By Ray Bennett
In all that time Quentin Tarantino spent in his storied video store as a young man, you’d think he would have seen one or two decent films instead of the rubbish he re-peddles. There might be a funny little spoof of ’60s westerns somewhere in “Django Unchained” with all the hammy acting but at 165-minutes, this vile new excretion is bloated, gross, coarse and deeply unpleasant.
“Django Unchained” has the visual and musical flourishes of the bad Italian directors Tarantino adores but it’s a long slog through many tedious and predictable scenes. Set in the US South a couple of years before the Civil War, Christoph Waltz plays a Germanic dentist and gunslinger who releases slave Django (Jamie Foxx) and they set off as bounty hunters with the ultimate goal to find Django’s wife (Kerry Washington), who is owned by an especially nasty plantation owner played by Leonardo DiCaprio.
Many critics have reviewed the picture as if it were a jolly frolic but it’s far from that. Tarantino can afford to hire a top-class crew, so the film looks great but it’s a typically episodic affair with more examples of the one scene that Tarantino knows how to write: one or more people talk at length and then people die violently.
There is a funny bit about a gang of pre-Ku Klux Klan idiots who argue over the size of the holes cut for their eyes in the hoods they wear. Mel Brooks would have been in and out of the gag in a flash but Tarantino dwells on it for several minutes until all the humour is crushed.
The filmmaker says he intends to reveal the extreme brutality of slavery, as if we didn’t know, but he shines his leering light on floggings, bare-fisted fights to the death and a man torn apart by dogs with voyeuristic satisfaction. When bullets hit bodies, not just a pint of blood explodes but whole chunks of flesh. In one awful incident, our hero shoots an unarmed woman (albeit a slave-owning racist) from a sideways position but she flies off backwards and draws intended laughter from the audience. The truth is that Tarantino loves this stuff; he thinks it’s funny. It’s a wonder he didn’t call his film “Blazing Slaves” except with the “n” word instead of “slaves”.
He displays his fetishistic obsession with the word “nigger” like an overgrown mama’s boy who talks dirty because he thinks it will make him hip with the playground bad boys. It is inconceivable that a black filmmaker would produce a movie with “kike” every second word. Of course, such a film would never get made. It seems that Tarantino is free to make his film because the black audience is so cool, but that is itself racism.
Christoph Waltz plays the same character that won him an Oscar for ‘Inglourious Basterds” – a fussy and garrulous sociopath who masticates the English language with Teutonic relish and murders people with a giggle, only this time his victims are racist rednecks. Tarantino makes him the smartest man in the room until he runs out of ideas about what to do with the character and then abruptly makes him very stupid.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays the plantation owner in the manner of his “Gangs of New York” co-star Daniel Day Lewis as Bill the Butcher, which is to say over-the-top and hilariously awful.
Samuel L. Jackson plays a grotesque Uncle Tom figure whose monstrous subservience to Masser Leo is played less for horror than for comedy. If a Jewish actor played Fagin or Shylock with such extreme unction, there would be outrage. Jackson gets away with it because he’s regarded as so hip when he’s just a careless performer who appears willing to take almost any role (”Snakes On a Plane”, “The Man”) so long as it keeps him in greens fees.
Jamie Foxx is a reasonably good character actor but he lacks the charisma for a leading man, particularly one Tarantino sees as a black Roy Rogers or Hopalong Cassidy (which the immensely charismatic Sidney Poitier did years ago, anyway). When DiCaprio, Jackson and Waltz are performing in high beam, which is most of the time, Foxx fades into the background and he has no chemistry with the equally dull Kerry Washington.
There is no credit for a music score as the director uses a lot of over-wrought songs and cues from other films with one lovely original number with music by Ennio Morricone.
No one has to see this film, and I recommend you don’t; and freedom of speech means that Tarantino has every right to use whatever words he wishes. In his TV appearances to promote the film, however, he has appeared to be too far up his own fundament to address pointed questions about his taste for stupid film violence and he appears to think his depiction of slavery should be taken seriously. Freedom of speech also allows me to describe him with the words “odious” and “twerp”.
Opens: UK: Jan. 18, Sony Pictures; Cast: Jamie Foxx; Christoph Waltz; Leonardo DiCaprio; Kerry Washington; Samuel L. Jackson; Director and writer: Quentin Tarantino; Producers: Stacey Sher, Reginald Hudlin, Pilar Savone; Director of photography: Robert Richardson; Production designer: J. Michael Riva; Costumes: Sharen Davis; Editor: Fred Raskin; Executive producers: Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Shannon McIntosh, Michael Shamberg, James W. Skotchdople; Production: A Weinstein Co./Columbia Pictures presentation of a Band Apart production; Rating: UK: 18 / US R; Running time: 165 mins.