Written by Adam Leivers (@SniperintheMist)
Every time a Quentin Tarantino film comes around it is met with derision, adulation and controversy, not to mention huge swathes of critical judgement the likes of which no other film is subjected to. The man himself is also loved and hated in equal measure, and constantly tows the line between the two with his odd public appearances, defensive interviews and aggressive attitude towards his craft and its representation.
He has a right to be defensive.
Despite his flaws, he has carved out one of the most culturally defining careers of modern cinema. And his new film, Django Unchained, will only serve to continue this dominance of film-as-pop-culture with its highly entertaining re-imagining of old 70s blaxploitation flicks. Tarantino doesn’t shy away from hard-hitting subjects, if anything gravitating towards them to use as a framework for his screenplays. With ‘Inglorious Basterds’ it was Nazi Germany, and here it is America’s (and arguably the world’s) darkest days – Slavery. He received much criticism because of this, mainly due to the argument that as a white man he has no place telling the story of racism and slavery to the world. This is wildly unfounded, as shown by Spike Lee’s recent outburst claiming his dislike for the film without even watching it. While Tarantino uses this terrible era of moral debauchery and dreadful prejudice as his film’s backdrop, the story he tells is much more simple.
Like the aforementioned Inglorious (and Kill Bill before that), it is a tale of revenge against the evils of man, but this time QT has added in a welcome story arc about recovering a lost love/ the emotional thrust of the movie doesn’t often come from the unfairness of prejudice, but more so in the lead protagonist’s attempts to travel to southern states of the US to find where his enslaved wife is and then punish her captors.
That captor is one ‘Monsieur’ Calvin Candie, a slave master character revelled in by Leonardo di Caprio, as he oversees his plantation-to-end-all-plantations known as ‘Candyland’. Leo’s delivery is immense, and he plays his man with faux eloquence – a stupid, evil man born into money and power, and therefore perceived to be intelligent and all-seeing by his workers and slaves, none more so by his faithful ‘house nigger’ Stephen.
Stephen is just as reprehensible as his owner, and Samuel L. Jackson is able to illicit more hate due to his warped devotion to the one man who oppresses him the most. Between them they shower hate down on the workers with maddening glee, treating salves as dogs and fighting slabs of meat for Candie’s profit and entertainment. The film flits back and forth from wit & uproarious comedy to dark & violent oppression so comfortably that you often forget the true evil of what is happening on-screen. The cast contributes largely to this, always making sure to remind you that this is not meant to be a cheesy social commentary of racial integration a la Crash, but a fun ride through hell sticking up a middle finger and spitting a ‘fuck you’ at its inhabitants.
Jamie Foxx is superbly cast as the film’s hero, decked out for portions of the film like Prince circa-Purple Rain, albeit without the uncontrollable crying and obsession with female masturbation. Taking a break from making party songs with T-Pain, he seems a lot more at odds with Samuel L Jackson here than he did in the video for ‘Blame It’. No popping bottles in the club with Forest Whitaker or flossing with Jake Gylenhaal in the VIP here, as he chases after his wife Broomhilda with the help of the initially unassuming Dr King Schultz, an out-of-work dentist embodied by Christoph Waltz who is more than meets the eye.
Waltz is now 2 for 2, and just as he stole the show in his last turn as the infamous ‘JewHunter’ he takes an altogether different role as the anti-hero of the piece here. His beardstroking madness brings most of the laughter and flamboyance to the film, outwitting his opponents at every turn with a manic smile and an endearing sense of control. As always, the best parts of Tarantino films lie in the dialogue-driven set-pieces, and that is none different here. There are at least three extended scenes in this film that ramp up the tension to a crescendo through brilliant twists in the writing, reminiscent of the incredible French Tavern scene in Inglorious (di Caprio’s history lesson at the dinner table is a sight to behold).
The ensemble cast is filled out with a decent turn by Miami Vice’s Don Johnson, the damsel-in-distress Kerry Washington, and Walton Goggins, who seemingly reprises his most famous role as The Shield’s Shane Vendrell complete with the utter stupidity, confused anger and klan-inspired hate (albeit set in a completely different epoch).
Some scenes do make the eyes water, and the violence spills from the screen at every turn, but the controversy does seem overplayed. What is important here is the film’s sense of fun. It is odd to hear a Rick Ross song playing while slaves traverse the roads towards their fate, but this is the sort of thing Tarantino throws at you to keep you away from reality and firmly in his world. His films make clichés seem fresh and new, and on many occasions during Django Unchained you see imagery you feel you have seen before, but done so much better and more stylish than you could have imagined. Knowing glances and smiles don’t quite break the fourth wall but the sentiment is there that this is a film to be enjoyed as a great revenge flick and not some misguided attempt to capture the reality of slavery.
Not even a lazy Krishnan Guru-Murthy line of inquiry can spoil the fact that this is the most fun you’ll have watching a film in 2013, and you won’t even mind the odd blood spatter in your eye along the way.
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