Skip to main content

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.


Django Unchained
(2012)

(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic principles and subject matter that, paradoxically, he wants to have fun with but also treat with gravity.


Because, despite addressing its subject more directly, Django Unchained is about as serious-minded a commentary on slavery as Basterds is on the Holocaust. Tarantino is really just feeding the period trappings through his cool filter, coming out with dazzling shootouts and delirious mind games and, yes, distinctive dialogue to suit his “southern”. He’s as smart as ever in knowing how to elicit a response to different forms of violence, such that a brutal, casually-refereed Mandingo fight and a slave savaged by Candy’s dogs repulse, while Django’s gunfight in Candy’s mansion is a giddy, enthralling spectacle of crimson jets and spinning bodies.


But there’s something slightly wearying about the whole thing. Maybe it’s the lack of engagement with the titular character, or the clash between the director’s glibness and his subject matter, but too often I felt I was being led down a well-worn path with nothing of any substance to provide nourishment. Not that I shouldn’t know better by now; perhaps, ultimately, it is his stock-in-trade that left me disappointed. The characters, with a couple of exceptions, just don’t sparkle. And the “Look at me!” daring of making a film against the backdrop of slavery, because there’s no depth to it, once again singles out Quentin as the kid in class provoking teacher by making fart noises. It’s entertaining if you’re his classmate… up to a point.


At its core, the director has come up with an effective revenge western; a freed slave teams up with a bounty hunter, taking revenge on his persecutors and setting off to rescue with his wife. But he is either unable or unwilling to ruthlessly prune his material, such that Django is much too long, repetitive and features dramatic lulls that only the sterling work of the cast can see it through. It’s also front-loaded.


The first 50 minutes are enthralling, perfectly-paced, five-star material, as bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) frees Django (Jamie Foxx) and joins forces with him to hunt down the Brittle Brothers. The dialogue is witty, and Schultz is a classic Tarantino scene-stealer (his introductions, including his horse’s name, are particularly winning). And the retribution Django visits is cathartic and enervating. Tarantino also pulls off some sublime visuals (the spray of blood on cotton plants is stunning). But even here, there is a concern that the material is not quite honed enough. Schultz and Django have a marvellously effective showdown in a town, where Schultz talks them out of certain death by flourishing a “Wanted” poster. When he does exactly the same thing at Don Johnson’s ranch, there is a sense of diminishing returns.


I wouldn’t quite say that the air is sucked out of the film during its mid-section, where Schultz and Django pose as businessmen procuring Mandingo fighters (slaves who fight to the death in boxing matches) in order to infiltrate Calvin Candie’s (Leonard DiCaprio) property and save Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), but the momentum is diffused. This isn’t about gunfights (with Tarantino they used to be merely a punctuation rather than the star attraction). Rather, there’s a failure of narrative tension. Django is repeatedly shown staring down his would-be masters or wrestling with whether or not to start firing. For some reason, the stakes aren’t raised, perhaps because Tarantino himself repeatedly gives way; it beggars belief that, in the situation he has created, one of Candie’s men wouldn’t shoot Django in the back, offended at his talking back or insults (whatever Candie has instructed about showing good manners).


So it’s some relief that, after an hour of dawdling, the fireworks, both verbal and visual, begin. There are some strong moments during the second act. The Mandingo scene is effectively horrific, if not as tightly wrought as it could be (throwing in the Franco Nero exchange with Django only goes to illustrate how off Tarantino’s priorities are) and Samuel L Jackson’s unsettling performance as Stephen, Candie’s senior house slave, is outstanding. With Schultz, he’s the only character Tarantino completely nails, and represents a much-needed reminder of how good Jackson can be. It’s Stephen, far more shrewd and observant than his owner, who identifies the dangerous game being played by Django and Schultz.


What follows is the film’s "classic" Tarantino scene. You know, one where somebody gives an unnerving speech, winding the tension up to maximum before a surprising (and violent) release is provided. As well written as it is, Candie’s phrenological account of why the white race is mentally superior cannot match the quiet, taunting monologue Dennis Hopper gives in True Romance (which also includes a racial theme, designed to provoke). The difference comes in the tension built up by Tony Scott’s editing, the cadence of Hoppper’s delivery, and the cheerful but menacing cuts to Christopher Walken listening. DiCaprio is fine as Candie, but either he doesn’t quite seize the role and run with it for all its worth, or it just isn’t quite there in the script. Or maybe it’s down to the editing (this was Tarantino’s first without Sally Menke, who died in 2010).


I can’t fault the pay-off, however. The bloodbath that ensues sees the director breaking out his inner-Peckinpah rather than his Leone, but the slight concern over the trajectory of all this is justified when, rather than resolving his narrative, Tarantino opts to unnecessarily extend it.


The mistreatment of Django fails to instill the necessaries to justify bloating the running time for further payback. Worse, still allowing him to live lends the proceedings the cheesiest of Bond villain motivations (the earlier deal with Candie also seemed like a point where he would take the opportunity to rid himself of them; that he does not is curious, and not merely based on profit since he already had their money). It just becomes silly, and it’s the sort of thing Tarantino would previously have studiously avoided. I was put in mind of Sir Percival’s double-back at the end of Excalibur, which has the unfortunate effect of undermining the climax as a whole.  Not only are we cursed with a Tarantino cameo (he’s been eating the pies, hasn’t he?), but one where he invites further ridicule for his thespian skills by attempting (I think) an Australian accent. Rather than building to a much-awaited showdown, Django canters along to a technically excellent but rather uninvolving climax. The crucial problem is that all the cathartic violence was expended in the first third of the film. So you’re left merely with lurid repetition. There absence of structural inventiveness, previously a prerequisite, further emphasises the bloated nature of the final stages.


There’s a moment during the final shoot out that is illustrative of where Quentin is at. Django shoots a (naked) man in the genitals during one shoot-out, and a couple of minutes later does the same to another cast member in another firefight. How cool is that?! The man has no restraint, no one to say "Rein it in a bit there, Quentin". In the second instance one could argue it is thematically relevant (even if the whole genital mutilation subplot is blandly uninspired), but he just couldn’t wait.


Similarly, near the beginning, one of the Speck brothers is trapped beneath his horse. Django and Schultz leave him to his fate at the hands of the released slaves. The most effective place to cut would have been his cries of protest as they advance on him. Instead, Tarantino can’t control himself and gives audiences the “money shot”.


Another scene during the first third has the director poke fun at some inept Klansmen who are unable to see through their headwear. As an idea, it’s solid, and you can see how it could be mined for laughs. But like so much here, the delivery is curiously flat.


The plaudits of an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Waltz were over-generous. Waltz is magnificent, and he has the best part in the film, but he could do this in his sleep. It’s a gift of a role that stands head and shoulders above the surrounding film and characters (Jackson excepted). Schultz is a very clear “type”; the Obi Wan who leads the hero on his journey. But he’s also the Han Solo, much more interesting than the presumed lead character.


Will Smith turned down Django , saying “Django wasn’t the lead, so I was like, I need to be the lead. The other character was the lead!” Whether Will really needs to be the lead is something between him and his ego, but he’s absolutely right about the imbalance Tarantino has created. This also sits slightly uncomfortably in thematic terms; the white director, much commented upon for previous form with the “N-word” picks a setting and period where he can pepper it into his script with impunity. And he requires his black hero to be empowered by a white saviour figure, deferring to his better judgement. I’m not sure if Smith’s charisma could have overcome this hurdle, but Foxx is kind of just “okay” as Django. He needs to be great, iconically Eastwood great, and because he isn't, all the Quentin "So cool" shit in the last moments is goofy and slightly embarrassing.


Another problem is, he used to seize on semi-known or out-of-favour actors and relight their star power with great roles. Here, he gets a bunch of semi-recognisable faces and gives them each a couple of lines, relying on the audience recognition rather than the strength of character beats. Yes, Bruce Dern makes a big impression in about a minute of screen time, and it’s nice to see Breaking Away's Dennis Christopher in a fairly significant role. But no one makes a mark outside of the quartet of leads. Kerry Washington effectively plays the MacGuffin, and has exactly as much substance to her role as that implies. As a result, any notions of an emotional through line between Django and his wife go unserviced.


It’s illustrative that the likes of Kevin Costner, Kurt Russell, Sacha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Michael Kenneth Williams all dropped out (most citing scheduling conflicts), some of those roles disappearing too. James Remar plays two parts, one of which is the Costner/Russell earmarked Butch. But Butch is no more memorable than Goggins’ Billy Crash. You remember Crash because Goggins plays him, not because he’s a strong character. Compare that to Shane Black ,who makes no-name actors playing one-scene heavies indelible, and something has gone seriously askew in Quentin’s world.


The eclectic soundtrack is typical Tarantino; often inspired, occasionally ill-advised. At least he’s finally made a film where his magpie tendencies towards Ennio Morricone find a natural home.


Django Unchained, overblown and undisciplined as it is, nevertheless provides fitful blasts of the director at his best. Perhaps he should return to the crime genre. It might provide a purer distillation of his sensibility, since his current riffs and repetitions have lost their lustre. Or maybe he just needs someone he trusts leaning over his shoulder and telling him when another draft is needed, and when to cut.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Mondo bizarro. No offence man, but you’re in way over your head.

The X-Files 8.7: Via Negativa I wasn’t as down on the last couple of seasons of The X-Files as most seemed to be. For me, the mythology arc walked off a cliff somewhere around the first movie, with only the occasional glimmer of something worthwhile after that. So the fact that the show was tripping over itself with super soldiers and Mulder’s abduction/his and Scully’s baby (although we all now know it wasn’t, sheesh ), anything to stretch itself beyond breaking point in the vain hope viewers would carry on dangling, didn’t really make much odds. Of course, it finally snapped with the wretched main arc when the show returned, although the writing was truly on the wall with Season 9 finale The Truth . For the most part, though, I found 8 and 9 more watchable than, say 5 or 7. They came up with their fair share of engaging standalones, one of which I remembered to be Via Negativa .

Schnell, you stinkers! Come on, raus!

Private’s Progress (1956) (SPOILERS) Truth be told, there’s good reason sequel I’m Alright Jack reaps the raves – it is, after all, razor sharp and entirely focussed in its satire – but Private’s Progress is no slouch either. In some respects, it makes for an easy bedfellow with such wartime larks as Norman Wisdom’s The Square Peg (one of the slapstick funny man’s better vehicles). But it’s also, typically of the Boulting Brothers’ unsentimental disposition, utterly remorseless in rebuffing any notions of romantic wartime heroism, nobility and fighting the good fight. Everyone in the British Army is entirely cynical, or terrified, or an idiot.

Isn’t it true, it’s easier to be a holy man on the top of a mountain?

The Razor’s Edge (1984) (SPOILERS) I’d hadn’t so much a hankering as an idle interest in finally getting round to seeing Bill Murray’s passion project. Partly because it seemed like such an odd fit. And partly because passion isn’t something you tend to associate with any Murray movie project, involving as it usually does laidback deadpan. Murray, at nigh-on peak fame – only cemented by the movie he agreed to make to make this movie – embarks on a serious-acting-chops dramatic project, an adaptation of W Somerset Maugham’s story of one man’s journey of spiritual self-discovery. It should at least be interesting, shouldn’t it? A real curio? Alas, not. The Razor’s Edge is desperately turgid.

It’s not as if she were a… maniac, a raving thing.

Psycho (1960) (SPOILERS) One of cinema’s most feted and most studied texts, and for good reason. Even if the worthier and more literate psycho movie of that year is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom . One effectively ended a prolific director’s career and the other made its maker more in demand than ever, even if he too would discover he had peaked with his populist fear flick. Pretty much all the criticism and praise of Psycho is entirely valid. It remains a marvellously effective low-budget shocker, one peppered with superb performances and masterful staging. It’s also fairly rudimentary in tone, character and psychology. But those negative elements remain irrelevant to its overall power.

You have done well to keep so much hair, when so many’s after it.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) (SPOILERS) Hitherto, I was most familiar with Jeremiah Johnson in the form of a popular animated gif of beardy Robert Redford smiling and nodding in slow zoom close up (a moment that is every bit as cheesy in the film as it is in the gif). For whatever reason, I hadn’t mustered the enthusiasm to check out the 1970s’ The Revenant until now (well, beard-wise, at any rate). It’s easy to distinguish the different personalities at work in the movie. The John Milius one – the (mythic) man against the mythic landscape; the likeably accentuated, semi-poetic dialogue – versus the more naturalistic approach favoured by director Sydney Pollack and star Redford. The fusion of the two makes for a very watchable, if undeniably languorous picture. It was evidently an influence on Dances with Wolves in some respects, although that Best Picture Oscar winner is at greater pains to summon a more sensitive portrayal of Native Americans (and thus, perversely, at times a more patr

My Doggett would have called that crazy.

The X-Files 9.4: 4-D I get the impression no one much liked Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), but I felt, for all the sub-Counsellor Troi, empath twiddling that dogged her characterisation, she was a mostly positive addition to the series’ last two years (of its main run). Undoubtedly, pairing her with Doggett, in anticipation of Gillian Anderson exiting just as David Duchovny had – you rewatch these seasons and you wonder where her head was at in hanging on – made for aggressively facile gender-swapped conflict positions on any given assignment. And generally, I’d have been more interested in seeing how two individuals sympathetic to the cause – her and Mulder – might have got on. Nevertheless, in an episode like 4-D you get her character, and Doggett’s, at probably their best mutual showing.

You’re a disgrace, sir... Weren’t you at Harrow?

Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) (SPOILERS) I hadn’t seen this one in more than three decades, and I had in mind that it was a decent spy spoof, well populated with a selection of stalwart British character actors in supporting roles. Well, I had the last bit right. I wasn’t aware this came from the stable of producer Harry Alan Towers, less still of his pedigree, or lack thereof, as a sort of British Roger Corman (he tried his hand at Star Wars with The Shape of Things to Come and Conan the Barbarian with Gor , for example). More legitimately, if you wish to call it that, he was responsible for the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu flicks. Our Man in Marrakesh – riffing overtly on Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana in title – seems to have in mind the then popular spy genre and its burgeoning spoofs, but it’s unsure which it is; too lightweight to work as a thriller and too light on laughs to elicit a chuckle.

The best thing in the world for the inside of a man or a woman is the outside of a horse.

Marnie (1964) (SPOILERS) Hitch in a creative ditch. If you’ve read my Vertigo review, you’ll know I admired rather than really liked the picture many fete as his greatest work. Marnie is, in many ways, a redux, in the way De Palma kept repeating himself in the early 80s only significantly less delirious and… well, compelling. While Marnie succeeds in commanding the attention fitfully, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. And Hitch, digging his heels in as he strives to fashion a star against public disinterest – he failed to persuade Grace Kelly out of retirement for Marnie Rutland – comes entirely adrift with his leads.

I tell you, it saw me! The hanged man’s asphyx saw me!

The Asphyx (1972) (SPOILERS) There was such a welter of British horror from the mid 60s to mid 70s, even leaving aside the Hammers and Amicuses, that it’s easy to lose track of them in the shuffle. This one, the sole directorial effort of Peter Newbrook (a cameraman for David Lean, then a cinematographer), has a strong premise and a decent cast, but it stumbles somewhat when it comes to taking that premise any place interesting. On the plus side, it largely eschews the grue. On the minus, directing clearly wasn’t Newbrook’s forte, and even aided by industry stalwart cinematographer Freddie Young (also a go-to for Lean), The Aspyhx is stylistically rather flat.

I don't like the way Teddy Roosevelt is looking at me.

North by Northwest (1959) (SPOILERS) North by Northwest gets a lot of attention as a progenitor of the Bond formula, but that’s giving it far too little credit. Really, it’s the first modern blockbuster, paving the way for hundreds of slipshod, loosely plotted action movies built around set pieces rather than expertly devised narratives. That it delivers, and delivers so effortlessly, is a testament to Hitchcock, to writer Ernest Lehmann, and to a cast who make the entire implausible exercise such a delight.