Staff Review/ Django Unchained

Cornerhouse AV Technician Dave Petty reviews Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino has, arguably, never been a ‘mature’ filmmaker. I mean this as a compliment – his films are wide-eyed rides into the mind of a former video store clerk, a man so obsessed by cinema that every frame he commits to his beloved celluloid is often deliberately referencing some film or another (and not always for good – Kill Bill might as well have been a home-made compilation tape of his favourite kung fu scenes). But Since he got Death Proof out of his system, he’s given us Inglourious Basterds – a film that killed Hitler and had more fun with World War II than anyone with a modicum of taste and decency thought possible. Sure it cribbed from other films and was never shy about it, but it made a statement – that Tarantino had found his mojo again. No longer was he floundering with dialogue that seemed like mere parody of his previous output. He was back on track, and only went and got Christoph Waltz his first Oscar nomination and Oscar win in the process.

Well it looks like Waltz knew he was onto a good thing, as he’s now been upgraded from supporting actor to lead role, moseying alongside Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained. Dizzying and often ridiculous, it marries Peckinpah violence and Mel Brooks’ knockabout comedy with almost flagrant disregard (the Blazing Saddles influences won’t go unnoticed). But throughout its lengthy running time, not once do we get the time-consuming, pop culture-laiden dialogue scenes that we’ve gotten used to from Tarantino’s screenplays. Sure there’s plenty of character interplay, but this is a lean, mean beast that doesn’t fuss about trying to make anyone look or sound cool – Foxx and Waltz have enough cool dripping from their holsters without even having to try.

Foxx plays the titular Django, a slave being moved across Texas who’s owners are rudely interrupted by Dr. King Schultz (Waltz), a dentist-cum-bounty hunter, who takes Django for his own (with a little bloodshed, naturally). His motives for this are clear enough – he needs his help in tracking down a group of brothers who Django once knew, so the bounty on their heads can be collected. So far so-so, but when Schultz realises Django is a natural marksman, they pair up to rescue Django’s beloved Broomhilda, a slave working on a cotton plantation owned by the dubiously-monikered Calvin Candie (a brown-toothed Leonardo DiCaprio, soaking up the role with zealous intensity). With a combination of stylised lighting (woodland shootouts by moonlight never looked so beautiful), an unfussy script (that’s also incredibly funny), a superb contemporary soundtrack (a nice departure for Quents, who’s usually got his head buried squarely in the 70s) and casting that’s right on the money, not to mention one of the sexiest and bloodiest gunfights to grace the screen in a long time, the film is a daring and outrageous monster that doesn’t tow the party line – it’s like Tarantino is no longer precious about how his work might be perceived (nor his acting skills, that make for a ‘so bad its good’ extended cameo), that he’s simply having fun making a crazed, mad-eyed Western that shoots off at tangents you don’t see coming (Don Johnson in a white suit and Stetson is a sight to behold).

If you’re looking for deep, cinematic nourishment, you might not find Django quite to your taste – I had a brief chat with a friend after the film who found it too long and somewhat boring, and he couldn’t quite grasp what Tarantino was trying to say. But as far as this reviewer goes, I don’t think Tarantino needs to be saying anything – though of course that’s not to say it’s devoid of meaning. The film plays out against the backdrop of slavery, and Samuel L. Jackson’s ageing, loyal head slave Stephen illustrates a bizarre dichotomy that may well have played out during that time period – a slave more willing to die for his master than help a fellow brother in need. But in a sense, dissecting these aspects of the script undermines just how hell-bent on entertaining the audience Django Unchained is – it’s a freewheeling rollercoaster of a movie, Tarantino at his most mature but also at his most carefree. And that’s not a bad combo by any stretch.

Django Unchained continues to screen at Cornerhouse. Watch the trailer and book your tickets here.