Saturday 26 January 2013

Review: Django Unchained

He like the way you die, boy.
When Tarantino unleashed his first revisionist period piece Inglourious Basterds three years ago, there was the odd raising of eyebrows from those who thought he was sincerely trying to trick those impressionable 'MTV youths' into thinking Hitler's bullet-ridden corpse was blown away in a Parisian theater  While Tarantino's tongue-in-cheek postmodern sounds like an offensive ways to deal with the Nazis it became clear, once the dust settled, that Tarantino was making a movie not about World War II but about World War II movies. With Django Unchained he doesn't have much of an established myth to play off of so he has to sort of start from scratch, using genre confines as building blocks instead of points of reference. This makes Django Unchained a bit more straightforward and hot-blooded. The film's slightly more grounded mood means there is less irony and self-awareness which is less grating for some, less intelligent for others.

It's telling of the subject matter and it's presentation that Django has become, even by Tarantino's standards, immensely polarizing: it's artistic and moral credibility being both vigorously defended and attacked. What's also interesting is that in every review of the film I've read, both positive and negative, it's clear how hard it is for many critics to form a clear opinion. The combination of a controversial subject matter, brutal and stylized violence and frequent lapses into silliness make this a hard film to articulate personally, let alone critically. The AV Club gave a pretty good example of this mindset in this article, where the task of reviewing Django Unchained was treated like a grenade no one wanted to jump on (their metaphor not mine).

The reason for this can be attributed to this movie being Tarantino's most straightforward film since Jackie Brown while also being his most unique. The story is linear and the genre rules are mostly adhered to but it's still built around one of the most collectively repressed cultural memories in the world. So is Django Unchained cathartic? Not quite. There's scenes of confronting cruelty and ones of cartoonish violence but the film refuses to connect those dots. I can't think of a film that is so ruthless in its pursuit of exposing America's historical hypocrisy. There is not a single sympathetic Caucasian American in the film and, in another bold twist, a German expat is the film's paragon of racial harmony. Samuel L Jackson adds a further layer of depth with his extraordinary performance as the scarred but ruthlessly brutal Stephen. It's a complex take on the cringe-worthy Uncle Tom stereotype that adds a much deeper layer to the racial politics.

But for all of the cultural critique this is still a film where women get blown away by guns at absurd angles, where Tupac and James Brown can invade pre-civil war Mississippi and where every character is introduced with a beautifully absurd bump in. He may have moved on to grander subject matter but Tarantino definitely hasn't lost his schlocky sweet tooth and I, for one, am thankful for that.

These opposing sides of Django can be problematic but they never fail to provoke. Trashy genre fare is Tarantino's passion and by extension it's how he brings passion to what has become a distant subject matter. When everything is said and done he is simply too talented a filmmaker to create anything less than a thoroughly engaging movie. Django Unchained isn't a perfect movie but this can't be boiled down to a single flaw or wrong turn: it is a general uncertainty and uneasiness that accompanies exiting the theater. And ultimately I think that this is the response Tarantino was aiming for and given the subject matter, rightfully so.

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