Quentin Tarantino, Hollywood’s perennial über-brat – but lest us forget, high craftsman of the hyperreal – throws up his “slavery epic” Django Unchained with little of his usual charismatic heft. This sadly feels more akin to an unfurling serial-drama than the sharp sensory fiesta we’ve become accustomed to gorging upon.
Nowhere near as tense, quotable or indeed silly as previous efforts, wherein say, Inglorious Basterds tackled contentious issues with ridicule but still managed to retain its integrity, this offering is often too reserved, meandering and, perhaps, too reverential to the American history that frames it.
The cinematography is remarkable though, revealing an expansive, more mature eye from the director, Using the glorious unspent beauty of his home state Tennessee, a postcard merchandising of the great Wild West (sans the rape and race troubles) is sold artfully.
Ironically, where it all goes awry is the characterisation and plot. Relying heavily upon ciphers – Samuel L’s wheezing and gurning Uncle Sam is an uneasy low point – the characters appear to both figuratively and literally wander through the scenes. Any chemistry between the two leads, a drab Jamie Foxx and the bizarrely underplayed Christopher Waltz puffs out in a cloud of sulphur.
Django Unchained’s one saving grace is sprout-headed poster boy, Leonardo DiCaprio who, as Calvin Candie, a nefarious plantation owner and connoisseur of slave wrestling, really stirs the pot of oppression with a rally of unflinching evil. And most importantly, Tarantino doesn’t forget to make him fun. Unfortunately, DiCaprio doesn’t feature nearly enough however, and the plot, loosely a damsel- in-distress story, often feels a little too episodic and inconsequential. These analogs and their plot instalments could have been intriguing but frustratingly, given the film’s slogging length, are never given time to breathe and develop. It certainly would have worked better as a serialisation.
Towards its conclusion, the director phones in a scene of atypical gun-slinging violence which pretty much wipes out the whole cast and levels Candie’s opulent mansion. It’s almost as an apology, a purely visceral moment to distract you from all the film’s shortcomings and perhaps more interestingly, a symbolic cleansing of the boards for Tarantino. It’s almost as if Tarantino may have just wanted to make one last Tarantino-esque film. Sadly, what once thrilled, now feels outdated.
by Benjamin Lovegrove
Django Unchained is released in the US on December 26 and in the UK on January 18.