Django Unchained – Film Review
by Dan Berlinka
Quentin Tarantino’s blend of spaghetti western and blaxploitation has none of the reverence for its subject displayed by the other film dealing with slavery that opens this month. And, unlike in Spielberg’s Lincoln, the black characters here are dramatically free to be more than grateful bystanders to their own history.
Not that there is a lot of that history on offer in Tarantino’s movie-filtered South. But then you wouldn’t look to Inglourious Basterds for an account of WWII either. Indeed, beyond the implicit condemnation of the barbarity depicted on screen, Django Unchained doesn’t seem to have that much to say about slavery at all. Probably even less than Skin Game, a 1971 comedy western starring James Garner and Lou Gossett that also has role-playing trickery at its heart. Django’s story and motives are personal, not political. What we do have is a succession of vignettes. They are full with sizzling dialogue and cameos from cult favourites, in a collage from Tarantino’s vast knowledge and love of cinema.
The central pairing of Foxx and Waltz work beautifully. The charisma of the former offset by the delicate European charm of the latter. Leonardo Di Caprio’s villain brilliantly captures the veneer of tobacco-stained civility that coats the slave owner’s brutality. The set piece shoot-outs are well-handled. A couple of stand-offs in the early scenes are as tense as they are funny. But despite many entertaining moments, the story never quite comes together.
“Story and motives are personal, not political”
There is no real progression. The protagonists seem guided only by what will make a good gag in one scene, without much particular connection to the next one. And then there’s the length. The epic running time simply does not match the tale it is telling. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is roughly the same length. But it uses the enormity of the Civil War as a sweeping backdrop to its elemental story of betrayal and revenge. Here the narrative landscape is just so much… smaller.
A scene with Don Johnson and Jonah Hill as proto-klansmen is fairly amusing, but no more so than Blazing Saddles. And not enough to justify the detour away from the main plot. Of course, such criticism may be akin to criticising Tarantino just for being Tarantino. After all, this kind of picture is what he does and his fans know what they’re signing up for. And even if you’re not a complete QT devotee, his films are always worth seeing. Even Death Proof, because that amalgamation of arthouse and grindhouse is not to be found anywhere else.
But for me, Tarantino remains frustrating. Especially because so much of what he does is so good, the indulgent pursuit of footnotes at the expense of a coherent whole disappoint me.