Django Unchained: how not to cook a Spaghetti Western

20 Jan

ImageIt pains me to say it, but Django Unchained is a mess. Now I love Tarantino. I’ve seen every film he’s made or written, and made sure I ran the first UK cover on Pulp Fiction (shot by Rankin, left). But I’m baffled as to why Django is currently ranked on IMDB.com as the 39th best film of all time.

Where is the narrative economy of Reservoir Dogs? The quotable dialogue of Pulp Fiction? The intricacy of Jackie Brown? The visual panache of Kill Bill? The sheer chutzpah of Inglorious Basterds, with its ending that dares defy history itself?

I’ll steer clear of describing Django’s plot, for the sake of those who haven’t yet seen it. But I will say that, to its detriment, Django is two separate films: one starring Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington, the other starring Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L Jackson. The first is a harrowingly acted and searing tale of slavery and retribution; the second is an arch, deliberately over-acted, almost camp piece of stylised hokum. The combination is not merely jarring but faintly nauseating, like salt sprinkled on breakfast cereal.

Other disappointments include the lack of a strong female character, which Tarantino usually delivers. Kerry Washington is given nothing to do here but suffer, snivel and, at the end, simper. You might also wish that, having borrowed the famous doorway shot from The Searchers for Inglorious Basterds and the music of Ennio Morricone for Django, Tarantino could have used more of the wide-screen Spaghetti Western cinematography that we glimpse in a few snowy mountain sequences.

Perhaps it was too much to hope that Tarantino could revivify, let alone reinvent, the Western. Leaving the cinema, my underwhelmed son said: “I don’t get Westerns. Why are they important?”

Sigh.

They’re the creation myth of modern America. They’re a Cinemascope symphony of space and light that cannot be reduced to the small screen. They’re an existential test of honour in the face of death, a chance to see if a man’s really gonna do what a man’s gotta do.

The Western gave Star Wars its format, and with it the elevation in the last 35 years of science-fiction from a low-budget cult genre into one of the dominant forms of mass entertainment. And what was Avatar, the highest-grossing movie of all time, if not a Western with blue skins rather than red?

Django, sadly, won’t be rebirthing any genres. To use a cooking analogy, Tarantino is usually a master at combining unexpected ingredients. But whereas Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction were hardboiled to perfection, and Kill Bill was sharp as a sushi knife and tangy as wasabi sauce, Django is a thoroughly overcooked Spaghetti Western: soggy, limp and hard to stomach.

Agree? Disagree? Leave a Comment below.

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4 Responses to “Django Unchained: how not to cook a Spaghetti Western”

  1. Rob Ayling January 20, 2013 at 1:32 pm #

    It’s funny all the points mentioned – I had a problem with Inglorious – I felt that film was 2 films in one. With Django, I thought it was entertaining and it had some great performances – particularly Foxx who is surprisingly very charismatic. I also like how the first half of the film was quick pacing and not just one dialogue set piece after another – BUT when we reach the second half, everything starts to drag and we’re back to typical dialogue set piece from Tarantino – the last 30 mins feels very forced! I felt It could have ended sooner – I do agree that there weren’t any strong female characters – nicely written by the way.

    Rob A

  2. igorgoldkind January 20, 2013 at 5:12 pm #

    Thanks for the astute criticism, Dom. It takes a small degree of journalistic courage to bulk the trend and deliver a sincere critique, albeit a negative one of a director you like. But thanks for saving me the £8 I would have spent today seeing it in the cinema. I’ll reserve viewing for an occasion where it doesn’t cost me money because I surmise from your description, I would find the experience infuriating.

    Tarantino appears to be so versed at genre devices that he can’t seem to leave them alone and let them do what they’re supposed to: work as codified allegory.

    My experience of Inglorious Bastards was a prime example of Tarantino not willing to leave well enough alone. The post modernist approach to genre mash up works well when the common threads are found in disparate styles.

    The Inglorious opening was riveting, tottering on the edges of Hitchcock-like suspense as Christoph Waltz’s genre-busting parody of the quintessential Nazi menace: unrelenting, scrutinizing, probing menace brought home the tense silences of Jews hiding beneath the floorboards. I thought to myself at the time, here is real cinematic ingenuity: Tarantino brings the reality of persecution to the visceral fore within a genre vehicle of suspense. This is just like Hitchcock, I said to myself and remember noting that Tarantino appeared to have finally come of age, harnessing the mish-mash of genres to deliver a new cinematic insight and statement.

    Which is why I found the rest of the film such an infuriating let down. As soon as he strikes a note of hyper realism and emotional authenticity he has to spoil it all with farce. The rest of the film is vulgar, incredulous farce and I felt not only let down but robbed of the emotional intensity he built at the onset. Again, it seemed like two friends: one a war time drama of acute emotional intensity and the other something akin to Nazis on the Moon.

    And from your description Django sounds like it hewn from the same cloth.
    I think there’s a place for works of art and statement masquerading as B films; I had hoped Tarantino would fill those shoes but he seems to have misplaced his statement somewhere between his shifting attention spans.

  3. Robert Mahaney June 28, 2013 at 6:31 pm #

    Reblogged this on And they were excited by the strange, dangerous scent of Spaghetti Westerns . . . and commented:
    Another excellent reaction to Django Unchained . . .

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Tarantino or Taranti-yes? Eight ways to decide whether to see The Hateful Eight | London, Hollywood - January 13, 2016

    […] got their hands on it). And though I had my problems with Django Unchained (which I wrote about here), he’s still one of the most interesting writer-directors working in Hollywood, and this film […]

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