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Taping A Slave: Django Unchained Reviewed
David Stubbs , January 18th, 2013 10:21

David Stubbs is impressed by a career best performance from Samuel L. Jackson in Quentin Tarantino's latest, Django Unchained. Contains moderate spoilers

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There are plenty of reasons you could come up with to give Quentin Tarantino's latest a wide berth. Django Unchained - a revenge saga set in the American deep South during the slave trade era - has ruffled feathers due to supposed insensitivity. Spike Lee has spoken out against the film, issuing the stern reminder that the slave trade was “not a Sergio Leone Western, it was a holocaust”, and that he would not be attending the movie out of respect to his ancestors. You might be suspicious that the film will amount to little more than an excuse for Tarantino to add to the disconcerting pile of n-words his often white characters have uttered over the years, often with a seemingly gratuitous, compulsive relish, as with his own Jimmie Dimmick in Pulp Fiction.

You may be put off by some of the more off-beam movies Tarantino has made since Pulp Fiction, such as 2009's Inglourious Basterds, enjoyed by many but whose parallel history of World War II was too absurdly wishful for some, including the late Christopher Hitchens, who described its drawn out liberties as akin to “sitting in the dark and having a great bowl of warm piss poured slowly over your head”.

Or, there was Tarantino's viral appearance on Channel 4 News, looking tense and pasty, as if he'd recently been picking straw out of his hair. It was, in its way, as striking as his performance as Jimmie Dimmick. He veered between describing the film as “a fantasy” and an attempt to initiate a debate about slavery, the like of which the USA had not had in 30 years in which the “Holocaustian, Auschwitzian” aspects of the trade were stressed. He snapped when Krishnan Guru-Murthy bowled him a gentle one about the link between cinematic and real-life violence. “I'm not your slave, and you're not my master!” he declared, unfortunately, considering their respective hues.

Cast all such doubts aside. Django Unchained is Tarantino's best in years, a near-perfect movie taken on its own terms and boasting two of the most towering performances he has ever coaxed from his actors, courtesy of Samuel L Jackson and Christoph Waltz.

Its terms are pretty easy. Don't for one minute take this as even attempting to depict the tragic realities of the slave trade (even though it is spotted with moments, performances even, when it plausibly does). It's a postmodern movie, a movie about movies, among them the Spaghetti Western series, Blazing Saddles, the 1959 Italian epic fantasy Hercules Unchained and a hint of Gone With The Wind. Christoph Waltz, the villain of ...Basterds, is brilliant as a silver tongued good guy here, a confection of erudition and casually lethal marksmanship; a bounty hunter posing as a mobile dentist who rescues Jamie Foxx's Django from a slave gang. As the pair form an alliance, Foxx proves himself an almost supernatural marksman, which requires considerable suspension of disbelief considering his sole practice is in taking a few potshots at a snowman.

The film duly develops into a bloody tomato soup feast for those who like seeing 19th century racists take a blastin'. There is a wonderful scene in which some of the locals gather together into a proto-Klan posse known as the Regulators. It sits a little oddly, but is redeemed by its hilarity as it raises a practical point about the many inconveniences of riding in hoods. The mood is near Bugs Bunny cheerful - fake blood practically splashes out of the screen. And yet, the killings are edited and framed with supreme intelligence, the sleight of hand of a man who knows his popcorn and knows above all what great, cathartic cinema is about. Significantly, the one really poignant and unpleasant death is flinched from in the editing. The pair shoot their way to their ultimate destination – Candieland, where Django's estranged wife is kept on the estate of Leonardo Di Caprio's hideous plantation owner whose cruelty is only overshadowed by his retainer and elderly “house n**r” Stephen. Samuel L Jackson plays the servant who has so fully internalised the racism of his day, and his place in the scheme of things, that he enforces it as violently as any Klansman. It could be Jackson's finest screen performance to date.

The object of the rescue mission, Django's wife Broomhilda, is a plot device of few words but that doesn't matter - the rest of the female African-American characters featured twinkle with sass, rather than conform to passive, eyes-cast-downwards type. As for Foxx himself, while hardly carrying the movie, he morphs very effectively into an Eastwood-esque, Man With No Name type, with all the attendant ruthlessness and unsentimental single-mindedness that entails. Some have found the concluding scenes of the film problematic but best to view them as a Brechtian device, a subversive reminder of what is real, and what is cinematic wish fulfilment, issued by Tarantino, the past master of what you want.

IanT
Jan 18, 2013 4:55pm

Really looking forward to seeing this. I've been saying for years that I'd like to see Tarantino tackle a western.

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dude
Jan 18, 2013 5:26pm

uhhhh, from dusk til dawn is rodriguez...

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Spacious
Jan 18, 2013 5:44pm

Tarantino is the Tim Burton of carnage.

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Jan 18, 2013 5:59pm

it's his best one since his last one... however J Foxx is not an actor, which is painfully obvious everytime he shares the screen with ANYONE else (compare his "performance" with the masterful acting of Hailee Steinfield who is in similar circumstances in True Grit.. Foxx tho, well you can tell he was third choice by QT's own admission).. And QT's role in the movie was terrible, a complete distraction.. Samuel Jackson and Leonardo Di Caprio and Cristoph Waltz were top notch. Kerry Washington should have been given more to do than just a damsel in distress role. The last third is absolutely silly.. and the guns made the whole movie a cartoon... I really wanted to see Tarantino do a western too and guess what? the best parts were transparently copied from the Cohen Brothers and the worst parts were transparently Tarantino directing from his Id...

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Mat Colegate
Jan 18, 2013 7:15pm

In reply to dude:

Spotted and changed. Cheers for the heads up.

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Andy
Jan 18, 2013 7:55pm

The acting of Jackson and DiCaprio and their chemistry in the movie is absolutely flawless,an Oscar material even. Shame that at least Jackson didn't get the nomination. Christoph Waltz is tedious in his relentless sweet talking,he just repeated his act from Inglorious Basterds.Jamie Foxx so and so,doesn't offer much. I think Samuel L.Jackson and Leonardo Di Caprio pretty much save the whole thing.

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Dmitry Mazin
Jan 18, 2013 8:18pm

Let us be careful when handling dangerous phrases such as "towering performances." This is effectively only Waltz's second performance to wide audiences, after all, and this character was far less interesting than the one in Basterds anyway.

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Jan 18, 2013 8:30pm

In reply to Dmitry Mazin:

Hey, he was in Green Hornet! Oh, sorry, you said 'wide audiences...'

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d
Jan 18, 2013 11:44pm

I saw this in the states and it was really interesting wtching in mixed company in a cinema just outside of miami. i loved the film, but what was more fascinating was how the reactions of the audience at times were in unison - and at others so tottally split. americas a fucked up place. this film is the perfect product of that.

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Hardy
Jan 19, 2013 1:15pm

I wasn't that blown away by it(see what I did there?). I found the endless violence numbing after a while, and it's just too slight a plot to s-t-r-e-t-c-h what is essentially a revenge flick over 2hrs 45mins.
I'm not going to do any spoilers, but it suffers from a lack of editing - the KKK scene serves no particular purpose other than to show us Jonah Hill and Don Johnson arguing over the eye holes in sugar bags - and the second half has a plot hole/weakness in it that really renders parts of it quite nonsensical, other than to give an apparent pretext for a pair of really unpleasant, nasty scenes, which again contribute very little to the plot.
I don't dislike QT's more recent films as a rule, I thought Inglorious Basterds was fine but didn't rate Death Proof, but I have to say that the reviewer who said that he's gone from making great films to great elongated trailers was not far off the mark. You get lots of wham bang moments, but not a lot of character or plot development (i.e. the 'Two years later' subtitle that leaps up in the middle of Django Unchained.)
That said, Jackson does give a great performance, his relationship with LDC's character is really interesting - I wish it'd been developed further - and Waltz does a great turn, even if it basically the same one he did in Inglorious Basterds, only this time he's a good guy.
I dunno, perhaps QT has decided he just wants to be a schlocky one-trick pony, and he's just trying to find new ways and scenarios to do what he does, admittedly very well. I just wish that somebody like QT who has such a well-deserved rep for creating a striking image and rustling up snappy dialogue would challenge himself.

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Ivan T. W.
Jan 20, 2013 2:12am

I think Hardy's criticize is right on the money: Tarantino needs a good editor badly, whether film or script. I enjoyed the movie (though felt it was mostly dumb fun) but the last half hour or so was almost pointless, except to give Taratino his always-awful cameo, and possibly to pad out the length, since 3 hour movies are what he does now. The movie was full of scenes that were unnecessary or went on overlong, but the last bit was especially noticeable since it was about the only part that I think took away from my enjoyment of the movie. Otherwise, glad I saw it, not sure if it's worth a purchase though.

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austy
Jan 20, 2013 8:58am

In reply to d:

oh yeah? Come holler at us when you figure out whether or not your queen killed princess di and you get rid of that douchebag PM who was in bed with murdoch's tart's horse... now that's a fucked up situation

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Jan 20, 2013 6:06pm

What is the point of the masked female gang member who is killed in the shack with the other slavers?
Also, is it the same actor who is the first to be killed by Schultz, ( one of the brothers transporting Foxx in the opening scenes) and Candie's bowler hatted henchman who kills Schultz in Candie's library?There seems to be some recognition by the latter character to Foxx's arrival at Candyland.
Is there some plot missing from the cinema cut?
Maybe this was originally a 4 hour film!

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Mars
Jan 22, 2013 3:44am

In reply to :

I wondered the same thing about the masked slaver woman. They seemed to cue her up then... nothing.

Also, yes, James Remar played both the slaver and the thug.

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Mook
Jan 22, 2013 6:15pm

In reply to dude:

... AND Tarantino!

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Quantum Tarantula
Jan 23, 2013 7:26am

I got the feeling that some of the "plot holes" and "weaknesses" were built in plotholes & weaknesses in that post-modern fashion employed to a greater degree in Deathproof. ie. if you're not completely familiar at the uber-nerd level with the Spaghetti Western and whatever other sub-sub-genre Tarantino was parodying or homaging, then you may not fully appreciate the deus ex machina nature of Djanjo's final getaway and the general showdown silliness.

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Hardy
Jan 27, 2013 2:14am

In reply to Quantum Tarantula:

That's a fatal flaw in any if ever I heard it: you're not film literate enough to appreciate Django's greatness. *goes off and watch Lincoln.*

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martina
Jan 28, 2013 9:29pm

"Significantly, the one really poignant and unpleasant death is flinched from in the editing." which one do you mean? (the one in the fight?)

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Chairman Meow
Jan 30, 2013 11:14am

Very enjoyable and hilarious in places. My favourite Tarantino film since Kill Bill.

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Chairman Meow
Jan 30, 2013 11:15am

In reply to martina:

I think they mean the bit when the blocke is mauled to death by the dogs. The editing leaves out the grisly bits.

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Feb 1, 2013 3:37pm

In reply to Chairman Meow:

Just dont get this film at all!! its like mixing the holocaust with a cowboy western! not good!

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