Thursday, January 31, 2013

Django Month: Django Unchained (2012)

And so we come to the final review for Django Month! I literally just got back from watching this last night and I've got to say I really enjoyed it. I've never been a die hard worshiper of Quentin Tarantino but I do like his work. I appreciate that there's very few 'auteur' directors like him who are still going and considering how dumbed down and generic films are getting nowadays it's nice to know there's still some directors who have the power and influence to experiment with the medium of film. I must confess I actually haven't got around to watching his last movie - Inglourious Basterds - yet but plan to catch up with that this weekend. I think the reason I skipped that one at the cinema was due to my disappointment with Death Proof - one half of the Grindhouse double feature - that was released on its own in the UK. I felt that movie was very self indulgent and quite frankly a bit of a waste of his talents. I was beginning to question whether or not Tarantino had become a parody of himself. Happily, I can report that this film is a far superior flick than Death Proof.

Django Unchained is set two years prior to the American Civil War when slavery was still rife in the American Deep South. The film basically revolves around two men. The first is Dr King Schultz, an eccentric German dentist turned bounty hunter. The second is Django, a black slave who is rescued by Schultz (initially just to identify a couple of wanted criminals). Immediately after meeting Django, Schultz takes a shine to him and the two start working as bounty hunting partners and, wouldn't you know it, they make a pretty good team. Before long Django mentions that he has a wife who is still held in captivity so the two decide to combine their efforts and track down where she is. Their search leads them to Calvin Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), a sadistic but foppish slave owner with a passion for getting his slaves to wrestle to the death. Django and Schultz pretend to be interested in purchasing a wrestler in order to gain access to Candie's plantation. But how long will their ruse last? And will they find Django's wife? 

You know it's always been quite hard to review Tarantino films because he's very much a rule-breaker in cinematic terms. His films are often exciting because he gives them such left-field plots and they have such quick shifts in tone. You never quite know where they are going and Tarantino clearly enjoys doing this. He delights in subverting audiences' expectations. That's why his films are always, on the surface at least, genre films because with genre films you know roughly how they should look and feel. Django Unchained is a western but it goes in many places that westerns have never gone - not least by tackling the subject of slavery. I thought, considering the taboo nature of the subject matter, Tarantino had good handle on how to treat it. The film is very irreverent and often quite humorous but, at the same time, the brutality of slavery is treated with enormous candor. I think it's good to point out that Tarantino isn't referencing actual real life events - there's no known records of the type of wrestling that appears in this film - but what he is doing is using it as a sort of metaphor for the appalling treatment African Americans did experience during the times of slavery. I thought it was a novel idea; wrapping a serious subject matter in a pulp-y story in order to bring it more mainstream attention.

Django Unchained also follows the traditional pattern of Spaghetti westerns by being a revenge story - but it is also a comedy, a buddy movie, an action film and a drama. This eclectic 'scattershot' approach means that there always something new just around the corner to enjoy if this film ever gets stale. For me the highlight was definitely Christopher Waltz, whose portrayal of the kindly Dr Schultz was note perfect. I just loved the little character traits; his delightfully mannered way of speaking, the little brush of his moustache every time he had to think, and just the warmth he shows Django's character (which never feels patronising or cheesy). I also loved how he was, for the most part, religiously devoted to the law. When Django asks for his help to rescue his wife they don't go in all guns blazing, Schultz insists on rescuing her in a (semi-)legal manner. I also really enjoyed the performance of Don Johnson as Big Daddy, another Southern plantation owner who Django and Schultz run into early on. Dressed like Colonel Sanders, Johnson really makes the most of his scenes. Who knew Sonny Crockett was so good at comedy?* The part where Big Daddy and his fellow racist friends have an big argument about whether or not they should wear their KKK masks was the funniest scene I've seen in years.

Jamie Foxx isn't an actor I've seen in a lot of films but he makes a very good fit for the character of Django. I'm glad Tarantino dropped the idea of using Will Smith in the role (not least because I think we all would have got flashbacks to Wild Wild West if that had happened). Strangely, although Foxx's Django is the title character of the film, for the most of the running time he takes kind of a backseat role, allowing the more eccentric characters of Waltz and DiCaprio to take centre stage. It's really only in the last quarter of the film that he emerges as the main protagonist. I quite liked this technique because it mirrors that way that Django grows in confidence throughout the film. Although Django is physically unchained in the first scene he doesn't get spiritually unchained until the end of the film. Similarly, Samuel L Jackson's character Stephen (Candie's head butler) at first seems like an insignificant supporting role but by the end it's more or less made out that he is the major villain of the film rather than DiCaprio. I think what Tarantino is trying to say is that the racism as two enemies. The white people who perpetrate it and the black people who perpetuate it by going along with it. Stephen is a fascinating character and I liked the duality he creates in Candie's character. Candie is a man who enjoys watching black people wrestle to the death but at the same time he enjoys the company of Stephen and allows him the freedom to speak openly and honestly.

I did have some issues with the film though. I don't think it's a flawless masterpiece in the same way that Pulp Fiction was. I found the second half of the film a little jarring in its scale and tempo. And I thought Tarantino should have ratcheted up the tension even more than he did when Django and Schultz reach Candie's house. Similarly, although DiCaprio was very good as Candie but I felt the character wasn't as memorable as it could have been. A lot of actors excel at spouting Tarantino's dialogue but DiCaprio felt a bit stiff at times (maybe I'm being too harsh). A few other minor points that I was disappointed with included Zoe Bell as a masked tracker who gets a lot of lingering close-ups but then we never see anything more from her character (I'm guessing it was a subplot that got cut). I also felt Walton Goggins was severely underused as Billy Crash. Anyone who has watched The Shield or Justified will know how great an actor he can be but he's kind of lost here and doesn't get anything memorable to do or say. I did hear that Goggins character was an amalgamation of two characters, created after Kurt Russell and Kevin Costner dropped out. I think in this case Tarantino's hasty rewriting is probably the reason Billy Crash feels like a half-finished character. My biggest issue was that we see so little of Django's wife Broomhilda. I know it's a western, and westerns don't usually have roles for women but I really felt Broomhilda should have had more lines or more of a story. Kerry Washington does a fine job in the role but ultimately when Django rides off with her at the end she feels more like a trophy than the love of his life.

All in all Django Unchained is a great film. Not perfect but well worth seeing and way above most stuff at the cinema. I guess should probably touch on how this fits in with the other Django "rip-offs". Well, for the most part it stands quite separate. The two major references that everyone are going to spot are the Luis Bacalov's song from the 1966 movie that Tarantino places over his opening credits and the appearance (or should I say "Friendly Participation") of Franco Nero in a cameo role. Nero doesn't get many lines but the exchange between him and Django is a great nod. (Nero: "What's your name?" Foxx:"Django" Nero:"Can you spell it?" Foxx:"D.J.A.N.G.O. The D is silent." Nero:"I know"). There's also a few little touches. The first town Schultz and Django arrive in is swimming in mud just like in Corbucci's original. And, maybe I'm clutching at straws, but the master and apprentice angle to Schultz teaching Django how to be a bounty hunter felt a bit similar to Django The Last Killer. Anyway, I'm going to be interested as to what Tarantino tries to tackle next. He's done crime, kung fu, exploitation horror, war and a western but where the hell do you go next?


* Did anyone else think when they saw Don Johnson and Jamie Foxx on screen that it was (Old) Crockett and (New) Tubbs?


  1. I too noticed how useless the Zoe Bell character is, and it also felt like her character was left in the cutting room floor, those close ups of her seem to point at something more....but then it goes nowhere.

    Hadn't noticed that Miami Vice connection! Ha, good observation!

    Amazing how many genres Django Unchained covers, what genre should Tarantino do next? I wonder if he'd do a sci-fi? But I doubt it, he doesnt seem the Sci-Fi type, but who the hell knows. More than likely, it will be another gangster film....but honestly, I wish he'd have something totally original. Apperently there's another Kill Bill in the cards...

  2. Yeah, sci-fi would be really interesting but I don't know whether the Weinsteins' would bankroll it.

    I too think it would be good to see him go out of his comfort zone. He showed a lot of progress with this film.

    He's mentioned Kill Bill 3 a few times. I think the last I heard he wasn't interested in making it anymore.

  3. Great Miami Vice catch!

    And by the way, Old Crockett and New Tubbs sounds like an awesome name for a band.

  4. Thanks Mitch. I've got some friends who are looking for a band name. I'll give them you're suggestion and let you know if they take it up.

  5. Wow, this review was amazing! Seriously! A really fantastic read. I really dug this one quite a bit. And I do consider myself a die hard Tarantino fan. Maybe ran on a bit too long for my taste, but for the most part I hardly noticed.

    I had read an article with Zoe Bell where she said basically there was a side story involving her character, but because of time they never got around to shooting those scenes. What a shame.

    Ya know, I "hated" Death Proof with a passion the first time I saw it. I just didn't enjoy it and pretty much felt the same way you do. Buuuuuut, one day I decided to give it anther shot and holy shit, I love it. Not all of it, but I love a lot about it. My biggest issue, or two rather, are 1.) that annoying bitch DJ character. I was so happy when she died.
    2.) the endless scenes of women talking about nothing. That drove me nuts. I had no interest in seeing how Tarantino assumed women think and talk and those scenes were so painful to sit through.

    But I love Russell's character. I love the stunts and I loved the feel of the film overall. Don't judge me!

    I've also discussed quite often my desire to see him tackle Sci-fi. He's done almost everything else, I would love to see that genre with his particular spin on it.

  6. Yeah, I think Tarantino is becoming more and more guilty of not getting to the point. I appreciate he wants to let the story breathe and cram in all his homages and in-jokes but it could have quite easily be 2 hours and wouldn't have been a lesser film.

    I can quite believe that they didn't get around to shooting Zoe Bell's scenes. The shoot went way over schedule and loads of actors kept dropping out.

    Yeah, I probably will give Death Proof another go at some point. I'd quite like to see the shorter cut and see if that's improves it somewhat. I actually quite dug the first half of the film but the second half (I can't stand Rosario Dawson) was a mess. I got what he was trying to do changing the film stock/lighting etc. You got the feeling it was a real grindhouse movie where maybe a director got fired halfway through.