Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Where the hell do you start with a review of ‘Django Unchained’?
Do you outright ’fess up that it’s not perfect, that there are some flaws, then shrug your shoulders during a paragraph break and spend the rest of the review blathering on about how much you enjoyed it anyway?
Do you start out by enthusing about the many things that Tarantino gets right, then slowly peel back a few critical layers, saving the nit-picking for last?
Do you mourn the untimely loss of Sally Menke, whose contribution to the cinema of Tarantino is thrown into acute context by the occasionally indecisive editing rhythms of ‘Django Unchained’ that you just know wouldn’t have been there if she’d been in the editing room?
What you don’t do is start throwing around words like “self-indulgent”, “homage” and “no original ideas”, because – damn it! – Tarantino’s is the cinema of the cineaste, a synthesis of all the movies that most of us will never get round to seeing, and there are plenty of us who wouldn’t have it any other way. Complaining about self-indulgence in a Tarantino film is like tutting over the horror in James Herbert novel. It’s kind of the fucking point.
And it’s for this reason that any and every Tarantino film births itself across the screen in the amniotic fluids of movie lore. Thus ‘Inglourious Basterds’ emerges as more than just a revisionist “bunch of guys on a mission” movie if you approach it with, say, some foreknowledge of the UFA protégés who fled Germany during the rise of Nazism. And ‘Django Unchained’ ticks a lot more boxes if you know your Sergio Leone from your Sergio Corbucci. The very title, and a cameo by Franco Nero, riff on Corbucci’s most celebrate spaghetti western.
While ‘Django Unchained’ is most firmly rooted in the spaghetti western tradition – it’s OTT, often nihilistically violent, and utterly divorced from the moral cadences of the more traditional American western – it has to be noted that whereas Tarantino adheres to the iconography of the genre, he doesn’t necessarily hold to its conventions. Granted, I’m all in favour of artists being unconventional, but the western is one of those genres that benefits from a more conventional aesthetic.
To use a sweeping – but, I hope, justified – generalisation, westerns tell essentially simple stories. Even films as thematically deep as Peckinpah’s ‘Ride the High Country’ and ‘The Wild Bunch’ or Eastwood’s ‘Unforgiven’ have simple narratives. The greatest westerns are distillations of theme and character: haiku in widescreen and with six-shooters. ‘Django Unchained’ is anything but narratively simple; anything but a distillation. The script is a circuitous affair that rambles into ever greater contrivances in order to thread a veritable posse of genre touchstones into something resembling an actual story.
These range from aforementioned spaghetti western maestros Leone and Corbucci to the blaxploitation ‘Nigger Charley’ films by way of Mel Brooks’s ‘Blazing Saddles’ and, uh, Richard Fleischer’s ‘Mandingo’. It’s this latter – a slice of overboiled Suth’un melodrama – that informs the second half of Tarantino’s film and calls for the largest quota of narrative convolutions. ‘Mandingo’ is a curious touchstone for Tarantino, since the film trades on the sweaty physical violence of bare-knuckle fighting correlated with the sweaty forbidden lure of interracial sex.
Central to ‘Mandingo’ is sex. Central to Tarantino’s ‘Mandingo’ homage is fighting. ‘Django Unchained’ is typical of all of Tarantino’s work in that it is a sexless work of cinema. For all that Django (Jamie Foxx)’s quest is to free his enslaved wife (Kerry Washington) from an outwardly charming but cruel and hypocritical plantation owner, every frame suggests the mindset of a director who is a hopeless (possibly unrequited) romantic – nowhere more explicitly than in the already divisive final scene – rather than the interactions of two characters who enjoy sexual intimacy.
On the plus side, though, ‘Django Unchained’ represents as well as anything in Tarantino’s filmography the two reasons I will always have time for him as a filmmaker: he cares – cares deeply – about dialogue and performance. The dialogue might not have the crackle and immediate quotability of ‘Reservoir Dogs’ or ‘Pulp Fiction’, but that’s only because Tarantino is writing in a different idiom. And when he’s writing for his big villain, Calvin Candie (Leonardo di Caprio), Tarantino fashions dialogue that captures the character’s suavity, venality and egoism and wraps it into a simultaneously seductive and repellent package. Di Caprio’s performance rises to the occasion. Elsewhere, Samuel L Jackson essays a complex and dangerous character in a turn that’s his best in years, while Christoph Waltz, as German dentist-turned-bounty-hunter Dr King Schulz, makes it two-for-two following his star-making turn in ‘Inglourious Basterds’. Foxx meanwhile is all moody cool, iconography in motion, his vengeful anti-hero growing in stature as the film progresses.
Best of all, the whole cast – including some left-of-field cameos (when was the last time you saw ‘Dukes of Hazard’ regular Tom Wopat in anything?) – are obviously in on the joke. Sure, ‘Django Unchained’ is wincingly violent in places, and Tarantino makes no bones that slavery was a fucking awful business, but there’s nothing to say that the heaviest and headiest subjects can’t be tackled provocatively and/or satirically. No pun intended, but I really can’t think of another way to put it: ‘Django Unchained’ works best as a black comedy.