffer Tarantino’s grim Australian accent.
One group of stupid racists is funny, by the fourth lot the joke has worn thin – likewise with his stylistic tics. The slo-mo gore that accompanies every gunshot loses its effectiveness as the film wears on. As if aware of this, he ups the body count too, but more isn’t always more.
Rob: Which I'd call the watch-phrase for the film as a whole. Tarantino isn't known for his restraint, but in DU he really piles it on. The gore is extra-chunky. Gunfire launches cowboys backwards off horses. As for the plot–repetitive doesn't really describe it. The film goes round and round, pounding every point it needs to make in with a lump hammer, then pulling it out to be able to pound it back in again. This heavy-handed approach doesn't suit the material, or do anything for the forward motion of the plot.
Then of course, there's that word.
Clive: You could write a book on Tarantino’s use of the N-word in his movies, and here he seems intent on finding every possible use: to shock; to amuse; as a racial slur; to insult; to denote unthinking racism; as punctuation… The main one though is to bait and provoke the audience. Like another filmmaker who’s made a film that’s self-consciously ‘about slavery’ – Lars Von Trier's‘ Manderlay’ – he remains a provocateur. Here he doesn’t so much explore racism as gleefully stick his thumb in an old wound.
We also get that other N-word: nudity – full male nudity. Not in itself a problem. However its appearance here is part of Tarantino’s unthinking regurgitation of some of the worst tropes of ‘Mandingo’- style exploitation cinema: Blacks (particularly women) being whipped and abused by whites. Blacks stripped. Black males forced to fight each other. Okay, you need to show the evil of slavery, but often the depiction here edges into territory that feels like… well, exploitation.
Rob: None of which would be a problem, ordinarily. And frankly, we could use a little more full male nudity in the cinema. The problem for me is the way Tarantino tries to have his cake and eat it–playing with exploitation tropes while at the same time making a film about “issues” like slavery. Thing is, we get that slavery's bad, and hanging Jamie Foxx up by his heels with his meat and two veg on display doesn't add anything to the debate.
Clive: The depiction of women in ‘Django Unchained’ is disappointing too. Kerry Washington is a fine actress, but here she gets little more to do than suffer tortures and wait for her man to rescue her. As the film explicitly states in King’s dialogue, Broomhilda is a prize at the end of the quest for her Siegfried – Django. If Disney had a princess like that in their animated films now, they’d be rightly castigated. From the writer who co-created Mrs. Mia Wallace, this is disappointing stuff.
Rob: Absolutely. From Pulp Fiction on, one of Tarantino's strengths has been his tough female characters. Hell, my favourite of his films is Jackie Brown. In Django, by comparison, the women are either dimbulbs, princesses awaiting rescue, or masked and silent. The amazing Zöe Bell is one of the trackers; not that you'd know it under that red bandana, which she never takes off. Frankly, in a film that's full of mis-steps and fumbled moments, that's the one that really had me seeing red.
Clive: In his best work Tarantino quotes from cult, genre and exploitation cinema and then twists those moments into something new and fresh. In Django Unchained it feels like he’s stuck in a creative cul-de-sac making movies about other movies. Perhaps it’s time for Quentin to take a page from the Book of Corinthians, rather than the bumper book of Spaghetti Westerns, and ‘Put away childish things.’ I’d love to see him put all his gifts into making a movie about real human beings. Or if that’s too much to ask, maybe just a genre film that’s as lean, inventive and fast moving as ‘Reservoir Dogs.’ That would truly be… cool.
Rob: Quentin Tarantino famously lives on his own in a huge mansion up in the Hollywood Hills, his only companion a huge home cinema. That isolation is starting to show, percolating out into films that are part parody, part homage, and lacking the hand of an editoral voice other than his. He's becoming locked into an increasingly unoriginal cycle. Django Unchained is his second film in a row that takes its identity explicitly from another movie. Although you could argue that all he's doing here is adding another film to the roster of Django movies, it worries me that he couldn't be bothered to put together a new theme tune, choosing to recycle the one from the classic 1966 Franco Nero starrer.
Clive and I were both horribly disappointed with Django Unchained. It's great in parts–well-acted, sizzling dialogue, some brilliant set-pieces. But as a whole it just doesn't hold together. You end up with something that's flabby, bloated and repetitive. Just like this review. How very fucking meta of us.
Next week, expect more over-length rantage as Clive and I wallow in the Oscar-nommed exploration of the events that led up to the execution of Osama Bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty.