Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Django Unchained (2013)

After a 4 year break, critically acclaimed bad-boy director Quentin Tarantino is back with his latest bloodbath Django Unchained. Similar to some of his previous outings, Django Unchained is a roaring rampage of revenge. Set in 1858, two years before the civil war (we're reminded), Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave once owned by three unscrupulous criminal brothers. He's tracked down by dentist-come-bounty hunter Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), since Django knows from memory the faces of these three. From there, the two form an unlikely partnership as Dr Schultz seeks bounty and Django seeks his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) and those who've mistreated and abused her. Already, we have the elements of Christoph Waltz as a slick, smooth talking German in tense negotiation which made Inglorious Basterds such a brilliant film, but also the overwrought three-hours-of-revenge that Kill Bill would have been but for the production company's insistance that it be cleft into two movies since, you know, nobody would want to sit through three hours of exploitation cinema with characters more shallow than a wading pool. So, which way will Django go?

As this is the first Tarantino film I've reviewed, I'd like to briefly preface it by running down my experience with Tarantino and how I understand his filmmaking sensibilities. Tarantino burst onto the scene with Reservoir Dogs in the early 90's, it combined hardcore violence, clever symbolism, real characters, and an offbeat but strangely fitting soundtrack. 

As well as a few other Tarantino signature tropes (the trunk shot, for instance) all of his future films would carry some combination of those elements. More than anything else, Mr Tarantino's genius is not watching a lot of old classic movies, movies we think of as 'good', and then taking the good elements from them and using them in his films; Quentin spent his formative years in a VHS video store watching a lot of bad films, mostly 60s / 70s exploitation films, and from them, taking the good elements and then including them in his own films. In that way, he found an unexploited niche and made it entirely his own. 

After Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, both of which recieved considerable critical acclaim and recognition at prestegious film festivals (Cannes, Sundance etc), he made Jackie Brown, a film heavy on character, heavy on storyline and while moderate on cartoonish sensibility, still carrying plenty of Tarantino's style. Unfortunately, it was a box office flop. This stung, and poor Quentin wouldn't make another film for 6 years. When he returned, he gave us Kill Bill volumes 1 and then 2; which were on the complete opposite end of the Tarantino spectrum from Jackie Brown. Shallow characters, cartoon (literally, at points) visuals, unrealistic and explosive violence, and a simplistic sum-it-up-in-two-words plot. I was disappointed, it's not a film I enjoy watching on my own, I need a few mates around and some beer, having a laugh. Unfortunately, Kill Bill vol's 1 and 2 were box office hits, and Jackie Brown fans like myself were all a little heartbroken that we might never see another Jackie Brown again. A fear only compounded by Grindhouse in 2008.

What we did get instead is a still very enjoyable and unique film in the form of Inglorious Basterds; Tarantino found his niche in a combination of extreme violence, good characters, tense dialogue and even more tense set pieces. It didn't quite have the deep, human realism of Jackie Brown, and it did have a fair measure of the silliness we saw in the Kill Bills and Grindhouse, but without being saturated in such silliness as those earlier films were.

Enter Django Unchained. The direction Tarantino has taken is to embrace the success of Inglorious Basterds and build upon it. Django and Inglorious are really very similar films, not the least accounting for which is Christoph Waltz playing almost identical characters in both. Clearly, Tarantino was told (or knew) that Waltz (who in his native Germany was never actually considered an exceptionally talented actor) was by far the bast thing in the film, and given the tense, clever dialogue which Tarantino delivers at his best, is an engrossing screen presence.  Foxx is functional, if not remarkable, and DiCaprio gives the best performance I've seen from him since What's Eating Gilbert Grape. Considering I'm a big DiCaprio fan, this is truly high praise. Lastly, Samual L Jackson plays a villain, but, unlike anything Tarantino has done in the last decade, plays an exceptionally well balanced and complex villain, and does so beautifully, so much so that I have the boldness to say 'Stephen' is my favourite Samuel L Jackson role of his career.

These characters achieve the same sort of depth and profundity as those Tarantino gave us in Jackie Brown, but where I've changed my mind about Tarantino is that Inglorious Basterds partially, and Django Unchained completely, have lead me to embrace the silliness he uses in his films when (and only when) it's used in good measure. Where Django Unchained really succeeds for me, is including some of that silliness, but paired back enough that we never laugh at the film. I never laughed at Reservoir Dogs, I never laughed at Jackie Brown; this is the third Tarantino film I haven't laughed at, and it is truly marvelous.

The other major area in which Django Unchained succeeds is in the sound and the music. Highly stylised sound effects and unusual and creative music have always been a staple of Tarantino films; even the films of his I don't like, I have to concede that the sound effects and music render them at least watchable. Django Unchained features a well balanced blend of 60's western, R&B, and ambient music pieces which both compliment the film, and truly put Tarantino's signature on the film. 

My niggling issues with the film include the ending, which snakes around and dawdles, the incompleteness of the 'German Legend' metaphor (where was the mountain?), and Tarantino's completely unnecessary Australian Accent. Quite late on, Tarantino and another come on screen with modern Australian accent, I emphasize modern because the modern Australian accent didn't exist in 1858, Australians would have sounded English at the time. While I can embrace the unrealistic nature of bodies exploding when shot (under the Rule of Cool), I just don't understand the need or benefit of Quentin-the-lousy-actor sporting a semi-plausable Australian accent on screen. External criticisms mostly cite that the film is too long, but I don't believe so. Tarantino could have economised some time by combining some of the purely aesthetic shots with the less aesthetic dialogue shots in order to save time, but I didn't find it dragged on at any point. Even the end: I found the problem was indecisiveness on Tarantino's part, not dragging on too long.

I didn't enjoy Django Unchained quite as much as I enjoyed Jackie Brown, but I will say this: I'll be a happy little film buff should Quentin Tarantino continue his career making more Django Unchained's instead of Jackie Brown's. There are a few directors out there that could make a Jackie Brown and do a very good job of it, but only Tarantino could make Django Unchained. Tarantino offers something unique with this film. I realize that the next project he has on the cards is a third installment of Kill Bill, I genuinely hope that that's solely to cash in on a golden goose, and that otherwise the step he took from Inglorious to Django, he'll take again with an even better Tarantino film thereafter, as it now appears he's entering a golden age of his career. 

No comments:

Post a Comment