Django Unchained

Decided to brave the Singapore cinema for the first time; it’s so easy for us – just hop on a free shuttle bus and it’s 5 minutes to the nearest hi-tech complex, complete with food outlets where you can, surprisingly, buy a beer. The cinema itself, freezing cold as one would expect, has comfy seats, but a horrid loud aircon which marred the (rare) quieter moments in Django Unchained. And cheap, at £8 per ticket. Oh well, you can’t have everything.

We had been meaning to see Tarantino’s latest, which had pretty good reviews, though Son said even he felt the violence was pretty ‘full on’. I really do not like gratuitous gore but with two Oscars under its belt – one for Best Supporting Actor for Christoph Waltz, and the other for the screenplay – it had to be done.

No doubt about it, when he gets it right, Tarantino is the maestro of black comedy. I was enthralled from the get-go by the rapport between our two unlikely heroes, the smug-looking Dr King Schulz (Waltz), and Django ‘the D is silent’ (Jamie Foxx), the slave the good ‘doctor’ liberates. He travels the deep South in wagon, adorned with a ridiculous molar, masquerading as a dentist, to hide his true profession, that of a bounty hunter. He soon recognises Django as having a keen eye and a deal is struck: together they will hunt for the outlaws, wanted dead or alive, gun ‘em down, and in return Schulz will help Django find his wife, Broomhilda.

Nothing could be more daft than having a slave girl named after Wagner’s great heroine, and even sillier is Schultz’s serious re-telling of Siegfried’s rescue of Brünnhilde(omitting to mention Siegfried’s fate!), but this really sets the tongue-in-cheek tone for what is to follow, even in the context of the abhorrent nature of slavery, Mandingo fighting and the callous cruelty of plantation owners such as Calvin Candie. This is only the second time Leonardo DiCaprio has played a baddie and he was worried about so doing, but Tarantino convinced him. Job well done, I say.

There has been much criticism of the various goofs and continuity issues – for instance Candie smokes cigarettes using a holder and cigarettes weren’t invented, let alone holders; then, the incorrect use of the Henry Repeating Rifle; reference to teddy bears, also still unknown; the playing of Für Elise, and other carping – but, you know, when you have such an eccentric soundtrack, including Ritchie Havens’ Freedom, and the theme from Two Mules for Sister Sarah, at each end of the spectrum, you have to suspend all pernickitiness. Nevertheless, composer Ennio Morricone said he would probably never again collaborate with Quentin Tarantinosince he didn’t like the way the writer/director ‘places music in his films without coherence’.  Well, yes and no.

In fact I believe that everything is carefully planned: the script zings with wit, sometimes so quick that you might miss it. There are the one-liners, and then there are more serious double-entendres such as the discussion about Dumas, which I quote in full:

Dr. King Schultz: Actually, I was thinking of that poor devil you fed to the dogs today, D’Artagnan. And I was wondering what Dumas would make of all this… He wrote The Three Musketeers. I figured you must be an admirer. You named your slave after his novel’s lead character. If Alexander Dumas had been there today, I wonder what he would have made of it?

Calvin Candie: You doubt he’d approve?

Dr. King Schultz: Yes. His approval would be a dubious proposition at best.

Calvin Candie: Soft hearted Frenchy?

Dr. King Schultz: Alexander Dumas is black.

Then there are the obvious in-jokes – Tarantino films are always full of them, from the cameos – this time Tarantino has quite a few lines, as an Ozzie slaver, with a terrible cod accent, and Franco Nero wears white gloves as a tribute to the original spaghetti western of the same name, in which he starred (Tarantino eschewed the ‘western’ tag for this film, calling it Southern instead), to Samuel Jackson, playing an Uncle Tom character, Stephen, which is a joke in itself.

The film is about 15-20 minutes too long, but the good outweighs this by a long chalk. The cinematography was fabulous: the trademark Tarantino long scenes, filled with idle chit-chat adding to the suspense; the depth of characterization throughout, all beautifully played – the dumb white servants in particular; the wit; and the soundtrack.

And the violence? Well, because it seems to be a pastiche: the blood and gore, caused by the guns used back then, resulting in ludicrously jet-propelled bodies emitting fountains of tomato ketchup, is simply not credible, so it is possible to view it as an allegory. Less easy is the depiction of slavery, and the use of the word ‘nigger’ 110 times (the pc thought police has not uttered a word, incredibly!). It is often said that the use of humour can be the best way to make a serious point: Tarantino’s is about slavery and human depravity. 

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