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Irvine Welsh on Django Unchained

by Irvine Welsh
11 January 2013 16 Comments

One of the greatest modern novelists reviews the latest film from one of the greatest modern directors...

Django Unchained

Django Unchained is certain to tick all the boxes for Tarantino lovers: sharp dialogue, fast action, a high body count and a marvelously cool soundtrack. The film is largely a homage to the spaghetti western, and specifically the movies of Sam Peckinpah. It’s crazy, brutal fun, but in the aftermath of the recent massacre of schoolchildren and teachers in Newtown, people will inevitably question the wisdom of showing video-game frequency splatter-violence in such a graphic manner, in a nation where the sad, lonely, depressed and plain psychotic can obtain an assault rifle almost as easily as a cheeseburger.

Set two years before the start of the civil war, back in an era where the 2nd Amendment made some sort of sense, Django starts life as an unlikely buddy movie. An ex-dentist turned bounty hunter, Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), teams up with Jamie Foxx’s Django, a slave whom he frees, initially to serve his own ends. Waltz is on the hunt of three brothers, whom only Django can identify. The pair bond during this bloody quest, and subsequently become partners, as Django is apprenticed to Schultz in the art of bounty hunting. Of course, he’s a natural, and soon wants to pursue his own agenda. Thus he and Schultz travel to Mississippi intent on freeing free Django’s wife, the German speaking Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). She is captive on a plantation owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a cruel southern villain, whose Francophille affectations are ruthlessly ridiculed.  In a movie blessed with several great performances, this is a nice turn by DiCaprio, who works the role solidly, rather than trying to camp it up and scene steal.


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The main problem I had with the film was Jamie Foxx as the lead. He’s a cool, charismatic actor, but often seemed either miscast or misdirected in this picture, being outshone by Christoph Waltz in the first half of the movie, and then by Samuel L. Jackson in the second.  For me, Jackson steals the film with an absolutely superb performance as Stephen, Candie’s mercurial ‘house nigger’. Wisely, Jackson opts against playing Stephen as a cowering Uncle Tom, instead showing him as an aggressive, controlling, manipulative figure, complicit with Candie in the oppressive racism against his own people. Stephen’s shivering, jocular public persona is at odds with the measured and entitled private audiences he enjoys with his supposed master, Candie.  These show him to be the power behind the throne. Indeed, it’s only when Fox is allowed to take on similar attributes, in a scam to win Candie’s trust and free his beloved Broomhilda, that he finally seizes command of the picture.

Waltz is also superb as the German bounty hunter. The early scene where he shoots the local sheriff dead, then stages the entire town and its Marshall, is a great piece of writing and acting. It’s recreated, with predictable diminishing returns, at a couple of other points in the film.

As with all Tarantino pictures, Django is a highly intelligent movie masquerading as dumb-ass escapism, and tackles truths that more worthy (and therefore less gifted) filmmakers shy away from. Stephen’s dark and complex persona, illustrating the notion that racism, like sexism, is fundamentally about economic and social inequality and the subsequent abuses of power that engenders, simply wouldn’t have worked in the hands of less compromising artists as Tarantino and Jackson.  There is an ongoing highly queasy incestuous flirtation between Candie and his faded southern belle sister, mischievously named Lara Candie-Fitwilly. You laugh at this comic turn, yet are simultaneously rendered uneasy at the pain and iniquity behind it.

Back to the violence: it’s essentially cartoon stuff and I laughed loudly at most of it. I found the controlled, spare but up-close-and-personal brutality of Tarantino’s early films to be much more real and therefore more disturbing. In Britain, some depressed no-mark will watch this, wish they had a gun, know they can’t get one, and just go home and have a wank and forget all about it. In America, where gun violence is fetishized and ritualized, enshrined in the constitution by the second amendment, the picture is more problematic, and movies like this will be inevitably scapegoated by those unwilling to grasp the toxic nettle of gun control. And that would be a shame. After all, actors with toy guns don’t kill people, losers with real ones do.

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Markxist 4:44 am, 11-Jan-2013

Irvine Welsh reviewing Tarantino - brilliant! Have to say I've been on tenterhooks waiting for this to be releases since last year, but my concern/doubt is with Foxx. I just don't think he has much presence and that's a worry when he's surrounded by big stars here and following in big foosteps (Franco Nero, Terence Hill, Joseph Milain etc all previous Django's) I see Nero is even in this asking Foxx his name. Nero still looks cool as

Tony 10:43 am, 11-Jan-2013

Actors with toy guns don’t kill people, losers with real ones, mostly on psychotropic prescribed medicines, do.

Chris 7:08 pm, 11-Jan-2013

You made 1 good film, what warrants your review above anyone else's?

DrRic 8:31 pm, 11-Jan-2013

@Chris - This may come as a shock, so brace yourself, but most film critics haven't made *any* films at all.

gregk 9:28 pm, 11-Jan-2013

the last paragraph hits the nail right on the heed!

Markxist 9:47 pm, 11-Jan-2013

Chris, he has also wrote a shitload of critically lauded novels.

Daryl 10:27 pm, 11-Jan-2013

Chris, what gives you the right question anyone else's right to review?!

Jollox 1:18 am, 12-Jan-2013

Chris: Words. I don't have any.

DC 1:53 am, 12-Jan-2013

Agree with the review entirely, except my doubts about Foxx were lost in the marvelous set pieces throughout. Whatever you think of Tarantino his eye for tiny detail is superb. The scattering crowd scene early on in the film, though only scene dressing, is just brilliant.

placid 7:08 am, 12-Jan-2013

Superb review by someone who has an intimate understanding of the process behind writing for films and the making of them. Chris, what have you created? Your favorite "what if" wanks don't qualify as content. Although I'm sure they're very imaginative.

Mongbean 5:35 pm, 12-Jan-2013

Chris you are a pilchard!

sherrers 11:31 pm, 12-Jan-2013

trying not to spoil... leonardo's speech with Yorick's skull/ the phrenology speech was the highlight it means a lot more in a divisive place like America, where race is still a huge issue and it's defo about pleasing a black audience in the same way that Inglorious basterds was about re-writing things for a jewish crowd. an exaggerated form of vengeance. an apology for slavery as IB was an apology for the holocaust there's been a lot of chat about it... all it does is it picks at the least of it. About the use of the 'n' word but it's way bigger than that it's an absolute must-see despite Tarantino thinking he is Hitchcock and nearly ruining everything with his shit cameos i'll admit i enjoyed a fine Oban scotch in the writing gentlemen do forgive

John T 5:11 am, 13-Jan-2013

@Chris The film of Trainspotting was based on Mr Welsh's book you plum!Learn how to read before shouting your mouth off on here. John

mike 12:09 pm, 15-Jan-2013

great film, and jamie fox is ok,

Michael P. Shipley 4:25 pm, 16-Jan-2013

Compare a few thousand killed by civilians to the millions killed by the US military. If you want to disarm, why not start there first?

Lee Spikeberg 12:40 pm, 8-Feb-2013

Django Unchained is a golden turd, and Quentin Tarantino is the goose that laid it.

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