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Django Unchained

October 18, 2014

Django Unchained (2012)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Actors: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio

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Synopsis: Travelling German bounty hunter, Dr Schultz (Christoph Waltz), frees slave Django (Jamie Foxx) from a chain gang, and enlists his help on various missions. In return, Schultz promises to take Django to the residence of famed plantation owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), so Django can free his enslaved wife.

Review: A Quentin Tarantino picture is by definition a must-see, and his back-catalogue has rightly earned him the privilege of our attention (to coin a phase used by Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio’s characters in this Tarantino film). Tarantino is always playing and inventing with his medium, and his filmscapes invariably throw up interesting dramatic and cinephilic paradigms.

Django Unchained arguably has most to offer as a sly political-cultural work. Wrapped up in its seeming Spaghetti Western/Blaxploitation/Gangsta riffs are actually a couple of quite prevalent points about black identity. One is the notion that the ‘self-hating’ black man is a phenomenon directly linked to the legacy of the culture of slavery, the other is that Django ironically self-realises through a proto-process of more familiar, contemporary black male posturing – he’s cool, badass, and stronger and smarter than the white guys.

Sadly, it is at times quite an undramatic film – particularly in its second half, and there are two clunky ellipses or ‘leaps of faith’ required by the audience that dissipate the strength of the drama. The first, as I alluded to earlier, is that Django morphs into an intelligent, cocky freeman suspiciously quickly. I know his mentor, Dr Schultz, asks him to “act the part”, but the move from mute, disempowered slave to steely-eyed hero feels arbitrary. Second, Samuel L. Jackson’s ‘Uncle Tom’ stumbling across Django’s plan to free his wife, is a clear case of convenient dramatic ellision – a transparent sense that Tarantino wants to rush on the plot at that time, even though there’s no real sense that Jackson’s character should be wary. In some of the longer scenes too, Tarantino gives the impression he’s feeling for a touch of his old dialogue golddust, yet it never really quite comes off. That said, the opening stretch of the film is evocative and funny, due in no small part to the excellent turn by Christoph Waltz as the loquacious German bounty-hunter who sets in motion some of the wittier and more subtle asides about the American South at this time. (October 2014)

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