My first experience of Quentin Tarantino’s brand of film making was at the ideal age. His first film, Reservoir Dogs, hit cinemas when I was a student. Short and punchy, a crime-heist movie which played fast and loose with the narrative rule book, I still remember the dizzying sense of stumbling out of the cinema not entirely sure if I’d enjoyed the film but certain I’d seen something remarkable. His follow-up, Pulp Fiction, did the same only more so. Nothing in his career has recaptured those experiences in quite the same way; he’s in need, really, of someone to tap him on the shoulder and to convince him to stop believing his own hype.
Whatever has happened since the start of his career, a few things remain unchallenged about him. He’s a director who can draw brilliant performances from any actor apart from himself. When he’s at his best he can create moments of such jaw dropping threat and tension which stretch your nerves in previously unheralded ways. He is obsessed with violence, but for all that he’s actually far better at the threat of violence. He needs to remember, too, that the cult films he’s so obsessed with are cult films because not many people liked them; it’s one thing to be inspired by something, it’s another to keep on trying to remake it.
So to Django Unchained. In many ways, it’s Tarantino’s most honest film to date. He’s been trying to remake spaghetti westerns in different genres for years; in this film he gives up trying and just makes one. His obsession with the n-word? Well, lets put in the context here of the story of the American slave trade and a super-slave on a revenge/rescue mission. Let black and white alike use the word with abandon. Call him racist, but you’re doing so in the face of a film which confronts one of the darkest parts of America’s past square in the face. He needs to learn to edit his films? Yes he does, and this is very long, but at least strands of the story find a context in the narrative. An actor’s director? You won’t find a film which indulges actors more, allowing them to play against type, linger on an apparently meaningless conversations to build character. You also won’t find a film this year with a level of performance throughout the cast that’s as high as it is in Django Uncahined. Special mention to Leonardo Di Caprio, for a startling and disturbing turn.
Yes, this is the quintessential Tarantino movie; it’s his essence as a film-maker bottled and distilled. If you can call a 2 hour 45 minute film, distilled. Is it racist? Hard to say. I’d come down on the side no, but that’s as easy for white male to say. Is it offensive? Yes, of course it is. In the sense that for all the splatter and showmanship, I see a film looking long at dark period of history and refusing to cast anyone in the role of a white rescuer. It’s as violent and as ludicrous as you’d expect, but at heart this is, I think, honest. Honest that in situations of oppression, oppression is carried out but the majority; in this film there is not a single redeeming white American figure. Honest in that it revels in violence; which maybe troubling, but has no pretence. Honest in that while it could and should be shorter, it does tell a story and tell it well. Honest, in that it ultimately it acknowledges it’s own absurdity.
Tarantino has been quoted as claiming he’s the only one to be talking about slavery. He clearly isn’t, but he is the only one to do so on such a public stage and not portray the rescuer as white. He refuses questions about his obsession with violence; which he’s wrong to do until he makes a film free of violence but with all his trademark flare. He still needs strong minded friends and a good editor to tell him when to stop, be quiet and just finish a film.
For all that, I fear Django Unchained proves the film industry needs him as much he needs it. Which may not be a bad place to end … if only the industry and the film-maker would listen to each other.
I rated this movie 7/10 on imdb.com and 3.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com