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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton


 Zero Dark Thirty - Django Unchained

Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow (2012)

Django Unchained
Directed by Quentin Tarantino (2012)

ďThe film doesnít have an agenda,Ē Kathryn Bigelow has said of Zero Dark Thirty, and like all exercises in the apolitical Zero Dark Thirtyís agenda is insidious and deeply problematic.

At first it seems like it might be worthily exposing the truth about Americaís occupation in Iraq, with graphic scenes of torture some audiences might find disturbing. Well, hopefully, all audiences will find them disturbing.

But instead it turns out we are there to share the experience of Maya (Jessica Chastain) a CIA agent who has spent her entire career studying Osama Bin Laden and has now arrived to track him down.

Sheís clearly new to the torturing game and to begin with she keeps her distance and finds it hard to watch. But in no time at all sheís helping her colleague Dan (Jason Clarke) with the waterboarding by handing him a jug of water.

That the jug is just out his reach is either very slack torture organisation or a clever way to test whether Mayaís made of the right stuff. She passes the test and, because until now Chastainís acting and Bigelowís camera have encouraged us to sympathise with her there is a danger we might feel quite pleased about her brutalisation.

You see, you might feel sorry for the torture victim, but how do you think the torturer feels? Itís obviously a really tough job, and indeed, Dan has worked so conscienctiously at it that after quite a lot of torturing he admits itís starting to get to him and heís just got to take a break. Sadly, that option isnít open to his victims.

From here it gets worse. Zero Dark Thirty slides into a routine police precedural in which the context, the war, the torture, the politics, is entirely removed. It becomes one womanís principled battle against bureaucracy in her lonely quest to catch the villain.

Job done, two-and-a-half hours and many dead bodies later, we leave Maya sobbing in the belly of a vast troop carrier she, for some reason, has all to herself. This is the tired old American story of the individual against the state being played out among some expendable foreign people.

The agenda is that war and torture is awful but itís worth it and we must be brave. And the film is awful, too.

Django Unchained, on the other hand, is bloody awesome. Quentin Tarantino thinks heís exploring slavery (()) which is a bit like me saying Iím exploring this chair by sitting on it. You wonít find much out about slavery by watching this film. But at least Tarantino knows the difference between torturer and victim, and he knows whose side heís on.

His back scarred by the bullwhip, a permanent reminder of his oppression, Django (Jamie Foxx) is unchained by Dr King Schultz (Christoph Walz), the name a pre-echo, perhaps, of Martin Luther King. And like the Martin Luther the latter took his name from, Schulz is a German. Which is significant I think. But Iím not sure why.

The mobile dentistry he rides, a gigantic comedy molar bobbing about on a spring on top, is a cover for his real trade as a bounty-hunter. He enlists Django as partner in the enterprise, swiftly trains him up to be an unfeasibly fast gun, and the partnership proves lucrative.

But Django wants to free his slave wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the sadistic owner of the ĎCandielandí plantation-cum-concentration camp, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his garrulous, scheming Uncle Tom butler Stephen (Samuel L Jackson).

Job done, two-and-a-half hours and many dead bodies later, Django celebrates with a spot of dressage.

Canít quite remember, but I think this might be a nod to Blazing Saddles. The whole film is a nod to Blazing Saddles, really, and probably the funniest western since the Mel Brooks classic.

My favourite bit is when a posse hunting Schulz and Django don Klan-style hoods, but none of the eye-holes have been cut right. I canít describe it. You have to see it.

Like no other Tarantino picture since Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained is packed with scenes like this that are never going to be forgotten.

Itís not a serious film, but it is an exuberant celebration of the triumph of good over evil, of the oppressed over the oppressor. If Tarantino had made Zero Dark Thirty he would have got the detainee up off the waterboard and shooting his way out of the prison camp. And, knowing Tarantino, one day he might.

February 3, 2013

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