James A. George, our Film Critic, on the most controversial film of the year
The controversy surrounding Django Unchained is far from simple, but allow me to give brief context. The African Holocaust/the enslavement of around forty million American-born African descendants took place from 1555 (often denied by America as actually 1619), through to December 1865, when it was legally abolished. There is nothing funny about America’s history with slavery, and perhaps Tarantino has jumped the gun. Other than the series Roots, and perhaps Daughters of the Dust, film has not particularly explored the harsh reality of what happened. Can we trivialise the issue with cathartic violence, visual stylisation and humour? Maybe a more appropriate question, is why have such issues come to the forefront because of a period-piece Western by the ever-creative Tarantino? What is offensive is the negligence concerning the treatment of the African-American community and the lack of reparation to this day. The film is entertainment. The history is real. Personally, I appreciate Tarantino’s challenging of taboos.
Django Unchained feels like director Quentin Tarantino at his most free. While a few scenes run on a little too long, the sheer self-indulgence of the film is so charmingly crazy that the length can almost be forgiven. As ever he riffs off of film industry and yet gratefully pays homage to such moments. At one point, we even see Jamie Foxx’s terrifically acted Django spell out his name to a fellow bar patron, played by Franco Nero, the Django of the 1966 Western.
Not only is Jamie Foxx great, but so is Christoph Waltz as his partner; mentor in the art of gunplay, mentee in the ways of the 1858 South. Perhaps the most astonishing performances are from Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson who play some of the most despicable characters in fictional cinematic history. Tarantino writes fantastic scenes which pivot on dramatic moments one might not expect. What may seem like a clear moment for a mass shootout instead plays out as a dialogue sequence, and vice versa. Where Tarantino continues to struggle however is his characterisations. Ever since Jackie Brown, Tarantino has struggled to make his characters all talk like different individuals. While they all attain different goals and ideals, everyone is equally as witty, varying in their vocabulary, and “Tarantinian”. Christopher Waltz’ Dr. Schultz (and Col. Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds) recent collaborations with the writer have unleashed him from this dip slightly however. Regardless, a magnificent folkloric tale erupts and gallops along and takes us with it.
Another trope of Tarantino is his use of exploitative violence. Two spheres of violence exist in Django. The extravagantly entertaining blood-letting that Tarantino is famous for, and the raw, deliberate, disturbing violence that highlights the horror of slavery, but likely plays as a ‘PG’ version of the reality. Examples being the vengeful bloodbath, and the singular horror of the white man-orchestrated slave fight, respectively. It is not only the content of such scenes but the careful treatment. The shocking violence is brutal, raw, and brief. However, the violence intended to be playful is choreographed like a dance with gunmen leaping around amongst splatters and swipes of blood.
Django Unchained is a stellar start to the year in cinema, and certainly one of Tarantino’s greatest films to date: while it doesn’t dabble in non-linear narrative nor large ensemble cast, the tale of the two bounty hunters, Django and Dr. Schultz is told well, with emotion, something arguably thin on the ground in Tarantino’s past work. The cinematography captures the essence of the South and the editing is lively yet controlled. I was concerned the usual mix of post-modern referencing both visual and audible would be tired, however the fast zooms, set pieces, and blend of hip-hop and Western movie themes pay off beautifully and surprisingly refreshingly. My faith in Tarantino is restored and I can’t wait to see this film a second time.