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Film review: Django Unchained***
Django was a (white) gunslinger in the 1960s spaghetti Western, but he’s a (black) slave in Quentin Tarantino’s three-hour version – not a remake, but a completely different film. Django was played by Franco Nero, who turns up in a cameo here as an Italian slave-owner (“I know,” he says with meaning when it’s pointed out that the ‘D’ in ‘Django’ is silent) – a very Tarantino touch, QT being of course the video-store geek whose head is crammed with details of every disreputable 60s and 70s genre. This is ostensibly a spaghetti Western but actually borrows more from the Southern-plantation exploitation movies of the 70s, especially the notorious Mandingo (1975) and its sequel Drum (1976). It’s flabby, visually beautiful and often violent; I think it’s Tarantino’s weakest film, but still lively enough to be intermittently entertaining.
The plot is skimpy for a three-hour film: Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German dentist turned bounty hunter in the Wild West, frees a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) so the latter can help him identify three men he’s hunting. Django has a wife, so – after the three men have been duly dispatched – Schultz agrees to help him rescue her from sadistic plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), our heroes posing as a rich man looking for a black ‘mandingo’ fighter and the ‘one-eyed Charlie’ who’s advising him on the purchase. “You can never break character,” warns Schultz, sounding a lot like the hitmen ‘getting into character’ in Pulp Fiction.
To be honest, the plot is unconvincing, as if hastily scribbled by QT in between thinking up badass bits of business. Doesn’t Schultz have a picture of the three men? (Even if he doesn’t, he seems to know where to find them; couldn’t he just ask someone?) And if he’s going to make Candie a “ridiculous” (i.e. irresistible) offer, why not make it directly for the female slave, instead of the elaborate pretence of the mandingo charade? Still, you don’t watch a Tarantino movie for the plot. You watch it for the dialogue, for the edge he brings, and – above all – for the tension, his knack of spinning things out till the audience is wriggling with pleasure.
Django doesn’t disappoint in terms of dialogue, both Schultz and Candie getting some enjoyably ripe speeches (Django himself is more laconic); and the tension is there too, at least in some scenes – but the film is so self-indulgent that tension eventually dissipates. There’s an entire 10-minute sequence (with the Australian cowboys) that could’ve been omitted, or at least rewritten; it adds so little – Django escapes, but he could’ve escaped in a fraction of the time – that one suspects it only made the final cut because it stars QT himself, making a lamentable attempt at an Aussie accent. The first half is picaresque and essentially irrelevant, though things do improve once we get to the plantation (‘Candyland’) only to degenerate again in the mindless final bloodbath; had Django ended about half an hour before it actually does it might’ve been a memorably bleak minor entry in the Tarantino oeuvre, albeit still a bit waffly.
The main asset here are the performances. DiCaprio has a decadent gleam in his eye as Candie, a bored libertine who lives for “a good bit of fun”. Samuel L. Jackson is initially clownish and finally chilling as his grotesque, Uncle Tom-ish retainer. Waltz has the juiciest role (he won a Golden Globe last week), but in fact his character isn’t very interesting. He strokes his whiskers and speaks the lines delightfully – but his Nazi was a charismatic monster in Inglourious Basterds whereas here he’s just a cuddly liberal, the elegant European shocked by these slave-owning colonials (some may wonder where a German gets off giving lessons in morality; but we won’t go there).
Schultz is finally the film’s biggest weakness, because nothing in Django Unchained – no, not even the man ripped apart by dogs – is as heart-rending as the bit where Django, acting on Schultz’s instructions, shoots a man in front of his young son. (“Pa?” asks the boy in a small, puzzled voice as his dad is felled by the sniper’s rifle – then, running frantically, “Pa!”.) The hypocrisy, or just complexity, of a man whose heart bleeds for the “poor slaves” yet who also has no compunction killing people labelled ‘bad’ by the system (even if they’ve turned over a new leaf) would make for a great character study – I also expected him to be called on the fact that he offers Django a third (not half) of the bounty money, making him a sidekick as opposed to an equal partner – but in fact Tarantino is unwilling, or unable, to accommodate such moral shadings. He points out the contradiction, but does nothing more with it.
In the end, that’s the problem. Despite its length, despite its ambition, despite its florid dialogue, Django Unchained is a very simple film. The plot is simple, the Manichean morality is simple, the characters are ultimately simple. That’s not necessarily fatal, in fact it’s Tarantino’s trump card: when Inglourious Basterds re-wrote history by having Hitler shot in a movie theatre – just like that! – it made an exhilarating point about Cinema’s ability to improve on real life. But Django takes a trickier subject and offers less, not more. The magpie cinephilia is still fun (isn’t that Jerry Goldsmith’s theme from Under Fire popping up at one point?), but the drama lacks richness. This is a film in black and white.
DIRECTED BY Quentin Tarantino
STARRING Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio
US 2012 165 mins