Django Unchained

Now that Potter’s done and dusted, time for your regularly scheduled programming. If you hurry, you can probably still catch Django Unchained in the cinemas, so hooray for relevance. I finally got to see it last week and it’s still buzzing around my head.

Django Unchained (2013)

Much like most people and things that are popular in this Internet savvy world, Tarantino is a polarising director. Some people can’t get enough of his mashing of genres and love of all things bloody whilst other people can’t stand his posturing bullshit and find him to be massively overrated. I belong in the former camp. There are very few Tarantinos I haven’t enjoyed and I really appreciate the passion for all things cinema that permeates all his work. Since its release, Django has been doing the controversy circuit, partly due to its subject matter and partly because American suburban mothers like appearing on the news to discuss violence and oh god won’t somebody think of the children. Meanwhile in a tragi-comic turn, their kids are at home eyeing up the unsupervised family stockpile of firearms as a solution to the bullying problems they’ve had at school that the mothers were too busy appearing on television to pay any attention to. It’s a fucked up world. Anyway- back on topic.

“Gentlemen, you had my curiosity. But now you have my attention.”

Django Unchained follows Django (Jamie Foxx) a slave who is freed by bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz makes a deal with Django that if he points out his former slave drivers, the Brittle brothers, Schultz will make him a free man and help find his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) who is under the ownership of Southern plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his confidant Steven (Samuel L. Jackson). Cue the usual Tarantino roaring rampage of revenge. Of Tarantino’s films, Django is most like his previous effort, Inglourious Basterds in terms of it being a hyper-violent historical remix. I’d forgotten all about Jamie Foxx, but he makes a barnstorming return to the forefront of my mind as Django. He’s fantastic and gives a perfectly understated performance. Christoph Waltz gives us another memorable character in the form of Dr. King Schultz, who is best described as a Bizarro World Hans Landa. Leonardo DiCaprio gives an amazing turn as the detestable Candie and Samuel L. Jackson is a brilliant scary Uncle Tom figure. The only possible problem is with Kerry Washington’s criminally underused Broomhilda, who doesn’t get to do much.  I thoroughly enjoyed Django‘s story. It’s so rare for me to sit down and have no idea where the story is going or who’s going to do what. Modern film plots are usually so signposted and telegraphed I barely see the point in seeing anything more than the trailer. Django drew me in and then hit me with several plot turns that I couldn’t have anticipated.

The unavoidable talking point is the film’s setting as it takes place during the heyday of slavery, about two years before the Civil War.  Look- slavery is one of the ugliest things we as a species have done. There’s no getting away from that. As a privileged white male I realise it’s the furthest thing away from what I can fully appreciate and understand. There have been understandable cries of racism from several groups of people, with the now culturally irrelevant media whore Spike Lee accusing Django of  being “disrespectful” to his ancestors. Slavery has been one of those areas that has been off-limits to anything but reverence for a long time. I think it’s kind of refreshing to have Tarantino make a violent cartoon out of something so serious. To keep something, no matter how horrible, locked in a little box preventing it from being talked about in any manner but hushed respect is odd to me. Hey, people may avoid stuff like Roots and Amistad, but even thick types will go and see Django. To move on as a people, we sometimes have to face the dark side. At least us Brits faced up to what murdering and pillaging bastards we were whilst flying under the Empire’s flag, right?

Django is not a stony-faced exposé of the horrors of slavery, but it does confront you with some uncomfortable truths from time to time. There are two flavours of violence in Django: the realistic, palpable cruelty to slaves and the usual, over-the-top bloody fun. Never do the twain meet. Also, to people who have a problem with the film’s usage of the “n word”- grow up. This is superficial stuff. These were slavery times. It’d have been very strange to have the plantation owners calling their slaves “African-Americans” just for the modern audience’s benefit and comfort. It’s a bad word, yeah, but the difference between how the characters use it is very cleverly done. Watch how Schultz and Django use it compared to someone like Candie, it’s like ash in their mouths – only used as a necessity to keep their cover from being blown. I get the feeling that Tarantino wanted some of the controversy he received  There are some excellent bits including Django whipping the fuck out of a white slaver and a shot of blood splattering over some cotton fields that were bound to get a few tongues wagging.

Serious stuff aside, the film pops along at a fantastic pace.  It’s maybe slightly too long (a feeling not helped by the fact that the film has what feels like a climactic battle and then carries on for a further 20 minutes) but I was entertained every step of the way. The only things that broke my immersion were the appearances of Jonah Hill, purely because I was too busy thinking “hey, that’s Jonah Hill!” rather than paying attention to the story and Tarantino himself on fine non-acting form and doing a strange accent. These were only momentary things though and it was soon back to being brain-deep in awesome dialogue and decent directorship. Tarantino’s ear for amazing soundtracks serves him well again with a hugely eclectic mix of tracks ranging from Ennio Morricone to 2Pac. Some songs in Django just make the scene and I had a huge grin on my face when this happened.

The major successes of the film are Waltz, DiCaprio and Jackson. I’m inclined to talk less about Waltz because we all know he’s good.  His Dr. Schultz is every bit as erudite and charming as Basterds’ Landa, except you don’t feel bad for liking him. DiCaprio and Jackson were the real surprises for me. Leo’s never played this kind of character before. Candie thinks he’s sophisticated and enigmatic, but he’s really just pretentious and hateful. One of my favourite scenes in the film was when DiCaprio’s Candie is explaining through the use of Phrenology (a pseudo-science based on the shape and size of the skull) why black people are inherently subservient. It’s tension-filled and unpleasant. You want Candie to shut his vile mouth as quickly as possible, but at the same time, you’re utterly fascinated by what batshit thing he’s going to say next. When he wants to, Tarantino can ratchet up suspense with the best of them (see also: the opening scene of Inglourious Basterds). There’s a moment where Candie slams his hand down on the table, cutting his hand. This is real- DiCaprio accidentally cut himself and kept going despite the red stuff gushing from his hand. Wow. Jackson finally gets to play a role where it isn’t a “Holy shit, we got Samuel L. Jackson!” type part as seen in things like the Star Wars prequels, Snakes on a Plane and The Avengers. He’s awesome in this film. Whilst this isn’t the best critical statement to make, it’s worth saying that Django is the coolest film I’ve seen in a long damn time.

“I like the way you die, boy.”

I don’t want to just go on and on about how much I enjoyed Django. Tarantino’s a genre unto himself and I happen to be a big fan of what he does. Django isn’t going to change your opinion of him, whatever that may be. The guy consistently entertains me, what more can I say?

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