“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.