So, it’s been a bit of a new movie week because I caught Django Unchained a few days ago, as well as Les Mis last weekend. It’s not often I see so many brand new releases so close together; but circumstances this week meant it could be so, and I needed a bit of cheering up because my car has broken down to the point of no return and I need to raise the cash to buy a new one!
Some of my regular readers will know of both the importance I place on Quentin Tarantino’s work and my trepidation about Django Unchained. I’m not going to repeat myself here, but ask readers to visit my post here to get a feel for my thoughts from June last year when I first saw the trailer if they’re interested.
Finally, now having seen the film, I am simple not sure what to make of it. It saddens me to say that I’m sat here writing about what I think may be a second disappointing movie experience for the week. It’s not that it was a bad film per se; I found plenty to like about it and thought there were some great scenes and performances, but like Inglorious Basterds, something just wasn’t quite right with it all and, upon reflection, the bad outweighed the good for me. It just wasn’t the exceptional QT quality experience of years gone by I’ve come to love. I think now, a few days later, it’s possibly the third dud in a row from Quentin for me.
So, what was it I liked about Django Unchained? Well, to start, there were a number of key scenes or set pieces that I enjoyed and sit positively in my mind this few days later. They were big ticks on my Tarantino checklist; playful, wittily dialogued, subversive and explosively violent. Some of the more humorous scenes were genuinely funny and brought a cheeky little smile to my face, yet the more serious elements of violence and brutality were suitably flinch-some. It had many flashes of that Tarantino postmodern brilliance we all know of in a number of scenes and there was certainly enough energy, unpredictability and panache to keep me going through the long running length.
To nit-pick for a brief second – one of the scenes I thoroughly enjoyed left a little niggle in the back of my mind; the early saloon scene in the first act when Schultz shoots the Sheriff made little narrative sense – why would Schultz need Django to I.D. the Brittle Brothers and not take similar steps to identify the Sheriff as his mark in a similar fashion? Seemed odd to me. Despite this criticism it was a classic Tarantino scene with all of his key trademarks evident.
I also had a good little chuckle during the scene with Big Daddy’s proto-KKK scene where the hoods were discussed.
Cinematically, QT brings his usual flair and keen-eyed direction to the visuals. I’m not personally very conversant with the Classic and Spaghetti Western genres (I’m much more familiar with more contemporary revisionist stuff or modern weird west stuff) but all felt kind of right from what I remember. (I was especially struck by the long zoom shots, such as the one of the chained slaves traipsing across the landscape in the title sequence, as feeling quintessentially Spaghetti Western) The Antebellum Southern ambience was established wonderfully and had a perfectly authentic feel in the costume and settings. The more explosively violent action segments were distinctively QT in style and visual flair (brutal & bordering on the absurdly cartoonish) – Just exactly what I expected from my man Quentin.
I also enjoyed Leonardo Di Caprio performance greatly. I had my doubts about his casting after I saw the initial trailer last year; I was concerned he was hamming it up a bit too much but my fears were unfounded. Di Caprio’s performance is perfectly balanced between the charming & erudite Southern gent and the evil, vindictively depraved & unpredictable slaver. His arrival in the movie lifted me at the end of a somewhat dull middle act and kept me well engaged until the end (ish) of the movie.
Speaking of enjoyable performances; I also thought that Christoph Waltz and Samuel L Jackson produced winning turns as well. Waltz was especially enjoyable throughout and a real highlight of the film. Tarantino uses his talents so well. The quality of his performance really shines through. I loved the juxtaposition between Schultz the bounty hunter; who is confident and unashamed when hunting & murdering bandits and lowlifes yet so challenged and uncomfortable when faced with the very different evil represented by Di Caprio’s Calvin Candie. Everything about his performance hit the spot for me.
However, a few stand-out scenes and a handful of good performances do not an amazing film make and there was much I disliked about the flick too.
Jamie Foxx was absolutely not the right choice for Django in my eyes. He seemed uncomfortable in the role and I couldn’t find any sympathy for his character whatsoever through his performance, no matter how just I felt his motivation for revenge was and how honourable his desire to be reunited with his wife. He perhaps wasn’t helped with the writing; by the end of it all he was just a two-dimensional character of little substance – a selfish sadist who was no better than the white devils he punished (which, I find myself wondering, was probably the point). He was just so all over the place I found his performance frustrating to watch. (His doe-eyed, childlike face and crossed legs during the Seigfried & Broomhilda legend as told by Schultz was super-cringy and a great example of how misjudged Fox’s performance was)
Structurally the film did not seem as well constructed or narratively strong as I’ve come to expect from Quentin Tarantino. Compared to the intriguing and unconventional nonlinear narratives of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Kill Bill Parts 1 & 2, that contributed to making them such an intriguing watch; Django Unchained does not stand up. It seemed a bit messy, almost careless, to me.
The film suffers from a mis-judged pace and timing too, which combined with the slapdash structure, made me feel as though the narrative dragged at times when it needed to be faster and subsequently suffered from being too long. Ironically, this bothered me greatly as there were times when situations were rushed and not explored as fully as I would have liked – during the second act I felt as if so much time was being wasted after rushing through some of the first act pieces. Thank god Di Caprio was around to keep me interested. Django Unchained would probably have benefitted from following the same duology model of Kill Bill to my mind – extending it to 4 hours and breaking it into two parts; therefore allowing the stronger parts of Acts 1 & 3 to be more fully developed and explored, as well as allowing for a more driven pace.
Finally; I hated the soundtrack. Traditionally QT brings it with his soundtracks but this one was waaaaaaaay off the mark at times. His choices lacked any of the subtly, atmosphere or character of previous soundtracks. There is, admittedly, a bit of personal music taste creeping into my feelings here, especially with regards to the rap music that appeared in the soundtrack. However, this cannot take all of the blame, as I do feel at times the soundtrack failed to enhance scenes and, at times, bordered on an intrusive distraction. Again, I’m perhaps unfairly judging this by comparison to earlier QT work, but it contributed to my aforementioned mixed feelings about the film.
So there we go – a bit of a let-down really. While there are worse ways to fill nearly 3 hours than Django Unchained I feel the film is not all that it could have been and misses it’s potential by a few beats due to some dodgy decisions and misjudgements by Tarantino. Definitely one to watch but I would warn you about the flaws I perceive.