I get the feeling Quentin Tarantino is a filmmaker who likes to cultivate a sense of controversy. I think film studios like this too. The people who are going to see his movies anyway are, well, going to see them anyway, and those who wouldn’t usually go to see a violent western will go so they have an opinion on its controversial nature. It’s a marketing tool that works rather well.
The truth is: Django Unchained isn’t really that controversial. Sure, it tells the story of a black slave (Jamie Foxx) freed by a bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) who then helps him hunt down the man (Leonardo DiCaprio) who is abusing his enslaved wife (Kerry Washington). But the way it is told doesn’t deserve the controversy it is getting.
The slave trade has always been a part of American history filmmakers are uneasy to revisit. And Tarantino goes there without wincing. But aside from this, I think many who look far enough will struggle to see anything very controversial about the film – certainly nothing that hasn’t already been pondered over in other Tarantino pictures.
There’s been a lot of publicity about the use of the racist word ‘n***er’ in the film. It is a word that is, in this day and age, unacceptable in decent society. The word is uttered over one hundred times in the picture, but all of it is within a historical context. Django Unchained clearly and rightly portrays racism and slavery as an abomination. The fact the word is used doesn’t make the film offensive.
What is offensive is the running time. At nearly three hours, this rather simple story is stretched so as to provide a stage for Tarantino’s gimmicky and ego-driven humour. He regularly does this – the same was true of Inglourious Basterds, his 2009 picture – but in that movie it worked. In this film, it tested my patience.
Tarantino’s strengths are plain to see: his skill at choosing music for his films, his ability to get magnificent performances from his actors (DiCaprio is immensely entertaining), and his clear love of cinema (if that is a strength). Sadly, his weaknesses are even more obviously exposed: his inability to cut his movie down to a more suitable running time, his reliance on gore over narrative substance, and his hit-or-miss sense of humour.
Django Unchained is not a total disaster, but for all the hype and the alleged ‘ultra-controversial’ nature of the film, it all just ends up feeling rather mundane and unremarkable.
Django Unchained (2012), directed by Quentin Tarantino, is distributed in the UK by Sony Pictures Releasing, Certificate 18. Read The Edge’s review of the film here.