As a teenager I was a big Tarantino fan. Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs ranked among my favourite films, and I thought Jackie Brown was pretty good, too. I even found Kill Bill entertaining when it came out, God forgive me. But as I got older I’ve developed an increasing dislike for his films, and for his obsession with style over substance. Still, the revered cultural status of his work means his films are everywhere and I see them all eventually, and last weekend I saw Django Unchained on Netflix.
Set across the Deep South a couple of years before the American Civil War, Django Unchained follows the story of Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave who is recruited as a sort of business partner by sympathetic white German bounty hunter Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz soon decides to award Django his freedom and, because he feels responsible for him, also decides to help Django find his wife, who has been sold off to another plantation. Their search leads them to the plantation of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a place known as Candieland.
The film revels in portraying the horror and barbarity of slavery, with lurid punishment and cruelty on full display at Candie’s plantation. Indeed, the film is only really interested in theatrical violence, and Tarantino’s artistic temperament means he largely shies away from the endless drudgery and physical labour that was a slave’s daily lot. Slavery in Django Unchained comes across less as an economic system and more as the joint enterprise of some unspeakably evil white men. This is important to the film because it provides the mental framework for the catharsis experienced through its extreme, stylised violence, as Django shoots his way through Candie’s plantation. The success of Django’s individual campaign renders this less a work of historical fiction than a work of historical fantasy.
The early part of the film revolves around Schultz taking down assorted bad guys so he can claim their bounties. It basically serves as a long section to show off what a charismatic killer he is, while also being a fundamentally decent guy, thus showing that not all white people are evil. Waltz pulls it off fairly well, but the place of his role in the film reminded me too much of Inglorious Basterds, and I felt they should have cast another actor. The shallowness of the role is also exposed by the fact that Tarantino loses all interest in Schultz as soon as DiCaprio makes an appearance: Schultz goes from the brilliant centre of attention to an ineffective nobody in the blink of an eye. It’s as if Tarantino can only have (at most) one interesting character onscreen at a time.
DiCaprio gives a hugely charismatic performance, and Candie is one of the few interesting characters in the film; he also has a penchant for unspeakable cruelty. Candie is responsible for the two most excruciating scenes in the film, one involving a sort of gladiatorial fight to the death between two slaves, and another scene where a slave is ripped apart by dogs. But this is a very long film, and DiCaprio is only in about half of it, so he can’t carry it on his own. The film suffers massively whenever he isn’t on screen.
In the early part of the film Django plays a largely mute and passive role, although he eventually becomes highly proficient at killing slavers. It’s not explained where his skill comes from: he just seems to become a top-class gunslinger out of nowhere. I’ve never had much time for Foxx as an actor and his leaden performance here does not invest Django with any depth or personality. The character has no humour, finesse or subtlety. I groaned every time Django was provoked and his hand flew towards his pistol grip. Free man or not, the idea that one man on his own could survive in a situation like this while surrounded by dozens of racist slavers, armed to the teeth, all desperate to kill him, is just absurd.
This is what annoyed me most about the film: although it does show horrific cruelty and suffering, simultaneously it makes defeating slavery look like the easiest thing ever. There is a scene early on when a gang of about 50 white supremacist slavers are hunting Schultz and Django, who are able to kill and humiliate the entire group with one simple ruse. The slavers are made to look even more incompetent and foolish by a ‘hilarious’ section, featuring none other than Jonah Hill, about not being able to see out of KKK hoods. Scenes like this just make the institution of slavery look like a big joke. On the contrary, it took a civil war to abolish slavery, and its legacy is still fundamental to American society. Some people have criticized the film’s rampant use of the n-word, as well, and it certainly made me feel uneasy. The defense of ‘historical context’ can be used, but there are plenty of other areas where the film plays free and easy with historical accuracy (not least that there is apparently scant evidence for ‘gladiatorial’ combat between slaves in the American south).
Ever since Kill Bill, Tarantino has littered his films with references to Sergio Leone films, and this time he really goes overboard. I don’t like to acknowledge Tarantino’s nods to Leone, an artist I hugely admire, because they feel more like pastiche than homage. The most ostentatious reference is the cloying theme, composed by Ennio Morricone. The gratuitous violence probably owes more to Peckinpah than Leone, but whereas in a film like the Wild Bunch the context gives the violence meaning, here it feels surreal, done almost for laughs. Django killing slavers is like watching someone kill Nazi zombies in Call of Duty. Finally, at almost three hours, the film is very bloated, taking about an hour too long to tell its relatively simple story.
This is another film which received preposterous levels of critical acclaim and puffing up when it was released. Viewed now in the cold light of day, it comes across as a vacuous, insincere, exploitative film, with DiCaprio’s performance its one saving grace. More and more I see parallels between Tarantino and Hideo Kojima, not just in the hollowness of their work but in their critical status. They’re like artistic Pied Pipers operating in different media but with the same kind of cult-like critical and popular following. For me, their respective success highlights much of what is worst about our popular culture.