Saturday, 26 January 2013

FILM REVIEW: Django Unchained

Fine acting and a highly promising opening can't mask a disappointingly cold and uneven work

Exhilarating and disappointing in equal measure, Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained is a bafflingly random pastiche, a mixture of ingredients that should be wholly satisfying but somehow aren't. One only needs to re-read that sentence to be reminded of why Tarantino is so polarizing; let's face it, his trademarks, whether they're Mexican standoffs, pop and pulp references or blatant obsessions with cinema and feet, can be applied effectively to any genre when used in the proper context. When he's on song, he can be exceptional; when he isn't, he can be irritating and self-indulgent. And I'm sorry to say Django Unchained (though Django Uneven sounds like a more apt title for it) rubs me the wrong way.

To these eyes, the film comes across as an attempt to recreate the epic swoop of Inglourious Basterds in the style of an all out spaghetti western, minus the structure, flow and excitement that raised Inglourious above numerous similar films of its ilk.

Not that you would think so from the exceptional promise of the first thirty minutes, with its stylishly retro credits and interesting set-up. A kinetic and consistently intriguing opening which sees German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) free a slave, Django (Jamie Foxx) and take him under his wing slowly degenerates into an overly long and overly talky 48 Hrs. meets O Brother, Where Art Thou?, albeit in a different time period with more annoying music and a more pointlessly sprawling running time. The absence of Tarantino’s longtime editor, the late Sally Menke (watch below), is keenly felt.

Django Uneven – alright, Django Unchained - is the sort of film I feel bad about criticizing, as in a way, it feels like Tarantino's Inception. (It even has Leonardo Di Caprio in a major role.*) That is to say, it comes across as a very important and personal project for the director, but does not suit the epic bloat he thinks it requires, leaving us with a rather cold and detached end result.

What essentially salvages the picture, in addition to its opening, are strong performances from its leads (even if Di Caprio comes dangerously close to rehashing his intense shtick at one point), particularly Christoph Waltz. His slippery presence and irresistibly commanding line delivery is a welcome oasis in a desert of inconsistency. Whatever Django Unchained may lack (or not need, like a cameo from its director), it's got Waltz, and that's more than enough to earn the film a minor pass.

Ultimately, though, the only thing truly Unchained about this Django is its director – even Jamie Foxx comes across as little more than your average Tarantino hero. And Tarantino, when wholly unleashed – undeniably gifted and thought provoking but equally vexacious – can be a dangerously intolerable thing.

*It nearly had Joseph Gordon Levitt, too...