(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic principles and subject matter that, paradoxically, he wants to have fun with but also treat with gravity.
Because, despite addressing its subject more directly, Django Unchained is about as serious-minded a commentary on slavery as Basterds is on the Holocaust. Tarantino is really just feeding the period trappings through his cool filter, coming out with dazzling shootouts and delirious mind games and, yes, distinctive dialogue to suit his “southern”. He’s as smart as ever in knowing how to elicit a response to different forms of violence, such that a brutal, casually-refereed Mandingo fight and a slave savaged by Candy’s dogs repulse, while Django’s gunfight in Candy’s mansion is a giddy, enthralling spectacle of crimson jets and spinning bodies.
But there’s something slightly wearying about the whole thing. Maybe it’s the lack of engagement with the titular character, or the clash between the director’s glibness and his subject matter, but too often I felt I was being led down a well-worn path with nothing of any substance to provide nourishment. Not that I shouldn’t know better by now; perhaps, ultimately, it is his stock-in-trade that left me disappointed. The characters, with a couple of exceptions, just don’t sparkle. And the “Look at me!” daring of making a film against the backdrop of slavery, because there’s no depth to it, once again singles out Quentin as the kid in class provoking teacher by making fart noises. It’s entertaining if you’re his classmate… up to a point.
At its core, the director has come up with an effective revenge western; a freed slave teams up with a bounty hunter, taking revenge on his persecutors and setting off to rescue with his wife. But he is either unable or unwilling to ruthlessly prune his material, such that Django is much too long, repetitive and features dramatic lulls that only the sterling work of the cast can see it through. It’s also front-loaded.
The first 50 minutes are enthralling, perfectly-paced, five-star material, as bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) frees Django (Jamie Foxx) and joins forces with him to hunt down the Brittle Brothers. The dialogue is witty, and Schultz is a classic Tarantino scene-stealer (his introductions, including his horse’s name, are particularly winning). And the retribution Django visits is cathartic and enervating. Tarantino also pulls off some sublime visuals (the spray of blood on cotton plants is stunning). But even here, there is a concern that the material is not quite honed enough. Schultz and Django have a marvellously effective showdown in a town, where Schultz talks them out of certain death by flourishing a “Wanted” poster. When he does exactly the same thing at Don Johnson’s ranch, there is a sense of diminishing returns.
I wouldn’t quite say that the air is sucked out of the film during its mid-section, where Schultz and Django pose as businessmen procuring Mandingo fighters (slaves who fight to the death in boxing matches) in order to infiltrate Calvin Candie’s (Leonard DiCaprio) property and save Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), but the momentum is diffused. This isn’t about gunfights (with Tarantino they used to be merely a punctuation rather than the star attraction). Rather, there’s a failure of narrative tension. Django is repeatedly shown staring down his would-be masters or wrestling with whether or not to start firing. For some reason, the stakes aren’t raised, perhaps because Tarantino himself repeatedly gives way; it beggars belief that, in the situation he has created, one of Candie’s men wouldn’t shoot Django in the back, offended at his talking back or insults (whatever Candie has instructed about showing good manners).
So it’s some relief that, after an hour of dawdling, the fireworks, both verbal and visual, begin. There are some strong moments during the second act. The Mandingo scene is effectively horrific, if not as tightly wrought as it could be (throwing in the Franco Nero exchange with Django only goes to illustrate how off Tarantino’s priorities are) and Samuel L Jackson’s unsettling performance as Stephen, Candie’s senior house slave, is outstanding. With Schultz, he’s the only character Tarantino completely nails, and represents a much-needed reminder of how good Jackson can be. It’s Stephen, far more shrewd and observant than his owner, who identifies the dangerous game being played by Django and Schultz.
What follows is the film’s "classic" Tarantino scene. You know, one where somebody gives an unnerving speech, winding the tension up to maximum before a surprising (and violent) release is provided. As well written as it is, Candie’s phrenological account of why the white race is mentally superior cannot match the quiet, taunting monologue Dennis Hopper gives in True Romance (which also includes a racial theme, designed to provoke). The difference comes in the tension built up by Tony Scott’s editing, the cadence of Hoppper’s delivery, and the cheerful but menacing cuts to Christopher Walken listening. DiCaprio is fine as Candie, but either he doesn’t quite seize the role and run with it for all its worth, or it just isn’t quite there in the script. Or maybe it’s down to the editing (this was Tarantino’s first without Sally Menke, who died in 2010).
I can’t fault the pay-off, however. The bloodbath that ensues sees the director breaking out his inner-Peckinpah rather than his Leone, but the slight concern over the trajectory of all this is justified when, rather than resolving his narrative, Tarantino opts to unnecessarily extend it.
The mistreatment of Django fails to instill the necessaries to justify bloating the running time for further payback. Worse, still allowing him to live lends the proceedings the cheesiest of Bond villain motivations (the earlier deal with Candie also seemed like a point where he would take the opportunity to rid himself of them; that he does not is curious, and not merely based on profit since he already had their money). It just becomes silly, and it’s the sort of thing Tarantino would previously have studiously avoided. I was put in mind of Sir Percival’s double-back at the end of Excalibur, which has the unfortunate effect of undermining the climax as a whole. Not only are we cursed with a Tarantino cameo (he’s been eating the pies, hasn’t he?), but one where he invites further ridicule for his thespian skills by attempting (I think) an Australian accent. Rather than building to a much-awaited showdown, Django canters along to a technically excellent but rather uninvolving climax. The crucial problem is that all the cathartic violence was expended in the first third of the film. So you’re left merely with lurid repetition. There absence of structural inventiveness, previously a prerequisite, further emphasises the bloated nature of the final stages.
There’s a moment during the final shoot out that is illustrative of where Quentin is at. Django shoots a (naked) man in the genitals during one shoot-out, and a couple of minutes later does the same to another cast member in another firefight. How cool is that?! The man has no restraint, no one to say "Rein it in a bit there, Quentin". In the second instance one could argue it is thematically relevant (even if the whole genital mutilation subplot is blandly uninspired), but he just couldn’t wait.
Similarly, near the beginning, one of the Speck brothers is trapped beneath his horse. Django and Schultz leave him to his fate at the hands of the released slaves. The most effective place to cut would have been his cries of protest as they advance on him. Instead, Tarantino can’t control himself and gives audiences the “money shot”.
Another scene during the first third has the director poke fun at some inept Klansmen who are unable to see through their headwear. As an idea, it’s solid, and you can see how it could be mined for laughs. But like so much here, the delivery is curiously flat.
The plaudits of an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Waltz were over-generous. Waltz is magnificent, and he has the best part in the film, but he could do this in his sleep. It’s a gift of a role that stands head and shoulders above the surrounding film and characters (Jackson excepted). Schultz is a very clear “type”; the Obi Wan who leads the hero on his journey. But he’s also the Han Solo, much more interesting than the presumed lead character.
Will Smith turned down Django , saying “Django wasn’t the lead, so I was like, I need to be the lead. The other character was the lead!” Whether Will really needs to be the lead is something between him and his ego, but he’s absolutely right about the imbalance Tarantino has created. This also sits slightly uncomfortably in thematic terms; the white director, much commented upon for previous form with the “N-word” picks a setting and period where he can pepper it into his script with impunity. And he requires his black hero to be empowered by a white saviour figure, deferring to his better judgement. I’m not sure if Smith’s charisma could have overcome this hurdle, but Foxx is kind of just “okay” as Django. He needs to be great, iconically Eastwood great, and because he isn't, all the Quentin "So cool" shit in the last moments is goofy and slightly embarrassing.
Another problem is, he used to seize on semi-known or out-of-favour actors and relight their star power with great roles. Here, he gets a bunch of semi-recognisable faces and gives them each a couple of lines, relying on the audience recognition rather than the strength of character beats. Yes, Bruce Dern makes a big impression in about a minute of screen time, and it’s nice to see Breaking Away's Dennis Christopher in a fairly significant role. But no one makes a mark outside of the quartet of leads. Kerry Washington effectively plays the MacGuffin, and has exactly as much substance to her role as that implies. As a result, any notions of an emotional through line between Django and his wife go unserviced.
It’s illustrative that the likes of Kevin Costner, Kurt Russell, Sacha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Michael Kenneth Williams all dropped out (most citing scheduling conflicts), some of those roles disappearing too. James Remar plays two parts, one of which is the Costner/Russell earmarked Butch. But Butch is no more memorable than Goggins’ Billy Crash. You remember Crash because Goggins plays him, not because he’s a strong character. Compare that to Shane Black ,who makes no-name actors playing one-scene heavies indelible, and something has gone seriously askew in Quentin’s world.
The eclectic soundtrack is typical Tarantino; often inspired, occasionally ill-advised. At least he’s finally made a film where his magpie tendencies towards Ennio Morricone find a natural home.
Django Unchained, overblown and undisciplined as it is, nevertheless provides fitful blasts of the director at his best. Perhaps he should return to the crime genre. It might provide a purer distillation of his sensibility, since his current riffs and repetitions have lost their lustre. Or maybe he just needs someone he trusts leaning over his shoulder and telling him when another draft is needed, and when to cut.