Monday, July 8, 2013

DVD of the Week: Django Unchained

I've always liked Quentin Tarantino films, but I always seem to fall short of loving them. Its hard to explain, but I tend to see the trailers with hardly a quiver of excitement as shudders of anticipation fly around the movie-loving blogosphere and beyond. And then I watch them, and really, really enjoy them, but for some reason they're not films I want to go back to and pore over, despite the fact that Tarantino makes films that are ideal for repeat viewing and nerdy analysis. And so it was with Django Unchained, his attempt to do for Westerns what Inglorious Basterds did for war movies, a big-budget, star-packed homage to the which ever other movies and directors Tarantino was obsessing about next.

In some ways it surprises me that it took him this long to make a Western given the expansive homages to Sergio Leone in Kill Bill vol 2 and Inglorious Basterds, and there is a lot of Leone is Django's mixed up DNA. Which is a good thing, because I love Leone, and Westerns in general, and it also means that this is a movie filled with expansive, fantastically composed shots of the landscape set to evocative pieces of music. It may be the best looking Tarantino film yet, which is something, given his generally impeccable eye for a striking, iconic image.

The story is more problematic. Django (a smoldering Jamie Foxx) is rescued from slavery by Bounty Hunter Shultz (Christophe Waltz) to help him track down a Bounty. After they strike up a freindship, Shultz offers to help Django track down and rescue his wife (Kerry Washington), eventually leading them "Candyland" a plantation run by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his overseer Stephen (Samuel Jackson). Hijinks, as they say, ensue. The problem with this story, for me, is that if you strip out the antebellum South setting, it's pretty much a stock "wronged man goes on revenge quest to rescue his woman" story, with Washington having literally nothing to do except scream a bit and stare crazily around as things happen around her. And she's the only female character of note on the whole film. Its very much a boys film, which is a shame.

On the positive side the films exposure of the casual brutality of slavery is a great strength. I've read some criticism of the language and the harshness of some of the bloodshed, but life as a slave in the pre-Civil War south was brutal and bloody and demeaning and if anything Django Unchained may not be stark enough in that depiction. It justifies the choice of period as more than just some cool-looking window dressing, and to be honest if it makes viewers uncomfortable well then they damn well should be.

So for two hours Django Unchained is uttery fantastic. The performances are electric, the pacing is exact, and I completely loved it. It builds through a series of smaller set-pieces, the dialogue is as good as you'd expect from Tarantino, and his gift for using visual short-hand to give depth to characters very quickly is on show throughout. And then the film reaches its climactic moment, a tense, drawn out confrontation climaxing in a blood-spattered shoot-out....and then it refuses to finish. And by that I mean that you end up watching a sort of "do-over" of ending, as if he'd written two resolutions but couldn't quite settle on which one to use.

Actually its like the end of Brazil, where Jonathan Pryce, at the point of torture, hallucinates an action-packed escape at odds with the film before, to give himself the happy ending he can't otherwise have. Django Unchained does the same - except it actually happens - a second, bloodier rampage of emotionally satisfying ultra-violence is if he can single handedly demolish the institution of slavery itself. (Oh and in which his rescued princess gets to sit on a horse and clap excitedly, a weirdly retrograde image from a writer/director so fond of strong female leads). It's fine, in it's own way, and it's kind of goofy fun, but it actually robs the film of a lot of its power that a more ambiguous, or more starkly brutal, ending would have left you with.

The regrettable final act aside, Django Unchained shoots up the list of Tarantino movies to second, after the exemplary Pulp Fiction. Sure, it has flaws, but its not as indulgent as the stretched out Kill Bills, not as scrappy and disjointed as Inglorious Basterds. Like all Tarantinos films seem to be, its a labour of love that shines off the screen, and for most of its running time shows a discipline I'd almost given up on seeing out him ever again.