Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Django Unchained

Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino - USA) 165 minutes

Quentin Tarantino is a director I often think I dislike and then find when actually watching his films that I’m quite fond of him. I wrote him off as out of ideas after all he could produce in the six years following Jackie Brown was the fiasco that was Kill Bill. Tarantino, mercifully, released that in two parts, the first decent enough, the second not so much, because we might otherwise have been left with the longest bad film in history. Then he returned with the charming and funny Deathproof, which showed his co-optation and rejigging of trashy midnight movies still had some life in it. With Inglourious Basterds, a much more thoughtful film that even its many fans think, it got even better.

So what of Django Unchained? As ever, with Tarantino, we are viewing everything through the prism of film history and here the refractions are provided by Spaghetti westerns - a nod to Sergio Corbucci’s 1965 film in the title and its star Franco Nero features in a cameo - and various 70s exploitation films, the notorious Mandingo in particular. If you understand the references, you might feel less queasy at the fetishised portrayal of slavery, but even then it runs close to the bone at times. The year is 1858 and Christophe Waltz is splendid as the German bounty hunter who buys the freedom of the titular slave (Jamie Foxx) to hunt down his quarry. In return, Django gets him to assist him in freeing his wife Broomhilde von Shaft (yes, the Nibelung and Gordon Parks Jr rolled into one), who is in the custody of the vicious slaver Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo di Caprio). Di Caprio is an actor, who I can often never tell whether he is giving a great or wretched performance — here that ambiguity pays off nicely.

The film has ample great setpieces and is directed for the most part with wit and brio; Tarantino, whatever you might say about him, is devoid of the pretentiousness that riddles so much Oscar fodder these days. The main problem though is the scale and the length — there is no justification whatsoever for having it the length it is. An hour could easily have been shorn off without losing anything. In fact, the bloated scale of what is in essence a tarted-up exploitation film (nothing wrong with that) at times robs it of much of its punch. Few of the no-budget maestros Tarantino reveres and references would ever have turned their noses up at a bit funding to work with but I doubt they would have been quite so gourmand as Tarantino often is. The longer length worked well with the marvellous Jackie Brown, but that was a film with at a duo (probably quartet) of fantastically observed characters; Django, by contrast doesn’t have that ballast. It’s enjoyable stuff and contains much of what is good in Tarantino’s cinema but I hope he starts paring things down for his next film.