20 January 2013

"The D Is Silent"

Based on the reviews of the new Quentin Tarantino film, Django Unchained, and on past experience of recent Tarantino films, I was a little concerned that I would come out thinking it should really have been called Django Uncut, and not in a good way. But I was pleasantly surprised to find myself lasting until about 2h20 into the movie before I checked my phone. Because, sure, Tarantino could quite easily have culled a good hour or so without detracting from the story, but actually, Django Unchained is good fun and doesn't leave the audience with much scope for boredom.

The story is the same as most other recent Tarantino films; it's just the setting that is different (the American south just before the start of the Civil War, here). Christoph Waltz is Dr King Schultz, a German dentist-turned-bounty-hunter, who rescues a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) from his masters while en route to a new plantation and buys his freedom (or steals, at least). Django, Schultz hopes, has some information on a particularly nasty set of slave-owning brothers on whom a bounty has been placed. He soon discovers that Django is a pretty good shot and offers to let Django be his partner in, er, bounty-hunting. Django agrees, but he also wants to be reunited with his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who was given a German name by her German mistress, but who was separated from Django some months (years?) earlier. With Schultz's help, he discovers Hildy is now owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and working for him on his Mississippi plantation, Candie Land. Together they hatch a plan to buy Hildy's freedom, but none of them counted on just how cruel and sociopathic Candie would be, nor on his loyal household, particularly his butler Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), who has worked in Candie Land for all of his 78 years.

Django Unchained is violent, it's bloody and it's bloody funny in places. One of the nice touches is that most of the white characters we see are idiots. There is a scene where some incompetent members of an early Ku Klux Klan-like group, including "Bag Head #2" (Jonah Hill), are plotting to ambush Schultz and Django but are too busy arguing among themselves about whether the eye-holes in the bags they are wearing on their heads are acceptable. The way this was played was reminiscent of the opening of Reservoir Dogs, my favourite Tarantino movie. Later on, meanwhile, even the scheming Candie has no idea that he's about to be had by Schultz and Django, and it's Stephen who has to clue him in. The less said about the dumb "Aussies" who show up later, the better, but you get the idea.

Christoph Waltz is terrific. He's a pleasure to watch and steals the show as the one enlightened and non-idiotic white man on screen. DiCaprio, meanwhile, is wonderfully terrifying as the charismatic but sick villain. It's to Leo's credit that it didn't feel strange to see him playing the baddie for once, although he has been a sort of anti-hero in Catch Me If You Can and even J. Edgar. Jackson is also great fun as Candie's loyal servant, who treats Django with even more contempt and disdain than any of the white characters. Foxx, I thought, did a good job, though I think I would have preferred to see Will Smith, for whom Tarantino apparently wrote the role. As for Kerry Washington, she, like the other female characters, didn't get much screen time.

Django Unchained would make a good double bill with Lincoln, which is out next week but which I've already seen (review to follow soon). Two very different takes on the dying days of slavery in the US; six hours in the cinema may be a little too much, of course. Lincoln may perhaps be the better film but I found Django Unchained far more entertaining.

On a final trivia note, I noticed that on the soundtrack for The Beach, in which DiCaprio starred, there is a song by Asian Dub Foundation called Return of Django, which is a nice coincidence, I thought.

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