by Padraic Coffey
Cast your mind back to the late 1990s. Quentin Tarantino, three films into his directorial career, has the world at his feet. His debut, Reservoir Dogs, made for little over a million dollars, takes the Sundance Film Festival by storm. Its follow-up, Pulp Fiction, is even more universally acclaimed, winning the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes, no mean feat for a film competing with Krzysztof Kieślowski’s swansong, Three Colours: Red. And in adapting Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch with Jackie Brown, Tarantino proves as adapt at handling the material of others as his own fanciful concoctions. Sure, he has his detractors, mainly those who condemn what they see as an abundance of gratuitous violence and a penchant for aping the films of the past, but even these criticisms seem rather ill-founded. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction leave their most gruesome moments off-screen, and for all their similarities to other crime pictures – Ringo Lam’s City on Fire, for instance – there is a wealth of originality and creativity in Tarantino’s output.
But then, at the turn of the century, something changes for Tarantino. The prolificacy of his early years gives way to a six-year hiatus, the end result of which is the garish, bloated and extremely bloody Kill Bill duology. With a budget on each film that surpasses the combined cost of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, Tarantino is given free reign to indulge in his wildest cinematic fantasies. The result, rather than some magnum opus, is the kind of work his detractors claimed he had been making all along. Kill Bill was followed by the expanded road movie Death Proof and World War Two piece Inglorious Basterds, which pilfered its title from a Seventies Italian film. Sadly, his latest, Django Unchained, does not break this cycle. In pre-Civil War America, freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx) aids German dentist-turned-bounty-hunter Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz) in identifying three sought-after outlaws. In return, Schultz accompanies Django to the plantation of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) in a bid to free Django’s estranged wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).
Django Unchained has attracted huge controversy and criticism from some prominent black American public figures, not least Spike Lee, who refuses to see it on the grounds that it is ‘disrespectful’ to his ancestors. Tackling such an inflammatory subject would present challenges to any filmmaker, but Tarantino just about sidesteps exploitation. Though he avoids depicting sexual violence towards the black characters, Tarantino does not skimp on other forms of brutality, not least the ‘Mandingo’ fighting, where two slaves are forced to compete to the death. These scenes are offset by the climax, as gleefully over the top as any in Tarantino’s canon, where pristine sets are made to resemble the walls of an abattoir. Tarantino does at least deserve credit for using squibs in an age where digital blood-spurts à la The Expendables are becoming all the more popular.
Nevertheless, the explosive climax is a long time coming. At two hours and forty minutes, Django Unchained does outstay its welcome. Several scenes could have remained on the cutting-room floor, particularly an anachronistic interlude with the Ku Klux Klan that owes more than a little to the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?. The manic close-ups of the Spaghetti westerns with which Tarantino is so enamoured are repeated ad infinitum, usually at the introduction of a character. As in Inglorious Basterds, pre-existing film scores are also employed; not only the theme tune of Django – the 1966 film to which Django Unchained owes its title – but Ennio Morricone’s music from Two Mules for Sister Sara, a little-seen by enjoyable Clint Eastwood western. In terms of acting, both leads are fine, even if Waltz is effectively rehashing his Hans Landa performance from Inglorious Basterds. The real standouts are DiCaprio, bravely embracing the role of the erudite but sadistic Candie, and Samuel L. Jackson as the loathsome Steven, Candies’ loyal companion, who willingly participates in the subjugation of his fellow slaves.
For all the fun to be had at Django Unchained, it is ultimately another nail in the coffin of Tarantino’s reputation as a serious filmmaker. It is less a movie in its own right than an amalgam of tropes from superior westerns and revenge flicks of old, and will no doubt provide sturdy ammunition to the revisionists who seek to lump Tarantino’s earlier films in such a category. They would be misguided to do so. ‘American slavery was not a Sergio Leone western’, Spike Lee stated in his dismissal of the film, but neither is Django Unchained. And it is certainly no Pulp Fiction.