Django Unchained, 2012.
Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino.
Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, James Remar, Michael Parks, Don Johnson and Jonah Hill.
With the help of his mentor, a slave-turned-bounty hunter sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner.
Warning, spoilers ahead…
Since Pulp Fiction took the world by storm in 1994 and changed the face of filmmaking forever, Quentin Tarantino has reached movie star-like fame and has become one of the few directors who can open a film with the gravitas of their name alone and has carte blanche to include whatever he wants. Django Unchained is pure Quentin Tarantino and this is both to its great success and also its ultimate failings.
Post-Pulp Fiction, the first 90 minutes of Django Unchained’s 165 minute running time is the best cinema Tarantino has written and directed; it’s a near-perfect modernist Western. Tarantino (as we know) loves cinema and his own style marries beautifully with the 1970s takes on the genre (McCabe and Mrs Miller and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid came to mind, two of my personal favourites) with zooms, snow covered landscapes, and a modern soundtrack. The relationship between the slave Django (Jamie Foxx) and the man who buys his freedom, Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), is beautifully written and crafted both page and screen and is possibly the most realistic on-screen partnership seen in 2012; the loquacious dialogue which Tarantino gives to Schultz is delivered by Waltz as if it were written specifically for the actor (and perhaps it was) and he deserves his Oscar nomination for you cannot think of another actor delivering those lines the way he does.
The inciting incident which ignites the film and the driving force behind the first half of the film could have been a film unto itself and, arguably, this is the most interesting story told. Django and Shultz hunt down and kill three slave-owner brothers for a bounty and what follows is a fantastic ridicule of the KKK as they attempt to get revenge. Just like the Nazis are mocked in Inglourious Basterds, these equally loathsome people are lampooned by the mastery of Tarantino’s writing when we watch them fall out like school children over the quality of the white hoods and the visibility they allow. It’s funnier than any so-called comedy of the year.
After this, Django and Schultz agree to go into business together and, as the audience, we hope for another search and destroy mission on par with what we’ve just seen. However the introduction of salve owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) changes the tone of the film completely. Candie, it is claimed, owns Django’s wife and Django wants her back, but what follows feels like a whole other screenplay, cut and condensed and stuck onto the end. The film certainly has enough history to explore and the characters, which are at times underdeveloped, deserve a two-part release as it ends up feeling like a five hour film trimmed down but still long enough to be bloated.
The 75 minutes which follows is somewhat a structural mess, undoing all the brilliance of what went before it. The typical lengthy Tarantino dialogue slows the film right down but without adding the tension and edgy drama which similar scenes have so successful delivered in his previous films. Candie is the epitome of the ‘evil white man’ but unlike the similar Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds his extended dialogue becomes a bore as Tarantino drives home the point that he is the evil and sadistic, yet underplays the film’s real threat, Stephen. Stephen is a black man who has turned against his own people and his back story would have been very intriguing to have seen and have explained, yet he is never explored and is a missed opportunity when so much other time is devoted to talk that could easily have been cut without affecting the story.
Moreover, the plot to buy a slave fighter for $12,000 as a rouse to actually buy Django’s wife is needlessly complex and when the payoff finally happens, there is no threat to the wife and she is bought like any other slave. This may well be the point, but it is not worth all the time invested in it.
The violence which explodes towards the end of the film is as explicit as Kill Bill but nowhere near as interestingly staged, and the choice of music (like when 2Pac plays for 30 seconds) draws attention to itself and appears like it was contractually obligated for it serves no other purpose. The lack of interest the character Django brings to the story in this final part of the film is made apparent by the death of Candie and Schultz. Once they die, we’re left with just bloodbath which is both fun to watch yet not a satisfactory conclusion either as Django has to repeat the whole thing over again; if this were any other writer than Tarantino would it be forgiven? He creates the world he wants to show us but this world is not without criticism just because he is who he is.
If Tarantino could get back to his earlier form where every scene was important and the dialogue wasn’t so obviously self-indulgent, he’d be the perfect modern filmmaker. He needs someone to answer to because he is becoming an increasingly better director and an increasingly weaker writer. The balance needs to be addressed before anything like the brilliance of Pulp Fiction will be seen from him again.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★