Django Unchained (US, 2012)

Tarantino couldn't help but get in the way

Tarantino couldn’t help but get in the way

I love the western so it’s good to see one doing so well at the box office but I avoided this film in the cinema partly because of its length and partly because of Tarantino. I gave up on Inglorious Basterds after half an hour; I no longer found his knowing dialogue funny. However, this is fairly-well reigned in on Django and the set-up is terrific: Christopher Waltz’s bounty hunter aiding Jamie Foxx’s slave to become a free man. Leonard DiCaprio is superb as the southern gentleman-racist whose veneer of civilisation is so thin that he’s almost translucent. But… there is going to be a but.

There was criticism, at the time of the film’s release, of the film’s violence. I had assumed that this was to do with excess but didn’t expect to be bothered by it. After all the film’s roots are in ‘spaghetti westerns’ so violence is likely to be foregrounded. Thus when black ‘mandingo’ wrestlers fight to the death the gruesomeness is appropriate even if it has no basis in historical fact (see here). If it serves to emphasise the inhumanity of the slavers’ behaviour then it is dramatically justified.  However the ‘bloodbath’ of the shoot-outs becomes throughout the film, literally, bloodbaths; that is, there is blood spurting everywhere. On one level it’s funny in a Monty Python sort of why; however it also serves to detract from the drama that has unfolded. We are suddenly ripped from the ‘good vs evil’ battle, central to the western, and reminded we’re just watching a Tarantino film. In the end I was bored and annoyed because the representation of slavery, in the early part of the film, was so compelling. In the stylised Kill Bill volume 1 (2003) the ‘bloodbath’ was part of the aesthetics; in Django Unchained it trivialises what has gone before.

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2 Responses

  1. I really did enjoy the film but think it is deeply problematic. There is the discrepancy between the violence enacted upon white people (cartoonish and visually explicit) and the violence enacted upon slaves (brutal and aurally explicit), which is interesting. Also, the performance from Samuel L Jackson is unbelievable, in the sense that ‘I can’t actually believe you’ve had the balls to do this.’ However, I’m hesistant to take anything Tarantino says or does seriously at all. I do agree with you, its tone is very flippant and is ultimately the film’s undoing in being, as Tarantino wanted to force down our throats, a serious revival of slave narrative on screen. Worthiness and sentimentality would just be as grating, but Tarantino’s mix between very slick and expensive production values with exploitation narrative really is becoming his undoing as his meaning becomes lost.

    Meanwhile, we await Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, which I hear is nothing short of magificent.

    • Hi Will. No doubt McQueen’s movies will hit it’s mark rather than the ‘hit and miss’ of Tarantino’s scattergun approach. You point about the different types of violence is an interesting one.

      As to Jackson: I wonder if he took his cue from Butterfly McQueen in ‘Gone with the Wind’ where she was so obviously performing a racist stereotype?

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