Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Django Doesn't Deserve Its Oscars

Django Unchained won two Academy Awards on Sunday night, one for Christoph Waltz as Best Supporting Actor, and one for Quentin Tarantino for writing the Best Original Screenplay. The film deserves neither – spoilers ahead.

Why Django won its Oscars isn’t all that hard to figure out. Around Christmas, Lincoln was the favourite to sweep all before it as one of those classically Oscar-worthy movies, like Ghandi or A Man for All Seasons. And then two things happened. Firstly, Argo built up momentum and chimed with the inherent US patriotism that saw the Academy Award go to The Hurt Locker ahead of Avatar a few years ago. Secondly, people began to realise that Lincoln, while worthy, is deathly, deathly dull.

Lincoln is three hours of CNN political reporting. It’s one of those movies that will be shown in secondary school history classes from now until Doomsday, while the pupils nod off silently in the dark through generation after generation.

However, the issue of slavery was in the air and Django must have collected a lot of votes as a second-best option for Hollywood to show that actors are aware that slavery is wrong. And Tarantino has been the most exciting director since the young Scorsese in the 1970s so how bad if he gets his moment in the spotlight?

The problem is that Django just isn’t that good. It’s not bad, but it’s heartbreakingly disappointing. And it’s heartbreakingly disappointing because Django could have been the best US slavery movie since Gone with the Wind, and Django’s failure to realise that potential, having been so very close, stings more than if it had not been so very close to glory. We can forgive a popcorn movie for being a popcorn movie because it never pretends to be anything else, but Django is a lost masterpiece, and that should not be celebrated on cinema’s greatest night.

By the start of Django’s fourth act, when Django and Dr Schultz have met Calvin Candie and are making their way to Candieland to free Django’s wife, Broomhilda, the film is outstanding. Truly outstanding. We eagerly await further twists in the tail as master of puppets Tarantino pulls our strings.

But that’s not what we get. That’s not what we get at all. What we get instead is a cheat, a massive cop-out, an utterly phony and completely wrong deux-ex-machina where Tarantino forces one of his characters to break character to facilitate a plot point. All suspension of disbelief is lost at this point. We realise that Tarantino is struggling. That his decline is continuing, and that he will never achieve the maturity that his early career promised.

This is the spoiler. Final warning.

The problem with Django is this. By the end of the fourth act, Django and Dr Schultz have won. Calvin Candie has signed Broomhilda’s letters of freedom, and is taking no steps to avenge himself on our heroes over their attempt to con him. None. It’s a clear win for Django, Broomhilda and Doctor Schultz, and there is nothing to stop them living happily ever after.

Nothing except the half an hour of film that Tarantino has yet to fill. Who knows what his original plans were – a massive slave fight, familiar to fans of cobble-fighting here, perhaps. But he found himself stuck at this point, and escapes his spot by having Dr Schultz behave as we cannot imagine him behaving heretofore.

It’s utterly out of character for Dr Schultz to refuse to shake Calvin Candie’s hand after their deal is done. He’s been in the South for years – he’s shaken hand with worse men than Candie. Equally, he’s seen slaves maltreated before – why would he break now? Because he hears Lara Lee playing Für Elise on the harp and it breaks his heart? I think not. He’s seen and done too much to get sentimental now.

The only reason Dr Schultz breaks, refuses to shake Candie’s hand and eventually shoots him is because Tarantino knows this film has to end on a bang, not a whimper, and this is either the only way he can do it, or because Tarantino was too lazy to figure out another ending.

And the whole film falls away to pieces after that. There’s a good scene between Stephen (and if anyone was getting an Oscar for this, shouldn’t it have been Samuel L Jackson?) and Django in the barn after Calvin’s shooting, but Django’s escape from hapless Aussie larrikin slavers is worse than pathetic. Tarantino should be better than this, and he’s not.

As for Christoph Waltz, he seems a nice man and I hope he’s enjoying his time in Hollywood and making every dollar he can. The astonishing, and not very cheering in terms of the culture, thing about Waltz is that he’s now won two Oscars for playing the same character, The German with the Curl. When he’s good, freeing slaves in the ante-bellum South, he’s very, very good, but when he’s bad – being a Jew-hunting Nazi, say – he’s horrid. And if that’s not ham, then I’m Kevin Bacon.