CINEMA: News Weekly
Life, liberty and the pursuit of vengeance
, March 16, 2013
Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Django Unchained (rated MA15+), is reviewed by Symeon Thompson.
Quentin Tarantino is one of the most impressive and infuriating film-makers. His movies combine scalpel-sharp scripting and compelling cinematography with buckets and buckets of blood and all manner of historical liberties. None of his films are suitable for family viewing, but they’ve become canon for the cinematically-literate. His latest effort is Django Unchained.
Dr King Schultz (Austrian-German actor Christoph Waltz) is a German dentist-turned-bounty-hunter. To track the murderous Brittle Brothers, he needs the help of Django (Jamie Foxx), who knew them as overseers on the plantation where he was enslaved.
As Schultz and Django discharge their “lawful duties” as self-appointed “officers of the court”, Schultz learns that Django is married to Broomhilda von Schaft (Kerry Washington), a German-speaking slave named after Brunhilde, and offers to help Django free her. After all, as a German, it is his duty to help a real-life Siegfried.
Schultz is a precise and methodical killing machine. Meticulous, well-mannered and well-dressed, he operates strictly within the law, although his own code of honour matters more to him than any civil authority.
Django is fiery and unafraid of any monsters, mountains or hellfire that may stand in his way, seeking only the liberty of his love.
His rage is just visible beneath the surface, and his skill with arms makes Schultz remark that he’s “the fastest gun in the South”.
In keeping with Tarantino’s taste for casting pop-culture heroes, there’s Don Johnson’s buffoonish plantation-owner, Big Daddy; Bruce Dern as Django’s former owner; and Franco Nero as a particular sort of gambler.
The standouts are Leonardo diCaprio as the cosmopolitan but cruel Calvin Candie, owner of “Candyland” and of Broomhilda, and his chief slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), scheming, uppity and even keener than his master on maintaining things as they are.
Tarantino’s strengths are given full rein. The dialogue is sharp, purposeful and clever. His capacity to blend suspense and humour is unparalleled and reminiscent of such master-wordsmiths as Harold Pinter or Tom Stoppard. Every line, every pause has a point and the two play as a symphony, or a Swiss timepiece — with immaculate timing and meaning.
His cinematography and editing are likewise superb. Frame-able frames abound, rich in allusion and vivid in meaning. Tarantino is unafraid to use a variety of techniques, from long takes to jagged cuts to communicate his vision with clarity and coherence.
The soundtrack incorporates rap and hip-hop with classical pieces and Spanish guitar, each track chosen to perfectly complement the scene and the resonances that Tarantino wishes it to have with the audience.
The layering of meanings in all these techniques is incredible. It is reminiscent of what Pixar, or Sesame Street, does so well, and that harks back to old masters like Shakespeare, where aspects can be appreciated on a purely surface level, but where there are also references to all manner of other things, should the audience be capable of detecting them.
But, since this is Quentin Tarantino, all the restraint and elegance vies with outrageous violence and adolescent fantasy. Tarantino’s formation comes from the over-consumption of every manner of pop-culture and B-grade pulp-fiction filmic offering. Rather than taking these, purifying them and making lasting poignant masterpieces, as Shakespeare did, he seems to resort to injecting into them some hyper-concentrated stimulant, thus amplifying both their good and bad qualities.
On the plus side, this means that Tarantino’s films aren’t weighed down by politics or preaching — a point to which the academic critic-erati object, and so, of course, they’ve already been holding forums discussing the depiction of women and slaves in Django Unchained.
On the minus side, it means that one might wonder if Tarantino has anything to say at all, or if, like Zack Snyder (of Watchmen and Sucker Punch infamy), he’s a pop-culture nihilist who hasn’t grown out of being a precocious teenager.
What are we to make of this? As my father remarked as we walked out of the cinema, “It wouldn’t be a Tarantino film if there wasn’t an outrageous bloodbath somewhere.”
Tarantino has almost made a great and lasting piece of cinema, but he’s hampered by his own lack of grand vision. He has something of a moral compass, but it’s a crude instrument barely more useful than navigating by the North Star.
Django Unchained shows the potential for cinema to be both popular and intelligent, relevant and rich. It shows that audiences can deal with sophisticated scripts and long running-times — if the story is compelling and the creator is clever. It’s proof of a concept that, one hopes, may lead to masterpieces rather than mash-ups.
One might even hope that Tarantino grows into a Victor Hugo, rather than remaining a dime-store Dumas — although Tarantino himself would probably say “nah”.