Does Tarantino Re-Establish Himself at the Top Table with Django Unchained?

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Before we go anywhere else with this review, let me just say that I’m not going to wade in on any of the ‘controversy’ over the depiction of slavery in this film. As a white, middle-class Englishman I don’t really feel I can offer much in the way of a meaningful opinion on the depiction here. Just to say that, firstly, I didn’t have an issue with the depictions within the film and, secondly, that if Jamie Foxx and Samuel L Jackson don’t have an issue with the writing or screen portrayal of such a sensitive matter (and one which they clearly have a genuine investment in, where I don’t), then that’s good enough for me.

Right, now that’s out of the way, let’s talk film. Or, more specifically, story. Quentin Tarantino will always have a special place in film lore for me. His break-out debut, Reservoir Dogs, came out at a time when I was just beginning to get into film in a big way. He managed to energise a medium which, until then, had predominantly existed as a Hollywood-only product. He was outside the mainstream and doing something different. That and Clerks made me think that film-making wasn’t something done by other people but something that could be done by anyone.

I first got hold of a pirate copy of Reservoir Dogs on VHS. There was a buzz about the film but a release date was still months away. The copy was exceedingly fuzzy, but in a way that only increased its charm. When the film made it to the cinema I saw it 4 straight weekends at midnight showings. It really was like nothing I’d ever seen before (though, of course, it was actually recycling many other films to create something new – something that has become a feature of Tarantino’s work).

On the back of seeing it I was inspired to write my own screenplay. And it was terrible, obviously. Like many of the reviews at the time, I concentrated on the dialogue – the scenes referencing pop culture – and the violence without really appreciating the art that was present in the story telling. This was all too obvious in my script. I think that script is long gone now, and I am pretty thankful for that – I wouldn’t want to read it again – I cringe just thinking about some of the things I put in it.

As everyone knows, Reservoir Dogs was followed up by Pulp Fiction. Where Dogs was tight, taut and cheap, Fiction was sprawling and expensive. Dogs felt like a black & white movie, Fiction was glorious technicolor. That’s not to criticise Pulp Fiction, just to say that now Tarantino had a budget he could indulge himself a little more with character and dialogue. The set-up of interlocking stories was always going to produce a more sprawling narrative and Tarantino handled the transitions brilliantly.

Next came Jackie Brown, an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch. Leonard had been frequently name-checked when Tarantino was doing the interview rounds with Pulp Fiction and here he took one of Leonard’s novels and turned in something of a masterpiece. It was a great time for Leonard adaptations, with Get Shorty and Out Of Sight also coming around the same time, all imagining the Leonard’s world brilliantly, yet differently. (More recently, the excellent TV series Justified was adapted from a Leonard short story, Fire In The Hole).

Jackie Brown is an example of brilliant and mature story-telling, sensitively examining the life of the title character, a downtrodden black woman working as an air hostess. It was a long film, clocking in at 154 minutes, but it is one of the rare films that deserves that time to fully explore the narrative on offer.

Then came Kill Bill, parts 1 and 2. Originally intended to be one film (and what a film that would have been, what with part 1 being 111 minutes and part 2 136 minutes), this took sprawling to a whole new dimension. There were a lot of ideas here and, in a sign of what was to follow, Tarantino wanted to make sure he explored them all. This is where, for me, the problems begin.

Tarantino tends to love his characters and love the scenes he creates for them. And with good reason – he has created some great characters and he has created some amazing, enthralling, interesting and diverse scenes. However, the more he has fallen in love with the characters and scenes, the more he seems to have taken his eye off the story at the centre of his projects. Kill Bill is a revenge story. The Bride has been wronged by Bill and must take out each of his assassination squad (to whom she used to belong) before finally facing off with Bill himself. With 6 to be killed in a little over 4 hours, this is a sprawling mess. That’s not to say there isn’t brilliance within it – the sequence at the hospital when The Bride wakes from her coma, and the sequence when she breaks out of the coffin buried in the desert are both brilliant – but overall too much time is spent just being in the presence of the characters rather than driving the story forward.

I have not seen Death Proof so will have to skip past that and on to Inglourious Basterds, which includes possibly the greatest scenes that Tarantino has created, along with some of the worst, and which is compiled into an admirable mess, but which could have been sheer brilliance throughout.

The film opens on a dizzying, soaring high, with the interview between the Nazi ‘Jew Hunter’ played by Christoph Waltz and a French dairy farmer, played by Denis Menochet. Waltz believes that Menochet is hiding Jews form the Nazis and is intent on finding them, while being, outwardly, charm personified. It is an incredible scene – something that probably couldn’t be written or directed by anyone else. It is filled with power and tension, and it is evocative of the kind of fear the Nazis may have spread.

Two other scenes stand out – one between Waltz and Melanie Laurent, playing a Jewish girl who escaped the opening sequence while her family were slaughtered, and the other a clandestine meeting in a basement bar between an undercover British operative (Michael Fassbender) and a German agent and film star (Diane Kruger) which dissolves into a shoot-out.

These scenes all display a mastery of both character and narrative tension and it is a shame they are surrounded by scenes which are so incongruous. It’s not that the rest is necessarily bad (though some of it definitely is), but that so much of it seems to exist in a completely different film to those three standout scenes. There is a comic and comic-book tone to much of the movie – not a bad thing in and of itself – which sits entirely at odds with these other scenes. There are character introductions done with voiceover and in a style which is not returned to. There are caricatures of high ranking British and Nazi offices. There are ‘amusing voices’, not least Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine. There’s the stylised violence we’ve come to expect. But none of it fits with what’s gone before or comes after. There are scenes which go nowhere and add nothing and can only have been included because Tarantino loved them so much. It is a proper mess.

The film sits at 153 minutes and what is most frustrating is that there is a potential 100 minute masterpiece in there, were the rest chopped away.

And all of that brings us to Django Unchained. Just as Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds were revenger fantasies, so is Django, and just as the former movies were bloated and stuffed with scenes which go nowhere and caricatures which offer nothing, so is Django. Which is a shame, because, again, there is some great stuff amongst all the chaff.

Again Waltz stars, though this time he is protagonist Dr King Schultz, rather than ant. He is a bounty hunter in what I suppose is the wild west, although its wildness is never really tested. We open on him meeting some slave traders from whom he (rather nonsensically) buys Django. I say nonsensically, as he has just killed one of the traders and leaves the other to be killed by the remaining slaves.

Schultz wants Django because Django can identify 3 men who have bounties on their heads – the Brittle brothers. Over the course of their time together, Schultz grows fond of Django and while he has promised Django his freedom he wants them to keep working together. Django says he wants to get his wife back, Broomhilda, who is owned by someone unknown. Schultz offers to help if they hunt bounties for the winter.

It turns out that Broomhilda is owned by the sadistic Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo Di Caprio, and so the revenge mission begins takes shape.

Ultimately it’s a pretty simple odd-couple story which somehow takes a full 165 minutes to tell, with the vast majority of the problems coming in the second half of the film. I shall try to dissect the film without going into too many spoilers, but you may wish to skip down to the final paragraph for a summary without any further plot details.

Firstly, let’s offer some praise: there are some great scenes, even if none of them can get close to the tension offered in the opening of Inglourious Basterds; Tarantino is just as good at drawing characters as he always has been; and there’s some good dialogue. There’s a fantastic little scene where Schultz offers to buy Django the clothing of his choice – Django can’t believe he gets to choose what he wears. We crash-cut to Django riding a horse in the most outlandish and foppish costume. Unfortunately, the film is not exactly brimming with these moments. That said, given the subject matter, that’s probably wise.

However, there are plenty of misjudgements and missteps.

There are little things which niggle, as when Schultz first outlines his requirements of Django, he says that he knows the area the Brittle brothers are working in but not the plantation so they will have to search far and wide for them. Their first stop, however, unearths their prey. It seems a little. Odd.

Early on in their partnership Django is called upon to fire a rifle. He is a perfect shot. We see him take a few more perfect shots. Then later we a sort-of-montage of him learning to be a sharp-shooter. Admittedly here he is shooting a pistol not a rifle, but even so, it feels like it’s out of order (and unnecessary, considering his first shot in the montage is a bullseye, as are all his others). In fact Django seems to have an uncanny and inherent ability with firearms, which seems odd and is never explained. Normally, even with a superhero, we need to see them fail and learn to master their skills, but Django is somehow above the ranks of superhero here.

There is a sequence where the pair are set upon by a prototype KKK which, amusing though it is, feels out of step tonally with the rest of the film and only serves to slow the narrative thrust. It serves no purpose in the grand scheme of the story – neither the sequence nor the KKK are mentioned again – it appears to only be there to acknowledge the influence of the KKK. That or because Tarantino had some jokes about the poor quality of the holes cut into the bags the members of the group wear over their heads.

These, however, are really minor quibbles. After around 80 minutes we meet Calvin Candie and get stuck in with the denouement. Which takes a further 80 minutes.

I’m going to go through every detail, but the problem again is that every idea has been put into the section. Tarantino (very proud of the authenticity of his portrayal of the horrors of slavery, as his interviews have shown) has made sure that he graphically shows all of the horrors and indignities heaped upon the slaves, from Mandingo fighting to forced servitude in the mines, but he has put all of this in at the expense of the narrative. It doesn’t serve a purpose in the story (except to double underline and highlight exactly how bad the slavers were). Tarantino might defend himself by talking about how this is the stuff that really went on and he is only being honest. That’s all well and good, but I don’t come to Tarantino for a history lecture. In fact, it could be argued that the nature of the film (especially given the laughs earned earlier in the film and the cartoon nature of much of the gun violence) is therefore exploiting these horrors for a certain degree of cheap thrills.

I don’t need Tarantino to explain all the ways in which slavery was bad, and I am sure you don’t either. After you accept that point you then have to ask whether the film needs to include all of the details it does, or whether they in fact hamper the story? The answer is very clearly the latter.

I was once told that every scene should either move the story forward or move a character forward, preferably both. There are plenty of scenes here which do neither. Now that is annoying in most films, but when you have something which, at its core, could be something really special, it’s very frustrating.

Earlier on I promised a summary paragraph for those who didn’t want spoilers, so here we go…. This is an interesting film. In parts it’s very enjoyable. It has magnetic lead actors. But there’s a lot of unnecessary scenes in there too, scenes which, on their own, might be amusing but ultimately serve to bog the film down and give it an uneven tone. If this was trimmed by an hour there could be a brilliant revenger-Western salvaged, but as it is, it’s a bit of a mess, just as Inglourious Basterds was. It fails to hit the highs of that film, but neither does it quite sink to its lows either. That said, Tarantino’s Aussie-accented cameo is truly awful.

6.5/10 (4 stars)


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