Tuesday, 29 January 2013
Posted by emmetocuana at 22:21
"Alexander Dumas is black." - Dr King Schultz, (Christoph Waltz)
"D'Artangnan, motherfucker!" - Django, (Jamie Foxx)
Opening with a musical score that introduces the familiar sound from Westerns of a whipcrack just as the camera pans along the scarred backs of a group of slaves being force-marched across Texas c.1858, it is clear that Quentin Tarantino has a few points he would like to make. By indulging in his customary love of pastiche and parody for this blaxploitation 'Southern,' Django Unchained's director cannily fuses entertainment with weighty themes such as America's history of racial abuse. Indeed the film is not only an exploration of racism, but reveals how Tarantino's canon has consistently shown a fascination with the occlusion of race-hatred, given full vent here. The question remains though is the execution of this story equal to the task at hand?
Django himself is a member of the slave march, traveling from an auction following a failed escape from his previous owner (a brief cameo from the sneering Bruce Dern). The unhappy procession encounters would-be dentist and secret bounty hunter Dr King Schultz, whose attempt to parlay with the slave traders is hindered by his German accent and natural verbosity. Cheerfully he resorts to far more direct means of freeing Django, who happens to be able to identify Schultz's latest quarries. The two form an unlikely partnership, with the German squeamish around the brutal realities of slavery, despite his equivocation between it and his bounty work as 'flesh-for-cash' businesses, whereas Django's natural aptitude for killing 'white people and get paid for it' sits uneasily with his moral scruples. When Schultz hears that his partner's plan to rescue his wife - a bilingual fellow slave named Broomhilda as it happens - from slavery he promises to help.
It is at this point in the proceedings that the film's momentum kicks in in earnest, introducing Leonardio DiCaprio's Calvin Candie, a supposed francophile who cannot speak French and is a fan of the 'mandingo' bloodsport of pitting slaves to fight one another to the death. Samuel L. Jackson plays Stephen, Candie's houseslave who runs the 'Candyland' property for his master and takes pride in being able to oppress his fellow slaves. Candie is fascinated by Django's independence, praising him as a unique 'specimen', whereas Stephen recognizes the stranger as a disturbance in the natural order of race relations and is instantly suspicious of his intentions.
Between them Waltz and DiCaprio manage to chew most of the scenery left standing. Certainly the latter delivers a performance that rivals Daniel Day Lewis' barking in There Will Be Blood, visibly cutting his own hand in one scene and wiping the blood on poor Kerry Washington's face in a moment that hinges between improvisation and sadism. Waltz's Schultz is charming and comical. Like David Bowie's alien in The Man Who Fell To Earth, he is treated with kid gloves by the Americans as they assume being foreign makes him slow somehow, which he uses to get the better of his opponents. As a result though our hero played by Jamie Foxx is almost squeezed out of the picture.
The real star of the show is Jackson, whose Stephen is a masterwork of malevolence and studied servility. While Candie owns Candyland, Stephen actually relishes the running of it and is revealed as the true villain of the story. It is a meaty part for the actor, a deceptively dangerous antagonist who may also symbolically serve as Tarantino's condemnation of the film trope of the Uncle Tom. Stephen even carries a tune like Song of the South's Remus at one point.
This is Django Unchained's greatest success, its reveling in the inherent racism of the period, which the Western onwards has attempted to brush under the carpet - hence Tarantino's deconstructionist description of the film as a 'Southern'. The director came up in the industry during the Clinton era and its espousal of political correctness as a method of acknowledging the nation's racist heritage - and then bracketing it as somehow dealt with. From Reservoir Dogs onwards Tarantino has repeatedly intruded on the Hollywood myth of an America largely untroubled by everyday racism, the casually offensive epithets of his characters disturbing and angering audiences in equal measure. Django brings that disjuncture between the reality of America and the fantasy of Hollywood front and centre, using shock value - Goodbye, Miss Laura! - to elicit uneasy laughter.
However, that said the film is not an unqualified success. For one we are again treated to Tarantino's awful acting - this time he plays an Australian with an unlikely accent - and the film at times feels padded. Scene chewery can only sustain the interest for so long. Partly this is because Tarantino is so aware of the clichés of film - Django features at one point a breath-taking false climax - that his film-making has become self-conscious. Though skillfully done, even minor characters that appear receive thumbnail moments to let audiences get to know them, a more practical director would have produced a much leaner film. That remains the biggest concern for Tarantino, he needs an editor willing to say 'no'.
Still this is a fitfully hilarious, brutal and strong work, full of neat film history asides and cameos. A fascinating film, even in its flaws.
Labels: Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained, Film, Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Quentin Tarantino, Samuel L. Jackson, slavery |