The master of outrageous genre mayhem is back – Quentin Tarantino shocks, confounds and astounds once more with his new pulp epic, Django Unchained.
Few filmmakers have made such a huge splash at the start of the career as Tarantino did back in the early 1990s. Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994) are certified masterpieces – both the work of a cheeky, playful filmmaker willfully pilfering from the mental junkyard of movie memories that shaped his formative years.
Crucially however, in both cases the audiences are granted access behind Tarantino’s self-referential geek defences. Although both films draw on the history of pulp and exploitation movies, the likes of which may not mean anything to viewers unaccustomed to cinematic junk-food, the audience is never at a loss when it comes to engaging with the narrative or the characters, horribly violent and outrageous though they may be.
It’s a skill that deserted Tarantino following 1997’s Jackie Brown – a film that marked a sea-change in the director’s career for all the wrong reasons. Instead of growing up, he instead seemed to grow down, regressing into child-like mean-spiritedness for Kill Bill’s 1 and 2. By now the gloves were off. It was as if Tarantino had done enough to win audience and critical approval with his first three movies; now’s the time I get to have a bit of fun, he seemed to be saying.
Little wonder that both Kill Bill’s were self-indulgent bores – Tarantino forewent his audience. It was either Alfred Hitchcock’s widow or daughter who once pointed out that the Master of Suspense never ever made that mistake – in fact, that’s probably why Hitch’s films have endured so long, so attentive was he to the needs of the cinema-goer, not to mention a wonderful manipulator of expectations.
Nevertheless, Tarantino clawed back some credibility with his audacious World War II Jewish revenge fantasy Inglourious Basterds. A self-reflexive comment on cinema’s ability to rewrite history (it’s little coincidence that the climactic conflagration follows a doomed screening of a whitewashed Nazi propaganda film), it was style melded to substance. Similar principles are at work in Django Unchained – except this time, Quentin isn’t tackling WWII; instead, he’s set his sights on slavery.
The results are as confrontational, messy, shocking and abrasive as you’d expect. Yet, underneath the tomato-puree blood squibs, one can sense the compassionate, mature filmmaker lurking beneath. That is, until the diabolical final 30 minutes where it all self-destructs – but more on that later.
If any filmmaker can snap you out of apathy in the opening frames of a movie, then surely Tarantino is that person. Put simply, Django Unchained melds the conventions of the Spaghetti Western with a slave’s odyssey in pre-Civil War America – and you won’t be in a position to forget this when the whipcrack opening titles plaster themselves across the screen in the opening moments, Luis Bacalov’s classic theme from the original 1966 Django movie thundering through the speakers.
Robert Richardson’s gorgeous cinematography then carefully draws our attention away from breathtaking mountain vistas to a slave-train making their way through the winter snow – already, we’re being manipulated in the manner of the classic westerns, our attention drawn from the big picture to the small.
This shivering party is interrupted by the arrival of one Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) – whose elaborate cover as a dentist (complete with giant wobbly tooth on top of his wagon) is a front. Schultz is in fact a bounty hunter with his eye on one particular slave in the group – Django (Jamie Foxx). The brutalised slave is the only one who can identify a ruthless band of killers known as the Brittle Brothers – and for this reason, Schultz frees him (of course, not without gorily dispatching Django’s immediate owners first).
Schultz needs Django’s help in identifying the Brittle Brothers and effectively takes him under his bounty-hunting wing. Django is all too keen to oblige (‘Kill white folks and they pay you for it? What’s not to like?’) The ambling pace and rat-a-tat patter effectively sets the tone for the first half of the movie, arguably its least confrontational and in many ways its most palatable.
It plays out as a buddy movie, one which benefits from Tarantino’s decision to forego an episodic narrative, instead favouring something more fluid and cohesive. It also demonstrates that, in spite of his excesses, he’s a terrific director of actors. He draws a wonderfully charismatic turn from Foxx – who literally transforms from cowed slave to mighty avenger in front of our eyes – and Waltz, a wonderfully witty presence who was born to roll the musical inflections of Tarantino’s dialogue off his tongue.
The first half of the movie is also crucial in establishing a compassionate focal point for the remainder of the movie. Tarantino very deliberately aligns our sympathies with both the former slave and the German bounty hunter, whose incongruous personality is the ideal surrogate for the audience: positioned as a bemused European outsider, Schultz’ revolted, horrified reaction to institutional and societal racism matches that of the viewer. It’s very often hard to determine where our sympathies are meant to lie in a Tarantino film, any sense of empathy hiding beneath an amoral sense of carnage, but it’s very apparent here.
Good thing too – because it gives a sense of a moral compass during the increasingly controversial second half of the movie. Compare that to Kill Bill in which there was no-one to root for. Having tracked down the Brittle Brothers, Django’s true agenda is revealed: he’s out to rescue his wife Broomhilda Von Shaft (Kerry Washington) who was sold into slavery. Schultz agrees to help him and so they set off to rescue her from abhorrent plantation owner Calvin Candie (a deliciously nasty Leonardo DiCaprio, playing repellent right to the hilt).
We first see Candie indulging in the spectator sport of Mandingo fighting – whereby two black slaves are pitted together in a fight to the death – yet there’s never a sense that Tarantino is inviting us the savour the character’s nihilistic viciousness. He is simply a nasty piece of work – little wonder that, of all the troublesome characters Tarantino has created, this is the one he has reportedly found the most hateful.
The abrasiveness increases when the film relocates to Calvin’s Candyland Plantation for the extensive – if not laboured – final showdown. Most shocking of all is the presence of Samuel L Jackson as head house slave Stephen, whose relatively affluent position quaffing brandy next to his master has turned him against his fellow men and women in bondage. It’s an outrageous character, yet also one with a serious moral point. Tarantino’s aim is to prove that the moral stench of slavery not only pits races against each other – it also complicates the whole notion of racial boundaries. On a flippant note, it’s also a giddy, perverse pleasure to watch such a terrific actor tackle such a shocking role.
So for the first two hours, the signs are all good. The performances are uniformly terrific (although Washington gets little to do, defined more by the abuse she suffers than by any strong sense of character); the design is impeccable; it’s outrageously funny and controversial in a way that only this director can get away with; and it’s also a reminder that no-one builds a sense of conversational tension like Tarantino. As proof of the latter point, watch out for the skin-crawlingly horrible phrenology scene towards the end of the movie.
And then… It all goes skyward in the home stretch. Unable to reign himself in, Tarantino indulges a gratuitous final 30 minutes (including yet another ill-advised cameo) in which the film effectively turns into Kill Bill, only with pistols instead of samurai swords. Bodies are turned into tomato puree, characters are routinely kneecapped and any sense of film’s moral backbone disappears in a hail of bullets. It’s such a shame because in the preceding two hours, there was a sense of compassionate maturity lurking beneath the chaos. However, in the final part, it is just chaos – and ugly to boot.
Fortunately, the first two hours are strong enough to stop the movie from being a complete write-off. It’s just disappointing that at the moment where Django comes properly unchained, the movie follows suit. Even so, with all its flaws, the film is proof that no-one delivers an endorphin rush like Tarantino – and it’s pleasing that in an era of disposable movies, this one is genuinely unafraid of inciting debate.