Django UnchainedFeature Film | Quentin Tarantino By Josh Ralske
Tarantino revises history again, with diminishing returns.
As unique as it is, Django Unchained is a typical Quentin Tarantino film in a lot of ways, but it falls short of his high standards. Jamie Foxx stars as Django, a slave who is freed by a loquacious German bounty hunter, Schulz (Christoph Waltz). Schulz wants Django to identify three overseers he is trying to track down. In return, he offers Django freedom and a few dollars. But Schulz is an abolitionist by nature, and when he hears of how Django was separated from his German-speaking slave wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), he decides to make Django a partner, and help him find his love. This eventually leads them to the cotton plantation of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a feckless young slave owner who arranges brutal "Mandingo fights" between slaves as a hobby. Schulz and Django pose as a potential slave buyers to get to Broomhilda, but Candie's loyal house slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) threatens to unravel their plans.
Tarantino presents all this in the style of a spaghetti Western, most obviously Sergio Corbucci's 1966 Django. (He even has that film's star, Franco Nero, appear rather pointlessly in one scene, making a weak joke about the pronunciation of Django's name.) There's also a plot similarity to Paul Bogart's Skin Game (1971) which had James Garner and Louis Gossett, Jr. as conmen, repeatedly selling Gossett's character to slave owners and then having him escape.
Inglourious Basterds took a similarly playful approach to serious historical material, positing a Jewish squadron in WWII that takes vengeance on the Nazis. Django Unchained is less radically revisionist, and also less successful in combining the horrors of the era with Tarantino's dark humor. Basterds was a bit scattershot, but it featured superb performances from Waltz and Melanie Laurent, and contained three brilliant setpieces of extended dialogue: one involving Waltz's SS officer, Landa, interrogating a French farmer who's hiding a Jewish family, one in which Landa has a disconcertingly casual conversation over pastry with Shosanna (Laurent), whom he may or may not know is a Jew, and a scene in a bar in which British soldiers posing as Germans play a parlour game with an inquisitive German officer. These lengthy scenes were masterpieces of controlled suspense and testaments to the power of great dialogue. While Waltz is excellent again in this film, Django Unchained offers no such highlights. Its humor is mostly crude, its expectedly brutal violence -- as when Broomhilda is whipped, two slaves are forced to beat one another to death, or another is torn apart by dogs -- feels disconcerting and jarring in the jokey context of Tarantino's script. Foxx is adequate, but he's overshadowed in the role, first by Waltz's comically out-of-place erudition, and later by Jackson's mugging as, for some reason, the film's most despicable villain. It's Waltz's movie, making his character's inexplicable and disastrous behavior at the film's climax all the more disappointing. DiCaprio is okay, but he never gets the kind of wonderful character moments that Waltz got in Basterds.
Making a film about a murderously rebellious slave in the style of a spaghetti Western was a bold idea, but it's the type of fraught conceit that really needed to be executed with moral exactitude to avoid coming off as crude and insensitive. Our society is still living with the effects of slavery and its painful legacy, so Tarantino's tacky treatment of this milieu seems flippant. Jokey cameos by Jonah Hill and Tarantino himself, playing an Australian for some reason, certainly don't help.
Like Wes Anderson, Tarantino's films are shot through with his petty obsessions. In Tarantino's case, this means mostly copious references to other people's films (of varied obscurity), and occasionally shots of women's feet. Lacking Anderson's visual and emotional precision, Tarantino sometimes devolves to a kind of sloppy insularity. Django Unchained has its pleasures, and it's never boring, but it frequently feels ill-conceived or half-assed. We expect better from such an assemblage of talent.
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