Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Django Unchained (2012, Quentin Tarantino)

Some old problems still remain in the creaky cinematic machine that is Quentin Tarantino, but his first full foray into the Western genre after years of pseudo efforts has produced his most rewarding and focussed film in 15years.

Following the titular character; a freed slave (Jamie Foxx) is liberated at the hands of a German dentist turned bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz). We follow the duo as they bond in a partnership to at first take down a trio of slaving brothers before moving on to save Django's wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who still remains captive in the dark heart of Mississippi.

Foxx is largely reticent for the most part, a brooding presence with a singular motive to track down his beloved wife but lacking the wit and wherewithal to do so successfully. Waltz's Dr. King Schultz plays on the chemistry from his Oscar-winning turn in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds; a diplomatic exterior acting as smokescreen to latent violence. Though his performance here is much more complex as an acting hero of sorts but also a stranger in a strange land where slavery and the sadistic mistreatment of African slaves is habitual. It's hard to decipher how much Schultz understands of his surroundings at first as his insubordination borders on the naive at times. For instance, when he takes Django for a drink in a local saloon to explain how Django can help him track the Brittle brothers, the owner tells him Django isn't welcome to which Schultz forces him to fetch the Sheriff leading to a standoff. This seeming act of defiance gives way to a secondary motive later on but whether Shultz wholeheartedly understands the deep-set racism at this point is doubtful as his further journey south sees the calm killer become mentally dishevelled by the horrors witnessed.

The first hour sees Django learning new skills and the ways of bounty hunting, earning the money that will make his mission to Mississippi possible. A 'buddy movie' scenario arises as the two form a deadly team while Schulz becomes increasingly attached to the man whose freedom he now feels responsible for. The doctor forms a rather complex plan for a facade in which the two pose as Mandingo traders - the profession of slave fighting -  in a bid to get the "attention" of Broomhilda's wealthy plantation owner Calvin Candie played by Leonardo DiCaprio. It's upon their arrival in Candie's county and eventually his household that the film descends into a nightmare game of wits and a further exploration into the echelons of human depravation.

Django Unchained features some of the most fluid directing of recent Tarantino; whereas his Inglourious Basterds had moments of brilliance it also felt flat and smothered, the pieces didn't slot together, failing to ignite the spark. Save a few misjudged moments the pieces do indeed meld together this time, most notably the flashbacks and musical cues while the gimmicky and stifling nature of Tarantino's chapter format is gladly absent. Director of Photography Robert Richardson also executes some of his best work here which is stunning throughout every frame, delivering images and sequences that stick vividly in the mind. Tarantino has been guilty of overloading his films of late, something that's bewildering to me as he's in such a comfortable financial standpoint but has constructed his films like each could be his last, offering an extraneous amount of ideas and characters thus losing sight as his stories 'develop'. It's refreshing then to have a real journey on our hands this time, yes there are many popups from new and old talents; Jonah Hill has his moment as an early clansman while veteran Don Johnson has fun with his sickly slave owner role. Though as we meet our titular hero in the opening credit sequence who in turn meets with his future partner shortly after, we stick to both Django and Shultz throughout and the men at the end of the film are far from the men who were destined to meet in the beginning.

Leonardo DiCaprio delivers a devilish performance as Calvin Candie, the proprietor of the ill-named 'Candieland'. His role is far from the overbearing evil that could so easily be imagined; Candie is a  spoilt young man of privilege, a product of his wealth and upbringing. He is king in his own castle in a country that condones his barbaric treaty, this is a world where flesh is property. Tarantino takes things into even murkier territory with the arrival of House Master and right hand man Stephen, played by Samuel L. Jackson at the height of his talents. Possibly the most heinous role a black actor could embark on, Stephen isn't just loyal to his master but is an extension of his mentality. Jackson has perhaps never been this impressive in a performance that like the film itself is fearless in its representation of slavery at this time.

A filmmaker as brash as Tarantino, an artist whose broad strokes are unrivalled in Hollywood was a worry to take on such delicate material as this. Django Unchained has all the hallmarks of his films; the blood-soaked shootouts, visual elements of 70s exploitation cinema, and a warped sense of humour. But for a stubbornly idiosyncratic director it's a marvel that all the elements are juggled so well. Scenes such as slaves being forced to fight to the death, being whipped, branded, set upon by dogs, are all profoundly moving and never short of respectful due to the emotional weight behind it. Then of course there's the comedy of it which stems mostly from character, Stephen's introduction is hilarious despite its damning nature, and the camaraderie between Shultz and Django is often eye watering. The film offers a wide spectrum of emotion and is in some respects exhausting, it's the longest of Tarantino's career and the first without his longtime editor Sally Menke, yet despite its great length (165mins) and the fact that Tarantino over ices his cake (once again) this still marks the most focussed of his recent efforts. Just when the film slumps into a lower gear and its forceful drive lessens into ambivalence it always manages to fling back with a powerful punch.

Tarantino's cinema has been increasingly criticised for gross indulgence, superfluousness, and in the recent case of his historic revisions, severe cases of levity. These things can certainly be thrown at Django Unchained but it's passionate and sincere despite it's creator's gung-ho, punk rock approach. I'm baffled by other critics' dismissal of Tarantino in a time of creative drought, as despite his squandering of his talents and various shortcomings here we have a fearless director who for better or for worse will not, cannot compromise. His approach to filmmaking reminds of a quote from the great Billy Wilder, in which he said "If there's anything I hate more than not being taken seriously, it's being taken too seriously". 

With his last film he took on history by way of World War Two and delivered a film with a singular crime of staleness. With Django Unchained, a clear companion piece if there ever was one, Tarantino was always going to ruffle some feathers but here he succeeds in all the ways his previous film failed by being both emotionally engaging and entertaining. They don't make 'em like they used to, but then again they never made 'em like this either.

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