Once Upon a Time in the South...
6,105Effortlessly combining classic spaghetti Western stylisation with blaxploitation sentiments; infusing period language with trademark wit; and crafting another often iconic, always memorable slice of genre pulp fiction, Tarantino's latest - Django Unchained - may well be his best work in years.
Indeed it's hard to argue with the notion that the acclaimed writer/director has only matured over the last 20 years. Having peaked early with a seminal debut in Reservoir Dogs and a standout, one-of-the-greatest-films-of-all-time contender; his sophomore masterpiece Pulp Fiction, he set the bar pretty high, even for himself. However, there is evidence – both in the slightly disjointed last effort, Inglourious Basterds, and this sort-of follow-up entry (potentially the middle chapter in Tarantino's 'period' trilogy) - that even his consistently stylish, star-studded, sharply-scripted and simply never-less-than-utterly-entertaining movies can also have some noteworthy depth to them.
Set on the eve of the American Civil War, in antebellum-era Deep South, the story follows the character of Dr. King Schultz, a bounty hunter who is looking for a black slave - one particular black slave - a man who will help him identify his latest quarry. However, after finding just the man for the task - Django - and taking out the targets, Schultz decides to consider a longer partnership for the two of them; one which, if successful, will eventually lead Django to his own ultimate prize: his long-lost slave wife.
"How do you like the bounty hunting business?"
"Kill white folks and they pay you for it? What's not to like?"
Already nominated for - and winner of - numerous Awards, Django Unchained is arguably Tarantino's most mainstream (and best) effort since Kill Bill. It’s yet another, similarly-revenge-themed epic, only informed instead by blaxploitation movies and spaghetti westerns of old, as opposed to kung fu movies.
Unsurprisingly the movie has already drawn almost as much criticism as it has critical acclaim; controversy ringing out amidst those shootings in the States; Tarantino once again forced to defend his violent art against reinforced arguments of violent-films-inspiring-violence. It’s a tired, old, boring debate – with no winners and losers because there’s simply not enough evidence at hand; but, suffice to say, there’s nothing whatsoever in this movie that breaks ground in terms of on-screen violence. Tarantino’s always been known to tread brazenly in this kind of territory, why should now be any different from all his other movies? Besides, he’s already proven himself that rare director who can effortlessly blend sharp scenes of extreme violence with disarmingly snappy and witty dialogue, to great effect, so why should he be soloed out for criticism?
Then there’s filmmaker Spike Lee –currently busy degrading himself on another unnecessary uninspired Hollywood remake, of the Korean masterpiece Oldboy no less – who reportedly stated that he would never see this movie as it was “disrespectful to his ancestors”. I don’t think he’s ever particularly liked Tarantino – not least because of the fact that Quentin appears to use the “N” word more frequently than most polite circles would find acceptable – but to judge a movie so harshly without ever having seen it? That seems to smack of the kind of ignorance that I would think Lee himself should be more than familiar with.
“You, sir, are a sore loser.”
“And you are an abysmal winner.”
Since Lee was busy reportedly avoiding the film because “American slavery was not a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western” he unfortunately never got to actually see how Tarantino beautifully juggled the ingredients of this dish and turned it into a fully-rounded whole. It’s far from just another homage; far from just a tribute to either Leone’s spaghetti westerns, or those 70s blaxploitation flicks that also draw comparisons. Sure, Tarantino perfectly infuses his film with the style, music, action and setting of a spaghetti Western, whilst playing out the story of a more traditional blaxploitation flick (in fact the 1975 Fred Williamson movie Boss Nigger seems a likely inspiration), but he also never loses sight of the inner core which holds it all together.
Beyond the panache and the bravado, the witty exchanges and the bloody violence, is a tale pitched against a backdrop which is seldom painted in movies – even those set within the very same period. Here we get to see the true horror of slavery in a pre-Civil War South; a time when the more ‘enlightened’ North was finally discarding the horrors of its past, but the backwards South was choosing instead to become entrenched in its twisted bigotry. Tarantino was intent on making this an important aspect of his epic feature, and certainly this ideal is evident in almost every scene, with the master writer crafting a script that exposes some of the most obvious racial prejudices in some very subtle and innovative ways.
First up there’s a scene involving the predecessors to the Klu Klux Klan arguing over whether or not they should wear their hoods, because they can’t see out of them. It’s a brilliant metaphor for the question over whether or not they should continue to follow their unjustified prejudices, because this bigotry similarly makes them both blind and ignorant. Then there’s a scene where the main antagonist discusses the physical defects to the brain of an African-American, which supposedly makes them inherently predisposed towards being more subservient. It’s a wonderful turned-on-its-head variation of the Tarantino-scripted True Romance’s egg-plant scene between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken, and it’s this kind of writing that exemplifies why the razor-sharp script has been put under the Oscar spotlight.
Of course nothing is ever ‘normal’ in a Tarantino movie, and he turns almost every stereotypical, clichéd character on its head; defying the boundaries of both a standard story format (three acts) and of conventional storytelling. But this is still arguably the closest he’s come to a reasonably normal linear narrative. Yes, we get a few flashbacks to flesh out the characters and events along the way – both long-term flashbacks and also skipping-around in the current timeline (like the return to the scene where Django shows off just how good a shot he is) – but this is certainly his most straightforward.
Considering what we have become accustomed to since the non-linear near-circular narrative of Pulp Fiction; the triple-intersection of Inglorious Basterds; and the flashback-upon-flashback Kill Bills, Django’s A-to-B-to-C(-to-D) plot is probably only remarkable because of its refusal to adhere to the conventional three-act structure (unsurprising since Tarantino abandoned the notion of three acts with his very first script). Indeed, and somewhat ironically, it’s only in this added fourth act that things start to go off the rails a little bit, just around the time when things kick off, and also – not unrelatedly – around the time when Tarantino pops up in arguably his worst cameo ever (complete with his worst accent ever, which wavers from some kind of South Afrikaan variation to a really bad Australian imitation). Still, it’s not a terrible way to close out the film, just a double-barrelled conclusion to the proceedings which, on the plus side, offers up twice the quota of violence that we would have had with just one ending.
And the preceding 120 minutes? That’s pure majesty. A work of art.
Tarantino’s furtively having fun behind the camera; no doubt chuckling to himself at hearing his subtle-and-sharp dialogue being brought to life by a bevy of at-the-top-of-their-game stars, whilst frequently spinning the zoom dial to jerk the image in and out in a fashion that marks the movie’s only distinct nod towards its 70s ancestors (notwithstanding the opening credit font and the aforementioned score – more on the latter, later). He has every right to be pleased, however, as it’s thanks to a choice bit of casting in his two main leads that Django strikes out as one of his most perfected movies of all time.
Jamie Foxx is one of those really unpredictable actors – capable of flipping from an Oscar-winning performance in Ray to a lightweight supporting role in Stealth; from so-starring in Michael Mann’s underrated Miami Vice to a throwaway part in the disappointingly conservative Law Abiding Citizen. Hell, he’s even signed up to play the villain in the sequel to the surprisingly good The Amazing Spider-Man. Here he’s perfectly chosen to play the anti-hero protagonist Django; a far better choice than original front-runner Will Smith, who likely may have been too clean-cut an actor for the gritty part (although it would have admittedly been nice to see Smith take on a darker role, particularly since Tarantino wrote it specifically for him).
Effortlessly becoming the central focus of the story, it’s easy to root for Foxx’s tortured slave, who savours every single moment after being given a new lease of life, and all the tools required to exact justice upon all the unjust around him. He’s far more than just a caricature though – a standard spaghetti western / blaxploitation protagonist who just fights from scene to scene with increasingly enraged passion – instead getting to forge his own path; beautifully rendered with a third act dedicated to a ‘performance’ of Django’s own choosing. He gets to play a part within a glorious little game that is concocted – Tarantino’s own variation on the Newman/Redford classic, The Sting – and, more importantly, he gets to play this part his way.
Of course it always helps to have a great antagonist, and picking Leonardo DiCaprio to play the devilishly charismatic plantation owner who is basically the epitome of everything Django is railing against, is a bit of choice casting. Sure, DiCaprio doesn’t quite achieve the greatness that we have come to expect from him in his best work (The Aviator, Shutter Island, Inception), he comes damn close. He’s still got some great moments, and it’s in the subtle reserve, tempered frustration, and restrained anger that DiCaprio soars, showing his character to be just that tiny bit out of control; unhinged around the edges, and desperate to maintain the mindset in spite of the superior players he is facing. For a first-time villainous role (he was supposed to play Waltz’s part in Inglourious Basterds before Tarantino committed to casting somebody fluent in German) DiCaprio goes above and beyond, and it’s a worthy, daring performance.
The bountiful supporting cast include a seemingly endless list of familiar names, including Samuel L. Jackson, in a beautifully against-type and against-expectations supporting role that almost single-handedly redeems that disjointed fourth act; as well as the likes of Bruce Dern, James Remar, James Russo, Michael Parks, Robert Carradine, Tom Savini and Don Johnson – many of whom are now Tarantino regulars. It’s perhaps only Tarantino himself (and his terrible accents), Jonah Hill (who seems utterly out of place), Walton Goggins (the go-to redneck actor from Justified and The Shield, who just makes for a disappointing lead henchman) and, unfortunately, the leading lady Kerry Washington who don’t quite hit the mark in their respective roles. The biggest disappointment probably comes from Washington, who certainly convinces as the vulnerable, beautiful damsel-in-distress, but subsequently shows none of the strength of character that you might expect from the woman who Django would risk everything to save.
“My good man, did you simply get carried away with your dramatic gesture, or are you pointing your weapon at me with lethal intention?”
Christopher Waltz. I’ve left him to last because, well, he’s the star of the show. Plain and simple. Sure, it might be called Django Unchained, but it could have easily been called Django and King, except for the fact that it would not have been quite as catchy. Waltz steals every scene that he’s in, as well as a few of the scenes that he isn’t in where you’re left wondering whether they would have been even better had he been in them. The Austrian-German actor had been in the business for some thirty years before he was basically discovered by Tarantino and basically became an overnight sensation with his Oscar-winning turn in Inglourious Basterds – easily the single best thing about that movie. Once again he’s looking at an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor with Django and it’s no surprise – he utterly deserves it. His mentor-partner character is beautifully rounded by Waltz’s razor-sharp delivery of the film’s funniest lines, and his warm, captivating tales along the way. His almost mellifluous delivery gives the script a wonderfully salivated feel, like he’s chewing on every single syllable, and his character arc is arguably even more involving than the slightly more predictable one of Django himself.
Yes, between Tarantino’s stellar, Oscar-worthy script, Waltz’s Oscar-worthy performance, Foxx’s star turn and a near-perfect set of superb supporting characters, Django Unchained is superior viewing; likely to be one of the best films of the year – and it we’re still in January!
It’s almost unnecessary to go into how great the soundtrack is – not only an ode to all those classic Morricone scores of old (Once Upon a Time in the West, Once Upon a Time in America), but also utilising a newly recorded track by Morricone himself – or to revel in the sumptuous Oscar-nominated cinematography by long-term Tarantino collaborator Robert Richardson (The Aviator, Shutter Island, Born on the Fourth of July); who perfectly captures the stunning vistas both in their snowy glory and in the rich, humid Southern sun. After all, you’re surely already sold on the script and performances alone? The score and cinematography just top off this delectable desert.
Memorable scene comes after memorable scene; quoteworthy dialogue abounds – although never treading too far from the plausible dialogue you might expect from the period setting; Tarantino delicately and skilfully treading a fine line between his usual pulp fiction delivery and what you might accept as being spoken in these times, and oftentimes blending the two into a wonderfully rich and multi-layered end product. It’s equal parts viscerally and intellectually satisfying, unafraid to pointedly comment upon racism and slavery, whilst also unabashed in its bloody, head-popping violence, which delivers the punch-line to its more meaty statements about society, past and present. It’s a magnificent effort from a director who remains one of the greatest cinematic influences of this generation. Indeed I can see Django Unchained easily winning 4 out of its 5 Oscar nominations. It’s the Best Picture category that will be tough to achieve, but not because it doesn’t deserve it.
“I like the way you die, boy.”
Crazy as it sounds, wouldn’t it be great if Django Unchained somehow beat a Spielberg-directed, Daniel Day-Lewis-starring biopic about arguably one of the greatest American Presidents in history? I’m sure I’ll have to check back here and do some judicious editing once the Oscar results are finally in but, in the meantime, allow me to revel in the dream that Django will get the recognition that it so rightly deserves. The first great must-see movie of the year: Tarantino’s tour-de-force Django Unchained. Highly recommended.
VerdictBetween Quentin Tarantino’s stellar, Oscar-worthy script, Christopher Waltz’s Oscar-worthy supporting performance, Jamie Foxx’s memorable star turn and a near-perfect set of superb supporting characters, Django Unchained is superior viewing. And that’s even before we get to the evocative score, both directly influenced by and actually featuring contributions from the great composer Ennio Morricone himself; the sumptuous cinematography – also up for an Oscar – and the epic scale of the piece, which adopts Tarantino’s usual I-don’t-play-by-the-rules attitude with respect to its four-act structure and distinctive stylisation. Indeed whilst I always maintain that Pulp Fiction remains his best work, Django Unchained is one of the rare efforts from the groundbreaking filmmaker that actually also has a weighty depth to it, one which goes way beyond the sheer entertainment value that he consistently delivers, here exposing and clinically assassinating much of the age-old bigotry that burned the antebellum South to the core. Hopefully it’ll win all of the awards it so rightly deserves. Highly recommended: a great start to 2013.
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