BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: DJANGO UNCHAINED

django-unchained-still-jackson-dicaprio-waltz-foxx

“Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation.” The immortal words of Martin Luther King upon acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Musings obviously related to the struggles of the civil rights movement, yet arguably, an appropriate line of scrutiny in the recent career of Quentin Tarantino. A director who in his last four features (the Kill Bills, Death Proof and Inglorious Basterds) has succumbed to the seduction of retribution fantasies, allowing his skill as a film-maker to stagnate.

Continuing this trend (and making King’s words rather poignant) we have Django Unchained; QT’s homage to the Spaghetti Western and in particular the blood-soaked Franco Nero Django films (Nero even makes a brief cameo appearance). In fact its central plot isn’t too dissimilar from the sixties effort, with the main difference being the contextualisation with one of America’s darkest historical chapters – slavery.

Encompassing the title character bound by bondage and ravenous with rage is Jaime Foxx; a whip-lashed “commodity” acquired by Christophe Waltz’s delightfully apologetic dentist come professional murderer, together embarking on a bounty mission that will eventually lead them to the aptly-named Candyland ranch (QT wordplay at work again) owned by an abominable key player in the slave trade- ensuring that by the conclusion there will be plenty of cold dishes to be served, none of which will involve sugary treats.

Not unlike the consumption of an oversized bag of fruit pastles however, Django Unchained may well leave you with a feeling of over-indulgence, with Tarrantino’s own form of excess being the depiction of revenge. It’s all very well making a pair of features (which could have quite easily been a singular entity) detailing the efforts of a vengeful individual settling old scores, yet when that narrative arc is essentially repeated with marginal variations over the course of his next three films, one struggles to maintain a sense of enthusiasm for the next QT offering. More concerning (and continuing an unpleasant trend from the conclusion of Inglorious Basterds), there’s also a sense of gleeful pleasure felt by the protagonists in dishing out the vengeance. This is problematic not only morally, but defies the characterisation (one particular individual will go from barely cracking a smile in the near entirety to whooping and cheering in the closing moments like they’ve just witnessed a superbowl-clinching touchdown, rather than an flame-engulfed building). Tarantino has always had a relationship with sadism, but only until recently has he asked you to invest sympathy with those who revel in it. It’s a signifier of film-making immaturity, tackling genuine backdrops such as Nazism and slavery before concluding them with a cartoonish finale that demean the heroes and trivialise the context. Tarantino believes Django Unchained to be an issue film, putting the complexities of slavery out there to be debated. He is also sorely mistaken. The concept of slavery is merely used to fulfil a vengeful wet dream, in the same way that Eli Roth and Melanie Laurent’s actions in Inglorious Basterds are used to portray the wish fulfilment of merciless jews in the disposal of the Third Reich. God help us all if he ever turns his attention to the war on terror.

Films of weighty themes he might not deliver, yet Django Unchained is absolutely not without merit (in a number of ways, it’s his strongest and most focused outing since Jackie Brown). The real trump card of Tarantino has always been his ability to construct dialogue-driven scenes with pleasantries on the outside undercut with hidden agendas on the inside, often building towards a violent crescendo. Django Unchained maintains this, with the events at Candyland being particularly central to QT’s most enduring virtue.  The performances are also excellent, with Samuel L. Jackson possibly walking away with the entire film thanks to his alarmingly unhinged self-hating African American – offering something both heinous and hilarious in equal measure.

Tarantino’s direction for the majority of the running is largely self-contained, reluctant to be overwhelmed by the undisciplined tropes that he so often dabbles in (direct genre-referencing, crude title chapters and captions, choices in music and when they are cued etc). It’s just a pity then that the good work assembled in the first hundred minutes (approximately) is eclipsed by the failings in the films closing thirty odd (the turning point arrives in what can only be described as ‘the handshake’), resulting a jarring narrative which misses its natural moment to tie things up and an overall feeling of deflation – inviting the criticisms of his previous outings to be wheeled out and reinvigorated for debate all over again. People have argued that the final fifth is necessary for Django to fully realise both the title and his enslaved beginnings, yet even that doesn’t justify the awkwardness of poor pacing and the obligatory “NO QUENTIN!” moment of casting himself. It’s bad enough watching talentless directors getting another chance to redefine their craft, to witness a gifted one squander his continuously for the past decade remains infuriating. Here’s hoping that when the time comes to pen his follow-up, Tarantino has the wisdom to echo King’s ideology and emancipate himself from his retribution obsession.

3/5

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2 responses to “BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: DJANGO UNCHAINED

  • Euan

    ‘Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it. I am for violence if non-violence means we continue postponing a solution to the American black man’s problem just to avoid violence.’ – Malcolm X.

    I very much disagree with you that the film trivialises slavery. For example, I think the juxtaposition between the ‘real’ violence inflicted on slaves at various points and the blood splatter violence inflicted by Django and King highlights the horrors of slavery. Also the slackjawed yokels shocked by the sight of ‘a n_ on a horse’ makes you consider how far (or otherwise) black people have come in America. (Consider what some in Texas, Mississippi etc think 150 years later about their black president?) The role of Samuel L Jackson’s character makes you think about the relationships between slaves and slaveowners and the different reasons why the institution of slavery was able to endure for as long as it did (‘Why don’t they just kill us?’).

    I don’t think it is fair to say that it is ‘immature’ to tackle weighty subjects in the way this film does. The ‘cartoonish’ finale worked for me, you always knew that the good guys were going to win and I feel the pay-off (complete with theme tune and horse dancing) is earned by the rest of the film, particularly the dialogue driven tension you mentioned in the Candyland table scenes and the disjointed narrative towards the end (though I can see why some might have felt this disrupted the pace, I feel it didn’t give the viewer the immediate pay-off they expected and was designed to make you think a bit more about the issues).

    A better question perhaps is whether QT to the best person to address this issue? That is a whole other debate.

    However, I am in complete agreement about the “No Quentin” moment – why Australian?

    Also Tarantino has one ‘r’.

    • ralpheasmith

      First of all Euan thank you for your well argued response (and the two r’s is duly noted), however I stand by my original point .

      Whilst I don’t feel this is a film seriously attempting to tackle the issues of slavery (not necessarily a bad thing) I can accept that there are elements to Django Unchained in the first four fifths which support your position and are fairly respectful of the situation (although I wonder whether the excess of the ‘N’ word was fully necessary?). However, the final 35 minutes for me compromises this enormously. The contrast in the violence against the enslaved and the nasty pieces of work for me also reinforce this. It feels that QT uses this juxtaposition to justify the vengeful comeuppance and that it’s okay to watch unsavoury people be deposed of for comic effect. In other words, QT is having his cake and eating it. He engages with a serious subject matter (which he does fairly well with the dark observations and humour in his dialogue), shows the nastiness of it (specifically that one guy up a tree in Candyland) before reducing it to a sadistic joke where the people we’ve been rooting for take pleasure in wielding out the retribution against the people signified as the baddies.

      Furthermore, Django raises the morality of the bounty of the farmer and his son – suggesting he has a deeper understanding to the idea of killing someone that transcends beyond something merely black and white and that his enslaved situation has given him a bit more insight into the complexities of taking a life, yet this goes out the window by the ending. Had the film wrapped up not long after the shootout that immediately followed the handshake (for example, a battle to the death involving all, with Django and his wife riding off into the sunset not long after), QT would have probably got away with this and we would have had a violent payoff that also maintained the severity of the context. Instead, we get a fudged narrative which paves way to unnecessary violence and a sadistic streak from the two largely oppressed individuals where the ultimate proclamation of freedom is to seek vengeance. It doesn’t for a second feel to me as being there to evoke the issues of slavery, it’s there to appease comic book blood lust. That for me is the trivialisation.

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