Review: Django Unchained
As the latest inductee into Quentin Tarantino's increasingly bloody squad of revisionist revenge pictures, Django Unchained carries a hefty sack of expectation over its shoulder. Inglourious Basterds, the director's previous film, proved a successful combination of Tarantino's rampant wordsmithery with history-meddling catharsis, giving Hitler a cinematic kick in the bojangles that exemplified the director's knack for sprawling, brutal entertainment. The plot of his new film promises similar pleasures; Django, a slave freed under fortuitous circumstances, shoots his way across pre-civil war America to rescue his wife, Broomhilda, from a plantation deep in the American South. Django must negotiate the vicious race politics of the period to break his shackles, become a free man, and seek vengeance on those who perpetrate the barbaric practice of slavery.
This film, ostensibly a Western (though Tarantino has labelled it a 'Southern'), liberally borrows from the Great Big Book Of Western Iconography, frequently riffing on the entrenched conventions of the genre and cannabilising its most memorable images to a degree that teeters on mid-level fetishism. I wouldn't say this is a bad thing necessarily; Tarantino makes films like he's creating a Spotify playlist, dragging and dropping images that inspire him into a big cinematic bag, shaking it around, and emptying the mixture onto a roll of 35mm film. The joy comes from seeing familiar images in a new context, crammed into a different genre and furnished with massive production values. As a Western itself, the homages in Django Unchained contain far fewer pleasures, as they inevitably lose the genre remixing appeal. A shot from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (a Western) in Kill Bill can get away with the term 'homage'; a similar shot in Django Unchained, also a Western, errs closer to author-less mimicry.
For the most part, Django Unchained grooves along at a moonwalky pace, mostly guided by a suspicious number of montages that involve Django shooting people in the face. Longer scenes are overloaded with that typical Tarantino flair, rarely concluding when expected. They often involve great suspense builders, such as an extraordinary secret that lingers in the background waiting to be revealed, or a sharp, abrasive change in a character's temperament that promises an explosive turn of events. Scenes are like short films in themselves, loaded with rising tension, high stakes and rousing climaxes. The quality of the craft is immaculate, and the film is a wonder when such refined, meticulously designed scenes are on display. On a larger scale, however, the film begins to hobble under its own weight - it largely discards its breezy yet serious tiki tour through the horrors of slavery and starts to wallow in its own bloodlust. Django himself is a void of a character, so his totally justified quest for revenge has no emotional resonance.
But there are many enthusiastic, gushing things to be said about other facets of this film. Christoph Waltz's bounty hunter, Dr. Schulz, anchors much of the film with a gleeful, Wonka-esque performance, and Leonardo DiCaprio's charismatic slaving kingpin Calvin Candie is a wonderful villain, too agreeable to outright hate, but still basically a disease in human form. The politics of the slavery era are surprisingly well considered, featuring characters who do not exist along a black and white axis of morality (pun unfortunately intended), blurring the distinction between oppressor and oppressed. Ultimately, Django Unchained is a series of micro successes in a macro failure - it is resplendent with the typical pleasures of Tarantino's cinema, but surrounded by a larger structure that shifts from something thoughtful and considered to something mindless and bland.
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