The problem with being great is that you’re not allowed to be merely good. For Quentin Tarantino, the long-celebrated maverick auteur, it’s been a long time since he truly changed the cinematic landscape. The proliferation of imitators post ‘Reservoir Dogs’ and ‘Pulp Fiction’ continue unabated; fewer clamber to replicate the (considerable) style of ‘Kill Bill’ and ‘Death Proof’, being, as they are, so firmly rooted in cinema nostalgia.
In recent years, Tarantino has relinquished the bar in favour of personal achievements, sharing them with a public who either embrace them with religious fervor or reject them outright. ‘Django Unchained’ represents the low-water mark of these kinds of films: one that tries too hard to please both camps at once, but leaves little for either.
Jamie Foxx plays Django, a former plantation slave sold into a chain gang for daring to wed Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Freed by Dr King Shultz (Christoph Waltz), a charming German bounty hunter, Django embarks on a quest for revenge against the men who wronged him. His search leads them to the plantation of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), and into a daring, bloody confrontation to free his beloved wife...
Having previously touted ‘Inglourious Basterds’ as his spaghetti western by way of World War II, ‘Django Unchained’ seems to exist because of ‘Sukiyaki Western Django’, Takashi Miike’s earlier, much better celebration of Italian westerns.
Mixing the Leone mythology with a wacky Japanese aesthetic all of his own (Miike is an overt influence on Tarantino), the film takes the premise of ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ (itself spun from Kurosawa’s ‘Yojimbo’) and wraps it into an entirely original creation, featuring cyclorama sets, gunslinger swordplay, an eclectic soundtrack, and Japanese actors speaking a stylised kind of English. The film featured Tarantino in an extended cameo, and it seems the kernel of his own film germinated from his time spent among Miike’s heady infusion of cinematic styles.
‘Django Unchained’ isn’t really a true western, but another Tarantino revenge opus (the fourth in a row), shot with a minimal regard for the conventions of the genre and awkwardly tied to the theme of slavery. Tarantino has always played fast and loose with taboos regarding race relations, and although his use of choice words works entirely in context, he seems to pull certain punches when dealing with the issue of slavery itself. He goes out of his way to present the enslavers not just as morally ambiguous men dealing with a morally void subject, but as irredeemable villains, to whom slavery is the least of their crimes. Grossly caricatured (in perhaps indelible Tarantino style), it removes much of the potency of its slavery-era setting, glossing over many of the themes he touted as concerning the film’s existence.
Regardless if this was done because of Tarantino’s own reluctance or studio encouragement, Tarantino sheds many of his idiosyncrasies (chapter headings and disjointed narrative) in favour of straight linear storytelling, while retaining some questionable ones. This is by far his bloodiest film, and unlike ‘Kill Bill’, which contextualised its violence within its own limits of genre and convention, the level of violence in ‘Django Unchained’ feels oddly out of place. At worst, it feels hypocritical, pointedly revelling in moments of Django’s retribution but stalwartly refusing to engage in other, more ambiguous (or racial sensitive) ones. Never has Tarantino skirted the line of exploitation so finely, and it will ultimately be to individual taste if he succeeds or fails.
‘Django Unchained’ feels artificially extended. Methodically plotted, episodically structured, and lacking a killer Tarantino opening scene, the film climaxes too early.
Foxx doesn’t help matters, playing Django as a fairly bland straight man to Waltz’s hilariously acerbic German bounty hunter, lacking the natural charisma his not-quite-Man-With-No-Name really needs. Waltz steals the show entirely, livening up the screen for much of its too-long length, and is only outdone by a late-in-the-game turn by Samuel L. Jackson. DiCaprio’s Candie is by turns gleeful and ferocious, but ultimately amounts to little given how sparsely the film populates its bravura moments. Given Tarantino’s panache for strong, capable women, it’s unfortunate that Boomhilda is the sole character that appears a product of her period setting; he misses a (perhaps predictable) beat in making her so narratively inert.
(The fate of Candie’s sister will remain discussed, as it troubles the mind as much as it tickles the funny bone.)
Whereas ‘Inglourious Basterds’ felt like a truncated epic reduced to its best, most scintillating scenes (at the expense of coherence, empathy, and storytelling), ‘Django Unchained’ feels artificially extended. Methodically plotted, episodically structured, and lacking a killer Tarantino opening scene, the film climaxes too early, fizzing out its final moments with events that feel protracted and redundant.
Ironically, this is the closet film Tarantino has made to being wholly conventional, and the results are both surprising and disappointing. With his recently announced plans for impending retirement, ‘Django’ marks a turn for a director usually so sure of himself and his craft. ‘Django Unchained’ is not a bad film, just merely good – and from someone so great, not good enough.