Django Unchained - review

Tarantino's new film does a disservice to the oppressed.

Django Unchained (18)
Dir: Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino’s last film, the wartime wish-fulfilment fantasy Inglourious Basterds, ended with the hero examining the swastika he had carved into a Nazi colonel’s forehead and declaring, “I think this might just be my masterpiece.” It’s too soon to know whether that will prove true of Inglourious Basterds (Tarantino’s soulful Jackie Brown still has the edge for me) but the case looks stronger in the light of his latest picture. Django Unchained feeds the subject of African-American slavery through the same parallel-universe hypothesis processor that the previous movie used on the Second World War.

Where the earlier film followed a band of Jewish-American Nazi-scalpers, the heroes of Django Unchained – the white German bounty hunter Dr Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and his sidekick, former slave Django (Jamie Foxx) – shoot their way through plantation owners and racists in the American South in the late 1850s. Those killed with a dainty silver pistol die from a tiny chest wound that despatches a trickle of blood. Anyone dying in a shoot-out can expect their heads and torsos to explode in tomatoey splashes. The aftermath of the Tomatina festival would resemble a minor Rioja stain by comparison.

Tarantino has made no secret of his adoration for scuzzy B-movies with Kill Bill or Death Proof. Django Unchained is a different bucket of gore altogether, marrying this lowbrow art form with a subject matter that appears to merit a less sensationalist sensibility. But the problem isn’t the tension between the sober subject and the titillating style, with its authentically amateurish crash-zooms (when the lens lurches inelegantly towards its subject). After all, Fassbinder already travelled the same route in reverse: his 1971 western, Whity, applied a classical shooting style to a lurid melodrama about the exploitation of a black servant. Tarantino’s downfall is his compulsive over-scaling. For a B-movie nut, he has often failed to grasp that the B should stand not only for “bloody” and “brazen” but also “brevity.” In Django Unchained, he stretches pulp material to indulgent length (nearly three hours) without a corresponding upgrade in depth or characterisation.

Script and dialogue have been Tarantino’s strong suits but there are few scenes that don’t outstay their natural life. A skit featuring racists complaining about the eyeholes in their prototype-Klan masks will amuse only those who haven’t seen the bathos of evil explored more cleverly by David Mitchell and Robert Webb (as Nazis realising they may be the “baddies”) or Eddie Izzard (who imagined Darth Vader in the Death Star canteen ordering penne al arabiatta).

As the garrulous Schultz, Christoph Waltz essentially plays a benevolent version of his wily-tongued Nazi from Inglourious Basterds. Schultz has a respect for procedural correctness as well as violence: when he reaches into his jacket, you never know if he will produce a gun or a warrant. He smacks his lips over language, yet doesn’t seem to know that people are “hanged” rather than “hung”, or that the expression “no worries” hasn’t been coined yet. Jamie Foxx has less to work with as Django, even once he begins searching for his enslaved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). He gets jazzy comic notes to play, savouring his freedom by wearing a dandyish royal-blue suit as he rides through a cotton plantation, but the film grinds him down: he’s a righteous bore. Tarantino has said he wrote the character to give black American males an empowering Western hero. It’s an honourable intention, though it’s also an obscure kind of slight to have made him so glumly virtuous.

Anyone is more interesting than Django. There’s Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the effete owner of the “Candyland” plantation who gets his kicks watching slaves fighting to the death. And Calvin’s house slave Stephen, played by Samuel L Jackson in oldage make-up and a frosting of white hair. The film is at its most electrifying when it touches on the disruption caused by slavery to racial solidarity; Stephen, a slave who colludes in the oppression of other African-Americans, is the personification of this warped state. (The name recalls Stevens, the butler from Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, who looked the other way or offered a helping hand when confronted with fascism.)

Many of Tarantino’s usual strengths work in the film’s favour, such as his unrivalled ear for music (the soundtrack includes rap, country and old Ennio Morricone cuts). But he is less skilful than usual at mastering jarring switches in tone. Funny violence and grave violence in the same film risk cancelling one another out, so that it all becomes numbing; the humorous brutality doesn’t seem such a riot, and the sense of outrage drains from scenes that should be shocking. Any gains the film makes by drawing on the vocabulary of exploitation cinema are soon outweighed by its losses in gravitas. Portraying the perpetrators of slavery as merely monstrous, and their victims as holy, does a disservice to the oppressed, who deserve at least to have their suffering understood.

Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington in Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained"

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The A-Z of Israel

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Leader: Brexit and the future of the UK

The UK is worth preserving, yet it must be reconfigured if its constituent nations are to be better served.

The economic consequences of the Leave vote are becoming ever more severe. Rising prices, deferred investment and reduced vacancies all threaten prosperity and growth. The Conservative government’s signal that the United Kingdom may leave the single market has had the chilling effect that many warned of.

England and Wales can at least reflect that they voted for Brexit, but Scotland and Northern Ireland did not. By 62-38 and 56-44 respectively, both nations voted to remain in the EU. Now they face the prospect of a long, painful withdrawal. After the narrow vote against independence two years ago, Holyrood is understandably assessing its options. At the Scottish National Party’s conference in Glasgow, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon vowed to publish a draft bill for a second referendum on independence. “Hear this: if you think for one single second that I’m not serious about doing what it takes to protect Scotland’s interests, then think again,” she declared.

When a majority of Scots voted to remain in the UK, David Cameron had already promised to hold a referendum on UK membership of the EU. Yet he made this pledge in the belief that the vote would be won. The ensuing result and the UK’s likely withdrawal from the single market entitle the SNP to hold a second referendum. Should Britain leave the EU without having secured a new trade agreement with its former partners, Scotland’s economy would inevitably suffer.

Senior SNP figures are considering a pre-Brexit referendum in the hope that they would inherit the UK’s vacated seat in the bloc. That might be wishful thinking. “Twenty-seven [member states] would become 28 again,” said Mike Russell, the SNP’s Europe minister. A vote could be staged in the two years between the government invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and the UK’s anticipated withdrawal.

As well as the Scottish Question, there is the Irish Question to consider. The risks posed to Northern Ireland and the republic by Brexit are greater than those facing Scotland. The UK is one of the republic’s largest export markets, with €1.5bn of transactions each week. However, it is the political fallout on the island of Ireland, rather than the economic consequences, that should trouble us most.

Although the prime ministers of both countries have ruled out the return of a hard border between the north and south, the Leave vote has undermined the peace settlement. The principle that no change should be made to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland without the consent of its people has also been imperilled. In Northern Ireland as in Scotland, the problem remains a UK that exaggerates the power of an overmighty England.

For Theresa May, the disunities within the kingdom are a threat and an opportunity. We have long argued that the UK, the most centralised state in Europe, should fully embrace federalism, with far greater powers devolved from Westminster. The UK, perhaps the most successful multinational state in modern history, is worth preserving. Yet it must be reconfigured if its constituent nations are to be better served. Brexit makes this task not merely desirable, but essential. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood