Ugh ugh ugh.
I just came out of a screening of Django Unchained. My brain genuinely feels a little grubbier than it was four hours ago. I’m trying to purge it by listening to the Liberal Arts soundtrack: the application of oodles of Beethoven and Mozart is going a little way towards scrubbing it clean.
To start with the charitable: Django isn’t completely without merit. There is some excellent acting: most notably from Leonardo DiCaprio – who has somehow still ended being relatively underrated, thanks to the odour of Titanic despite making some very interesting choices in his carer and being pretty to very good in all of them (and who wouldn’t have chosen to be in James Cameron’s Titantic then, not knowing it was going to be saptastic?). Christoph Waltz is also a geniune delight, and I retain a certain gratitude to Tarantino for unleashing him on non-German audiences. There are some interesting characters and ideas, most notably Samuel L Jackson’s Stephen – though, sadly underdeveloped and hidden in a fug of unpleasant ‘m’s and ’n’s. It being a Tarantino film there’s some great music and some good looking montages, and some great lines.
And yet, Django Unchained is a big (long) ugly mess. Somewhere in it is a hot mess, where the positives would tip the balance against negatives (such a film was Inglourious Basterds). And somewhere in that is a tight tense thiller about two guys, one white, one black, out to rescue a woman from one of the crueller plantation owners in the south. But, it being a Tarantino film, it’s all about the style and the surface, and that surface seems to have got ever shallower than it was when he started out – and I’m someone who was with him all the way up to the end of Kill Bill Volume One.
I went into Django with low expectations, based on the reviews and commentary, and I came out disappointed. That’s quite impressive.
The story of Django is fairly thin and the telling is disjointed. Making Jamie Foxx look deeply cool doesn’t paper over the cracks in a screenplay that’s not sure how to get from A to B. It’s too long (oh my gosh, it’s long). There’s no really strong female character (and with Tarantino, that’s a bit of a let down – see Anne Bilson on the subject). Quentin Tarantino shows up to “act” with the most gawdawful accent since before Dick van Dyke, along with a posse of “Australians”. Leaving your audience sniggering to avoid the pain of watching this as your hero gallops off for the grand finale isn’t a great move.
But the key problem, I think, for Tarantino is that he has, post-Kill Bill, become obsessed with revenge. And revenge is not satisfying. It blows a hot rush and can be compelling, but it ends up empty. That, plus the focus on style creates a lack of engagement, and with the other flaws of the film a lack of satisfaction in the end result. It’s also more problematic given the subject matter of the film.
I worry, as I did with Inglourious Basterds, that this bit of history isn’t Tarantino’s to play fast and loose with, that there’s something unhelpful about going into a tramatic piece of the past and effectively saying, ‘If only the victims could have unleashed bloody revenge, that would be so satisfying it would cauterise the wound.’ Because, no. It provides a distraction from dealing with the wound, sometimes to the point of pretending that it’s not there any more. Done well, a revenge/exploitation movie could be illuminating about the violence of slavery (and some of Django is very hard to watch) and about the complex relationships between black and white, slave and free on a Southern Plantation. But Django is not well done, and while those issues are hinted at in the Candieland scenes and especially with Candie and Stephen (with both DiCaprio and Jackson playing against type, the interest of their relationship is heightened for the viewer), they’re lost in the violence, the blood and the unpleasantness, and ultimately upstaged by Django’s spot of moonlight dressage at the end. It’s all about the cool, see. And that’s just not cool, for me, anymore.