starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson
written and directed by: Quentin Tarantino
MPAA: Rated R for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity
Well, these are words I never thought I’d find myself typing: I was bored and disappointed by this new Quentin Tarantino film. And not like, “Oh, Jackie Brown is so slow compared to Pulp Fiction,” or, “Death Proof is just an hour of girl talk bookended by two brain-melting vehicular action sequences.” Bored and disappointed like, “This is a misfire that I don’t care to see again.” We have always been able to count on Tarantino to surprise us with his exuberant audacity and stun us with his endlessly intense energy; no filmmaker has translated his own love of film more consistently into unforgettable big-screen results. But somehow, someway, he doesn’t quite pull it off this time. What went wrong?
The film opens four years before the Civil War. A pair of slave traders are leading a pack of slaves through the nighttime wilderness when they are interrupted by a decidedly strange man: Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who pulls up on a horse-drawn buggy topped by a big wobbling molar. Schultz explains that he is a former dentist now working as a bounty hunter, and would like the assistance of one of their slaves, Django (Jamie Foxx), on his current assignment. The slave traders are as puzzled by the request as they are by Schultz himself; between his German accent, continental style, and overly officious manner of speaking, he is worlds removed from blending in to the slavery-era South. How could he possibly stick out more? By liberating Django and allowing him to ride on his own horse, that’s how. And when things quickly escalate with the slave traders, that’s exactly what happens.
After successfully finishing their first mission together, Schultz proposes that Django partner with him for the remainder of his bounty hunting jobs through the winter. In exchange, Schultz vows to help Django track down Broomhilda (Kerry Washington, given little to do except tremble gorgeously and scream bloody murder), his wife, from whom Django was separated when they were punished for trying to escape together. Django agrees, and the two of them tear through the South picking off ignorant redneck criminals left and right. This comprises the first half of the film, and essentially reads as Tarantino’s take on Blazing Saddles: a comedy-western about an unlikely interracial alliance and the racial unease it provokes (people voice their astonishment at the sight of “a n*gger on a horse” everywhere Schultz and Django travel). This portion of the film is more consistenly lighthearted and winking than anything else Tarantino has done; it is the closest he has come to full-on broad comedy, particularly an ill-conceived KKK raid featuring a distracting cameo from Jonah Hill. And while it is certainly funny, assisted mightily by Waltz’s masterfully weird characterization, it lacks gravity.
But nevermind, Tarantino just saves up all the gravity for the second half of the film (incidentally, this is one of his few films not to utilize clearly-marked chapters). After a successful winter of bounty hunting during which Django’s confidence and (ugh) swagger became stronger and more defiant, the men discover where Broomhilda has been taken: Candieland, the second largest plantation in the country, owned by a fearsomely charming sociopath named Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, who doesn’t appear onscreen until over an hour into the film). So the men set off for Candieland and contact Calvin under the pretense of sharing his passion for “mandingo fighting” (the onscreen portrayal of which is something you’ll wish you could unsee). But this one last mission isn’t destined to run quite as smoothly as their previous ones, due partially to Candie’s loathsome right-hand man, his servant Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson, nearly unrecognizable and doing some of his best work).
The tensions gradually mount throughout the Candieland sequence, with Tarantino expertly ratcheting up the nerve-shattering suspense and ever-greater stakes. It is by far the strongest section of the film, even though its climax hinges on a reveal involving Stephen that redefines the Magical Negro stock character in a newly villainous light but that I just didn’t buy. It all leads unsurprisingly to one of Tarantino’s most gratuitous shoot-outs yet, reminiscent of the finale to his Tony Scott-directed True Romance. Jamie Foxx certainly showcases his bad-assery in this gunfight, with every bullet unleashing a cartoonishly huge eruption of waxy blood. Everything is primed for a terrific and memorable finish — except the film doesn’t end with the finale (or faux-finale, as becomes evident). It keeps going. And not in a fluid way; it slams on the brakes so hard you nearly take a header through the windshield. By the time you see Tarantino himself speaking in an embarrassing Australian accent, you will know that something terrible has happened.
For all its strengths — daredevil humor, tremendous performances by Waltz and DiCaprio, the excellent slow-burn suspense of the Candieland sequence up until the first ending — Django Unchained is Tarantino’s weakest and least effective film yet. At nearly three hours long, it is in desperate need of editing; not coincidentally, it is Tarantino’s first film since the tragic and untimely passing of his longtime editor Sally Menke, and her absence is certainly felt (the editing is credited to Fred Askin, an assistant editor on the Kill Bill films). This would probably be a much more positive review if not for the egregiously tacked-on second ending, which serves political and rhetorical rather than cinematic purposes. It is such a slough making it through this sequence that it undoes much of the goodwill you felt toward the film up until that point. The fact that Tarantino claims to have a five-hour cut of the film up his sleeve makes this whole enterprise feel even more interminable and indulgent. Finally, I can only hope that Django will prove to be the last nail in the coffin of Tarantino’s revenge-movie obsession. The blood-splattered well is dry. It is a genre that he has, perhaps appropriately, tortured to death.
Django Unchained opens nationwide today.