Posted on 4/12/14 12:15 PM
"Gentlemen, you had my curiosity, but now you have my attention."
Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino's latest excursion into genre film-making, is another homage to his heroes, done with style and wit. Unfortunately for the film's aims, it is just that: an homage. One could see, from a mile away, that Tarantino is aping the feel, and tone of directors such as Peckinpah, Leone, and Corbucci. Yet, for all the obvious love, and stunning presentation, as well as the strong script, Django can't help but feel like a movie lacking soul, lacking purpose, and ultimately lacking the key ingredient in making a great film: vision.
Now, I'm not saying that Tarantino doesn't have vision, in fact, he has a clearer vision than many contemporary filmmakers. The problem is, he clearly wants to provide us with the film that he feels is a fitting tribute to his idols, not the film that audiences most want to see, nor one that he put thought and originality into.
The plot, for all my preaching, is actually pretty good: a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx, doing a good job of bringing an illiterate, vengeful prisoner of the white man to life), is recruited by a whipsmart dentist-turned-bounty-hunter, named Doctor King Schultz (A fantastic Christoph Waltz, playing the exuberant eccentricity of Schultz to perfection). Together, they come to the agreement that, should Django help Schultz with his bounty-hunting, they will journey to rescue Django's wife. Broomhilda (a suitably shaken-looking Kerry Washington), who finds herself in the service of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, really letting loose as the psychotic francophile). The plot is great, but the way Tarantino tells the story is a tad inconsistent. It starts out very strong, with Schultz and Django developing a very enjoyable relationship, but gets a bit slower in the middle, as the scenes at Candieland (Calvin's imaginatively-titled plantation) really tend to drag, By the very end, which features a trip away from Candieland only to come back which, in this reviewer's humble opinion, was only included to jam in Tarantino's cameo, one really feels the urge to check their watch. What I'm saying is: Django is a great film but it really drags after the initial hour or so.
Positives: Needless to say, Tarantino's dialogue is still very, very strong, and the actors spare no time in getting into the meaty, oft-hilarious conversations. While there are a few inconsistencies in the quality, the dialogue is definitely one of the key strengths that coasts Django by. Even stronger than the dialogue though, is the acting. A powerhouse cast, each with tremendous chemistry, enliven what could have proved an overlong mess. Fine actors like Foxx, and Washington, share the screen with phenomenal actors like Waltz and DiCaprio, who in turn share the screen with a living legend in Sam Jackson (who provides one of the most intriguing performances, and gets the best good:bad dialogue ratio in the film), as Stephen, Candie's trusted house-slave. With that kind of talent to live up to, its really no wonder why everyone brings their A-game. The winners in this power-struggle of actors, though, is the audience. We are the ones treated to a fantastic display of writing and acting, and in moments such as the electric interaction between Candie, and Schultz, one really sees why Tarantino has earned the reputation that is so prevalent in modern cinema.
Negatives: I won't pretend that this is a masterpiece, nor will I claim it to be any way equal to Pulp Fiction, or Reservoir Dogs. The film, while extremely well-written, and supremely well-acted, has a running time that severely hurts the overall product. I'm not saying that it's being two hours and forty-six minutes long was the problem, I'm saying that the content, or lack thereof, is what drags the film down. Numerous times I felt the film was nearing it's logical conclusion, only to be treated to another couple of drawn-out, frankly indulgent scenes. The one that I, and many more point out as Tarantino overkilling it, is the Mandingo scene. We are treated to an extended, gruesome fight between two of Candie's slaves, until it ends in gut-wrenching fashion. I wouldn't consider myself "offended", or "disgusted" by the scene, but it's absolute lack of purpose (other than displaying Candie's psychotic streak, something we had already realised existed), just makes for poor storytelling. If Tarantino could cut back the (rather juvenile) attempts at concisely homaging his heroes, it would just add up to a better body of work. I'm not aiming to knock the guy, I just wish he would give a little more thought to the audience's own enjoyment of the film, before his own attempt at making what he sees fit.
In closing: I like Django Unchained. It is extremely well-written, well-acted, and a whole lot of fun to watch. It's biggest problems, however, are length, and tone. At times, it can't decide if it wants to be lighthearted, and fun, or darker, and contemplating, and it runs much longer than it ought to. I can't help but feel that this film would have a higher artistic standing in my mind, if only Tarantino could decide what he wants to do for half the running-time. That said, it's a whole lot of fun getting to the end, which is one of the strongest scenes in the film, with standout acting, writing, and directing.