Monday, January 21, 2013

Django Unchained, a review

Two years before the Civil War, a German bounty hunter with a killer mustache and a fiery slave embark on a violent mission to save the slave's wife. With Tarantino at the helm, we're treated to vintage Civil War era cultural norms such as the KKK, cotton, the n-word and a whole host of juicy bloodshed.

TECHNICAL

As with Inglorious Basterds, Django looks incredible. Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson hone in the fine details: blood spray upon white cotton, the lingering wisps of breath in the cold mountain air.

The eye for detail creates a haunting contrast between moments of abject beauty, hyper-stylistic blood shed and instances of violence so gruesome I had to look away. More on that later.

For me, a film will make or break in terms of pacing. Django Unchained is surprisingly well-edited, keeping the typical Tarantino monologues to a minimum and giving the episodic side characters enough time to say their piece and move on. The film feels long, but I rarely glanced at my watch.

NARRATIVE

First and foremost, the acting is what sells this. Christoph Waltz's Dr. King Schultz is a character that practically leaps off the screen when he isn't twirling his Snidely Whiplash mustache. Being the moral conscience of the film, his instances of moral clarity are lucid and played nicely. Often such things are missed by one during the experience, but in the quiet places the memories often lurk. Waltz plays this brilliantly.

Jamie Foxx underplays his performance, waiting until the final 10 minutes to truly break out into a Punisher-style rampage on the villains estate. For the most part, his character is solid if bland. I understand the emotional heft behind the character, but Tarantino barely plays with it enough to lend even a bit of connection. Coupled with a criminally underused Kerry Washington as his wife and you get the sense that Django just isn't given much to do.

Tarantino is widely lauded by most (I'm in the neutral camp) as being an excellent writer. Reservoir Dogs and about half of Pulp Fiction are more or less masterpieces in my book. Here, we actually get a film that doesn't really feel like Tarantino. There are very few scenes (the slave battle being the exception) that actually feels like something he would write. Much of this feels like a souped-up buddy cop film. Which is fine and dandy by me, but it lacks not only Tarantino's flair but also his tenacity for subversive content.

THEMES

For me, this is where things get more complex. The issue of slavery is, of course, a sensitive matter. Tarantino got into hot water with Denzel Washington on the set of Crimson Tide some years back for his repeated use of the n-word in his films. Slavery is seen here as, more or less, an evil practice. The mistreatment of African-Americans at the hands of slave owners is at time exceedingly graphic and uncomfortable. Yet, at other times, Tarantino stylizes the violence to the point where everything feels like a Kill Bill version of Looney Toons.

The blend of Paul Verhoeven-style gore and The Wild Bunch visceral reaction actuality violence creates an odd experience: is Tarantino subverting the violent action film genre as satire? This makes some sense in that the instances where humans are tortured, the scenes ramp up in intensity. I confess, I'm uncertain about what I think.

An issue I did find quite compelling was the necessity for brutality to occur in the present to potentially preserve a future salvific act. Schutlz has Django kill a man in front of the man's son, and later the scenario is reversed; Schultz, who hates slavery but is willing to use it for his own interests, balks at watching the villain torment a beaten slave. This time, Django, unwilling to blow their cover, allows the violent action to occur.

So, the film has instances of moral complexity. Very much to chew on.

CONCLUSION

This rating is, unfortunately, coming with a fat asterisk. At this current juncture, I think the film is a decent thriller but lacks any sort of memorable feats save for the gouts of blood.

The film is damn funny in places, and is quick to place the characters and viewers in instances of moral confusion. We get a glimpse into the atrocities of the slave trade, but we also get a poorly utilized supporting cast (Washington). The female characters are relegated to the backdrop. I frankly, sitting down on my couch right now, cannot remember much beyond that. The few other instances I mentioned above I struggled to remember.

Although undeniably well-crafted and thought provoking (also kinda funny), Django Unchained is by and large an unmemorable experience.

3 out of 5.

--Nick

2 comments:

  1. Excellent review man. I actually came down harder on the film than you did... The scene where Django lets a slave be eaten alive by dogs was just too much. I feel that Tarantino's ideas plummeted after Pulp Fiction.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you! I think the film had a lot of potential, but didn't do much with it. Not nearly as daring as Pulp Fiction.

      --Nick

      Delete