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Film review: Django Unchained

Jamie Foxx stars in Django Unchained

Jamie Foxx stars in Django Unchained

  • by SIOBHAN SYNNOT
 

BULLET-riddled and shamelessly violent, no wonder Quentin Tarantino is weary of answering questions about the ferocious bloodshed in his new film. It’s hardly newsworthy that he likes messy, morally queasy movies.

BULLET-riddled and shamelessly violent, no wonder Quentin Tarantino is weary of answering questions about the ferocious bloodshed in his new film. It’s hardly newsworthy that he likes messy, morally queasy movies.

Django Unchained (15)

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Running time: 165 minutes

* * *

And if you’ve seen Inglourious Basterds, you may have an even stronger sense of déjà vu in his aggressively fictional tale of a freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx) and his bounty hunter partner (Christoph Waltz) who take revenge on the oppressors and Big Daddies of the pre-Civil War South. Really, all he does is put Waltz’s verbose Teuton alongside the goodies instead of the bad guys, and substitute slavery for Nazism.

Django Unchained should please Tarantino fanboys, but if you don’t dig his digressions it doesn’t add up to much. There are some nice comedy moments, generally courtesy of Waltz and his impeccable instincts, and some less funny ones, such as Tarantino as an Australian slave trader, whilst a scene where the Ku Klux Klan bitch about not being able to see through the eyeholes in their hoods suggests a diet of Monty Python videos.

There are some arresting visuals, such as Django dressed as Little Lord Fauntleroy, and, of course, homages to the likes of The Searchers and umpteen spaghetti westerns. For shock value, there are gaudy fountains of blood, whippings, men torn apart by dogs, and an abundant use of that word that rhymes with “digger”. As a stylist, when he’s not cheerfully pilfering, Tarantino can feel a bit studenty: in Django he rather loves the symbolism of spattering red on white – this can begin to look like a campaign for biological washing powder.

There are also florid speeches which add to the bloat; Tarantino is so immersed in his own plantations of language that he can’t shorten scenes or scrap them altogether. Now in his 50th year, he’s getting on a bit for an enfant terrible, and while it might be stuffy to expect him to grow up, I do wish he’d get a blue pencil and sculpt his material. A Tarantino film should leave you wanting more, not less.

Above all, does anyone except Tarantino seriously buy his lofty notion that he has gifted American folklore with an antebellum revenge fantasy that has anything serious to say about slavery? And if so, why does he treat his black characters so poorly? In a role originally intended for Will Smith, Foxx is more sidekick than star for most of the film, and although his character arcs from slave to gunman to vigilante, Tarantino shows little interest in his character’s psychology.

The still enslaved Mrs Django (Kerry Washington) gets even shorter shrift and fewer lines, which is odd given Tarantino’s history of feisty femmes in the likes of Kill Bill and Jackie Brown. On the other hand, a slave called Stephen barely shuts up. Played by Samuel L Jackson under a ton of rubber that makes him look like an elderly Ninja turtle, Stephen is a genuinely uncomfortable creation, the head of a plantation of servants who is devoted to his racist master (Leonardo DiCaprio) and more than happy to think up new ways of punishing his brothers. The complex enmity between Django and Stephen is really worth exploring. What a pity Tarantino is so busy booking cameos from old spaghetti stars and tipping his Stetson to schlock that he never unchains his most promising brainwave. «

Twitter: @SiobhanSynnot

• On general release from Friday

 

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