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My 12 for ’13: Django Unchained & Suckerpunching Expectations

This is my annual countdown of the 12 movies that really stuck with me this year. It only counts the movies released in Ireland in 2013, so quite a few of this year’s Oscar contenders aren’t eligible, though some of last year’s are.

This is number 2…

Slavery seems to have been bubbling away at the back of the American pop cultural consciousness this year. Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln were both Best Picture nominees at this year’s awards ceremony. 12 Years a Slave is making pretty impressive head-way for next year’s Oscars, embarrassing moments like the film’s European marketing aside. They are all superb and moving films, but Tarantino’s Django Unchained is probably the strongest of them.

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It’s a bold and provocative piece of cinema, one that manages to catch the audience off-guard. For a director who has been working in the industry for two decades, that’s quite an accomplishment. One of the most refreshing aspects of Tarantino’s work is the way that it has refused to quite settle down. The director has steadfastly refused to grow old gracefully, and to conform to industry and audience expectations.

While it’s fun to be reductive and to argue that Tarantino is a one-trick pony no real variety in tone or dialogue, that seems a little disingenuous. To be fair, there is some measure of merit in that observation. Tarantino’s dialogue does generally conform to the same basic template – it’s always fast and witty, a curious blend of eloquent and crass mixed in just the right quantities. Tarantino has his own very clear voice, and it’s easy to recognise his work across multiple films.

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However, the same is true of pretty much any auteur who isn’t making a conscious effort to subvert audience expectations. Park-chan Wook has his own unique visual style, while Christopher Nolan has his own unique set of storytelling tools he brings to each of his films. Even those directors who do evolve tend to evolve over long stretches of time. The David Cronenberg who gave us A History of Violence is the same director behind Eastern Promises, even if he might be different from the man who gave us Videodrome or The Naked Lunch. And yet certain aspects remain constant – a fascination with biology, for example.

Like any other director, Tarantino has his quirks; the stylistic elements that he enjoys and uses to great effect. Characters in Tarantino films will always be sharp-tongued and verbose, even while talking about the most base of things. However, that’s not to suggest that Tarantino has a limited artistic range. You might be able to recognise a Tarantino film when you see it, but it’s very hard to predict it ahead of time.

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While Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction might make suitable companion pieces to one another, it’s hard to compare Pulp Fiction to Inglourious Basterds. You could probably argue that they both fall under the umbrella of “homages to exploitation cinema”, but there’s little common ground beyond that in terms of genre or plot or structure. And that’s part of the reason why Django Unchained works so well.

It’s terrible to say it, but it is possible to become numbed to cinematic treatments of harrowing subject matter. While movies like 12 Years a Slave and Schindler’s List can bring home the horrible suffering that man inflicts upon man, there’s an entire subgenre of film that exists solely to turn these horror stories into cynical awards fare with uplifting inspirational film scores, heart-warming post-scripts and carefully calibrated emotional manipulation.

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With so much of that sort of awards fare released each year around Oscar season, it’s easy for the impact of these horrors to lesson somewhat. Audiences become numb to meticulously crafted stories on big and important (and terrifying) moments from the past. This is, after all, a system that treats The Reader as a film to emulate – a movie about how illiterate people are all sociopaths who cannot be held accountable for their actions.

That’s what makes Django Unchained so incredibly effective. It looks and sounds like an exploitation film. Even the name is coopted from a cult spaghetti western, and the soundtrack is as far from “inspirational” as you are likely to get. It doesn’t feel like Tarantino is writing a “very important” film about one of the great tragedies in American history. This isn’t a product of a meticulously researched historical investigation, designed to be packaged and sold as the feel-good film of the year.

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(It’s something of which even the marketing for the powerful and affecting 12 Years a Slave is guilty. The publicity for Steve McQueen’s powerful slavery epic features lots of shots of Solomon Northup running free – on posters and in trailers. Hans Zimmer’s inspirational soundtrack blares in the background to the vast majority of trailers and television spots. It’s a harrowing piece of cinema, but the marketing is deigned to place it among blander “feel good” “important” films.)

So Django Unchained catches the audience off-guard with a sucker punch. It swings out of nowhere. While it never divorces itself completely from its exploitation trappings, it packs one hell of a punch. It’s portrayal of man’s inhumanity to man, of man’s capacity for greed and corruption and sheer brutality, is harrowing precisely because it jars so fantastically with the bright clothes Django wears when infiltrating Candy Land, or because the brutality of having a man torn apart by dogs is shocking when juxtaposed with the movie’s retro soundtrack.

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It’s an unsettling and uncomfortable watch precisely because it doesn’t conform to expectations of what a movie about slavery should look like. This isn’t a movie about slavery, so much as it is a movie about a world in which slavery is an every day reality. The distinction is important, because we have so many movies about slavery, whereas Django Unchained is something completely different.

It treats slavery as something so casual and so accepted by the people inside the world that the revulsion felt by Doctor King Schultz and the audience becomes all the more palpable. It reminds viewers that there was a time when these viewers were so widely accepted that they were indisputable, that this brutality and violence was something that society had simply learned to accept and ignore. It was self-reinforcing. Samuel L. Jackson provides his best performance in years as the house slave who perpetuates and enables the system – a role that is incredibly uncomfortable to watch.

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Django Unchained is not what anybody would expect a movie about slavery to look like, which is precisely why it’s so powerful. There’s nothing quite like having a horror catch you off guard.

Our top twelve films of the year:

Honourable Mentions

12.) Blue Jasmine

11.) Lincoln

10.) Much Ado About Nothing

09.) Iron Man 3

08.) Philomena

07.) Only God Forgives

06.) Star Trek Into Darkness

05.) Stoker

04.) Gravity

03.) Rush

02.) Django Unchained

01.) Cloud Atlas

2 Responses

  1. Great review! Agreed on every point.

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