Django Unchained, released Christmas day, features Tarantino up to his same old tricks again. This time though the overlong script is lackluster and there’s no great characters to get behind.
It’s hard to imagine a less Christmassy movie than Django Unchained. Pulp Fiction director Quentin Tarantino is up to his old tricks again mining film history past and revising real history, much as he did in 2009′s Inglorious Basterds– this time around instead of letting WWII era persecuted Jews get their revenge on the Nazis, it’s American Wild West era slaves vs. the plantation owners and slave traders.
From the outset, the premise alone has generated controversy from the public and film industry notables alike, such as famed director Spike Lee condemning the movie via Twitter as we reported earlier this week.
Here’s the plot synopsis:
“Set in the South two years before the Civil War, Django Unchained stars Jamie Foxx as Django, a slave whose brutal history with his former owners lands him face-to-face with German-born bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz is on the trail of the murderous Brittle brothers, and only Django can lead him to his bounty. Honing vital hunting skills, Django remains focused on one goal: finding and rescuing Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the wife he lost to the slave trade long ago. Django and Schultz’s search ultimately leads them to Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the proprietor of “Candyland,” an infamous plantation. Exploring the compound under false pretenses, Django and Schultz arouse the suspicion of Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s trusted house slave.” –Weinstein Company
The film is receiving almost unanimously positive reviews, but there are some naysayers. Regretfully, I’m among them. I’m a Tarantino fan– usually his mix of exploitative B movie shlock and true technique is a winning one, but I found Django to be a case of shocking just for the sake of shock’s sake coupled with a way too long running time and a script missing the usual pizazz in dialogue the Reservoir Dogs director’s known for.
After we meet Dr. King (Waltz) and Django (Foxx), they quickly set out to take care of the Brittle brothers and collect the bounty, which they do in literally the first 30 minutes of the movie. So basically what appears initially to be the main conflict of the film is resolved really early on. Then the pair decide to go rescue Django’s wife (Kerry Washington) from Candie’s (Leonardo DiCaprio, always better when he’s actually playing a character as he is here) plantation , but the movie spends nearly half its running time middling about before they even reach the evil plantation owner’s homestead.
This wouldn’t be such a crime if anything of particular interest happened, or Waltz or Foxx’s characters were given more three-dimensional personalities, but they’re really just vacant cookie-cutter protagonists. Waltz is given some semi-colorful dialogue, but it falls way short of Tarnatino’s best scripts. Foxx’s character meanwhile is the strong silent type, and he’s not the actor to carry that persona well enough to get away with it. Ironically enough, it probably hasn’t been since the 60′s or 70′s, decades Tarantino loves, that there’s been a sufficiently macho screen presence like Charles Bronson or Yul Brynner that could really make such a one-dimensional role work.
Django’s almost like two movies, wherein after the Brittle brothers are dispatched, the conflict is then to rescue Foxx’s character’s wife from DiCaprio’s plantation; a task which is hard to care much for since Foxx has zero personality, and Kerry Washington, the wife character, literally has about three scenes (half of them dialogue free and fairly humiliating) where she too has no real character established. So why should we care?
That said, the movie picks up a little when Foxx and Waltz do reach DiCaprio’s plantation, as they have devised a rouse to get Washington out of there and make her a free woman, and there’s some good tension waiting to see if it’ll work as planned. Of course it doesn’t, and there’s a huge shootout, which is fairly well done if a little unnecessarily gory, but herein lies another flaw: after like 2 hours and 20 minutes, this feels like the end, and it’s not! There’s a whole other act, without spoiling too much! One of my big pet peeves is when movies don’t know when to end and there’s what feels like multiple endings.
All that said, there are some positives: Waltz, nearly unrecognizable, makes the best of what little character is written for him, DiCaprio is much better as the over-the-top scenery chewing slave owner than he’s been in his lackluster Scorcese movies over the past ten years or so (especially Shutter Island–yuck) and Samuel L. Jackson, in my opinion, steals the whole movie as DiCaprio’s hypocritical old house slave that is all too willing to carry out his boss’s dastardly deeds.
It’s just all too long, with a lackluster script and no characters to really get behind, especially the “good guys.” I think it’s time for Tarantino to try his hand again at more subtle fare like the excellent and severely underrated Jackie Brown. I’m over his overt exploitation tricks and period pieces. Come back to the present, QT– at least to the 70′s, and give us some god’s honest reality to digest!
Score: 6.5/10 — playing now in theaters everywhere.