Sunday 20 January 2013

Review: Django Unchained

Year: 2013
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L Jackson 

Synopsis is here

Thank goodness Django made all its money in the U.S already. As the cold snap bites down on the U.K, it’s clear that it’s opening box office will be affected. I however, braved the bitter winter to reach my local cinema and get better acquainted with a tall dark stranger named Django.  Snow was never going to stop me from participating in the opening weekend of Quentin Tarantino’s latest entry to his eccentric canon. The controversy behind it only sweetens the deal.

Tarantino’s spaghetti “southern”; set during America’s slave era, already had Spike Lee’s back up before the film was even released. Lee stated in a Vibe interview that the film was disrespectful to his ancestors.Lee’s remarks are reminiscent of his earlier words on Tarantino's use on the word  nigger. The film's screenplay (leaked over two years ago) not only features the word over 100 times, it also features graphic violence and racism towards African Americans due to the era it is set in. It’s easy to see why a director such as Lee would be against the film.

 Meanwhile, Tarantinofound himself; once again, being asked the questions of violence in the mediathat have plagued him since his 1992 debut Reservoir Dogs. In a Channel 4 news interview, a tetchy Tarantino clashes Krishnan Guru-Murthy over the questions being asked. The interview is a bizarre one, in which Tarantino, not only tells Guru-Murthy that he’s “shutting his butt down” but also claims that the point of the interview (for a news show) is only to sell his movie and to gain ratings for the program.

What’s interesting is that while Lee’s comments became an easy digestible sound bite (as did his twitter comments afterwards) Quentin’s shutdown of answers, along with his countless amount of times he’s had to answer this seemed to have given him a certain amount of wiggle room. The aforementioned snow will do more to put people off. All the while Lee is getting vilified by many well known black commenters.

The controversy surrounding the Django Unchained is just as murky as the film itself. Neither Lee or Tarantino right or wrong for what they've said, and Django equally places itself inside a strange and unique position. Opening up a dialogue on racism, which will possibly connect itself better to a younger generation than the likes of Spielberg’s Lincoln, but blurring its irrelevance with its combination of history, cartoonish violence and our own audience viewpoints. This is a mainstream film with a black hero and romance at its heart, but it needed Tarantino’s clout to do this. The use of the word nigger must be used to give allow the historic context to ring true. Yet, even despite being a massive fan of rap music, I questioned if the word was used to merely push the bar as far as it can go (not so much excessive, more uninspiring, strangely). That Django can push the buttons it does and still remain an entertaining affair, without getting too bogged down with such issues, is a tribute to Tarantino as a filmmaker. Django is as much an important film about race as it is an irreverent, over the top western.

The film starts with the sort of style that one would expect from Tarantino. Its opening, gestures wildly to Sergio Corbucci original Django(1966) feature with its theme song and opening shot. The original Django enters the scene seemingly out of nowhere with death on his back (signified by the coffin he drags). This modern Django carries slashes. Both are referring to the burden that has been placed on them. When the theme song references Django by name, we get the name credit of Jamie Foxx, or a shot of Foxx himself. Tarantino primes the scene perfectly; with the 1966 theme song leading the audience into what they should expect (listen to the lyrics). From this start I felt that the film wasn't going to miss a beat.

For the most part, it doesn't. The tale of Django is told with the same kind of exuberance that you’d expect from its creator.  Tarantino understands that the original film was what it was due to how it shunned sand and romantic western nostalgia for violence and mud.  Unchained goes over the same areas, with more gusto. The film has its characters trudging through sludge in the same way Franco Nero did nearly 50 years ago. Just the very fact that the mud that many of these characters trudge through in the early stages are as dirty as the themes the narrative bring up.

Sequences are wonderfully staged, with the film’s first act being particularly smart and well formed (the fainting women is a great touch).When the chambers flash, the film is nothing short of dazzling, with Tarantinoshow just how much he’s evolved in staging and using space when it comes to action. The violence itself is provocative. We see horrible savage violence on African Americans which is depicted as brutally as you would expect. Tarantino’s use of reaction shots says everything we need to know about its nastiness. The violence in retaliation is boarder, more comic and in a strange way, more cathartic. It’s hard to say I didn’t enjoy Django getting his own back. However, I was more entertained by Django’s independence. Watching him grow as a character (much of it down to Foxx’s performance) was compelling.      

But then Tarantino’s characters here are amongst some of his most engaging, with Waltz and Foxx invoke that same winning chemistry that made Jules and Vincent the poster boys of 90’s students.  Samuel L Jackson’s Steven is an embodiment of evil that comes from a very real place. Much has been said about LeonardoDiCaprio’s scenery chewing racist Calvin Candie (and he is a great pantomime villain for a piece like this), but it’s the role of Stephen that is the most troubling, a character who has self loathing for his own race. Despite the films over the top way, there is a disturbing truthfulness that comes from Stephen’s contentment that there is a racial hierarchy. The dynamic between Foxx’s Django and Jackson’s Stephen was worth my ticket price alone, an eye opening insight into the racial divide that ironically reminded me of Jackson’s role in Spike Lee’s School Daze.

Tarantino, always the hip hop director, samples a bit of all the things that influence him to create an outlandish pastiche full of flourishes of style. It’s the Peckinpah style shoot outs, the gorgeous scenery is mixed with the “badasscool of characters like Django and the headstrong rush into such a volatile subject matter. It’s unfortunate that Tarantino’s love for exploitation takes things too far for its own good.
It’s great to see a director (be it White, Black, Asian or other) to embrace another’s culture in such a way (the film is heavily influenced by Blaxploitation as well as the Italian Genre Westerns) and yet Quentin’s love of the homage overdoes itself as it did in Death Proof. Django betrays the origins of its grind house, exploitation fare its semi based in and lacks the economy that films like the 1966 Django had. It doesn’t help that the film doesn't hold the novelistic structure that featured in Inglourious Basterds (and the tension).  You could also can argue that Once upon a Time in the West has an equally lengthy running time, but as much as I love Tarantino, he is not Leone. The film is not nearly as operatic it could be and could do with a trim, while the screenplay doesn't hold the same amount of wit and rhythm as earlier works despite some of it being quite amusing. Another weakness is the film handling of Kerry Washington who is a much stronger actress than merely a trophy to be collected.   

But there are moments in which Django shows that it’s more than a sum of its parts. To me, it doesn't just embrace black culture, but it also gives us a black hero driven by love, given his own flaws and an arc that makes him complex. Even his main relationship in the film is fascinating, growing from uncertainty, to mutual respect and beyond. The film’s use of hip hop as a stylistic is choice goes beyond doing it because it’s cool. It metaphorically calls on the difficult relationship that genre has with many also whether Tarantino believes that or not.

For me, Django is far from Quentin’s best; and yet, features so many singular bombastic moments of entertainment that the difficult second viewing has to be performed as soon as possible.  It’s also important to remember that in its infancy, the film had Will Smith as a possible consideration as the lead. While the argument on if a film like this could be made by a black director still hangs in the air (IMO it could not, 1: they’re not Quentin, 2: the conservatism of Hollywood in general)   Foxx’s performance with its nuance and swagger and Tarantino’s clout, writing and flair have once again opened up the idea that a film with a black lead (not a biopic) could open well and people would not only watch it, but enjoy it. Let’s see what happens when the U.K snow clears.