Revisiting Tarantino’s Django Unchained
Has Quentin Tarantino’s work to date actually been…restrained? It’s not a descriptor often thrown at the populist auteur, whose frequently digressionary writing style and dual penchants for graphic violence and meta-textual indulgences has made him one of the most easily distinguished popular filmmakers of the last three decades. Yet, for all of his past excesses, Django Unchained is his shaggiest film to date, a nearly three-hour ramble that threatens to be as bracing an exploration/exploitation of pre-Civil War American race relations as Inglourious Basterds was of WWII, before falling victim to some serious pacing issues.
Set two years before the outbreak of the Civil War, Django opens with bounty hunter “Dr.” King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) opting to free a black slave by the name of Django (Jamie Foxx) in order to more effectively track down a trio of fugitives, the Brittle brothers, he knows Django will be able to identify on sight. As Django and Schultz carry out their legally-sanctioned killings, the two bond as peers, with Schultz eventually agreeing to help Django to track down and free his wife Hildy (Kerry Washington), a mission that places them on a collision course with a sadistic fop of a Mississippi plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his suspicious principal servant, Stephen (Tarantino regular Samuel L. Jackson).
For its entire first act, in which Django and Schultz find common ground while the former finds long-awaited autonomy in bloodshed, Django strikes exactly the right balance of pitch-black humor, over-the-top violence, and gleeful disregard for good taste or historicity; it might actually rival Basterds for sheer entertainment value. (An unexpectedly comic interlude involving the KKK, while completely useless on a plot level, is particularly memorable.) Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, the pace starts to flag severely once Django and Schultz meet Candie – which is not to place the blame on DiCaprio, who dives into the role with a committed, evil glee.
Django is a sort of companion piece to Inglorious Basterds (especially as both films are loosely inspired by a specific Italian genre-film obscurity – Django Unchained on Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 Django, Basterds on Enzo G. Castellari’s Inglorious Bastards), but it also fits snugly into Tarantino’s previous two features – Kill Bill and Death Proof – as a feature-long meditation on vengeance. Where his first three films – Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown – benefitted greatly from a generous surplus of theme and character, his focus as a writer has been considerably more single-minded of late. That’s not to say that a single-minded pursuit can’t reap dividends; Basterds managed to infuse its gory wartime caper with unexpected pathos and multi-layered wit. But once it’s done establishing its two leads, Django is simply too flimsy – psychologically, narratively, and as a piece of ahistorical exploitation – to justify its exorbitant length. The worst offender is the middle hour, in which Django and Schultz make Candie’s acquaintance, attempt to enact a needlessly complicated ploy to free Hildy, and indulge in a neverending dinner sequence almost completely bereft of tension.
It can be difficult to assess the price influence of an editor, especially when they’ve been present for a director’s entire career. But the passing of Sally Menke, Tarantino’s career-long collaborator (even including his Four Rooms segment), may reveal the true depth of her contribution to his success. Though it’s only about 10 scant minutes longer than Basterds, Django is in dire need of a sterner partner in crime in the editing bay. Despite the epic overtures of the soundtrack – which includes an original vocal piece by Ennio Morricone – Django simply doesn’t merit its runtime. Longtime assistant editor Fred Raskin steps up to the plate here, and the action sequences are appropriately lucid, recalling the Coens’ True Grit in their patience and respect of geography, but he doesn’t seem to have the stomach to talk Tarantino down from his penchant for long-winded excess.
Even more disheartening than its lumbering pace, though, is the film’s lack of meaningful subtext. Where Basterds was both a hyperviolent caper and a celebration of the revisionist power of cinema in the face of unfathomable tragedy, Django has nothing potent on its mind about the legacy of slavery. It’s content to use the setting and characters as an excuse for a long, bloody string of revenge-fueled setpieces. It also wastes the character of Hildy, surely the most stereotypical damsel in distress ever to appear in a Tarantino’s filmography, replete as it is with strong, distinctive female characters. Waltz and Foxx’s repartee – not to mention the former’s still-considerable scenery-chewing acumen – keep the movie watchable, but the feeling that Tarantino needs to regain his equilibrium behind the scenes is the one that reverberates most strongly once the credits (finally) roll.