Quentin Tarantino’s filmography is now long enough for his own telltale calling cards to emerge in his latest genre time warp, Django Unchained: his episodic narrative, his usury of genre tropes with modernist updates, violence galore, use of a wronged protagonist to seek vigilante justice and speak for a greater population, whether it be women (the Kill Bill films) or Jews (Inglourious Basterds).
His works form a catalog celebrating the lesser moments in film history, grading them on a curve in which B-movies now get the A-minus treatment. This time around, he uses the title character (Jamie Foxx, named for the hero of Sergio Corbucci’s 1960s spaghetti Western series), a slave on a chain gang in 1858 Texas, to right the historical wrong of slavery. As commentary on America’s original sin, there’s plenty for Tarantino to say here, and it’s all there, both above and beneath the surface. And it’s all a little too much.
The writer-director’s trademark storytelling largesse shows no signs of abating, but for the first time, the payoff is not quite worth the wait. Plot inconsistencies and tangents abound as well. Still, there are plenty of rewards to be had in any film that pairs Tarantino with his greatest interpreter, Christoph Waltz, the Austrian actor who danced off with an Oscar and every other award for his mesmerizing performance as Nazi Hans Landa in Basterds, still Tarantino’s most artful triumph. Waltz again melds volatility with grand humor as King Schultz, a German bounty hunter masquerading as a dentist. Schultz seeks out Django and frees him so that he can assist his quest of searching for three slave owners. In return, Schultz promises to help Django reunite with his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). The two were separated when attempting to free their former plantation, and she was sold.
Thanks to assists from cinematographer Robert Richardson and Fred Raskin (Django marks Tarantino’s first outing without partner in crime Sally Menke, who earned Oscar nominations for editing Pulp Fiction and Basterds and passed away in 2010), Django and Schultz’s sojourn fuses elements of the traditional Western and its Italian cousin, pioneered both by Corbucci and that other Sergio, Leone. It also integrates hip-hop flourishes, Blaxploitation and martial arts tenets. Tarantino sprinkles in humorous vignettes poking fun at the mentality of KKK members and bonding his dynamic duo (a Jim Croce-themed training montage), using Schultz as his anti-slavery mouthpiece. Waltz, speaking in an American but non-localized dialect, is a hoot, straddling the line between the film’s irreverence as well as its more noble intentions. (Foxx, meanwhile, is effectively silent, all knowing angry glances.)
But he’s too liberal from a directorial perspective. The film is already at its halfway point when Django and Schultz arrive at the ironically named Candyland, the Mississippi estate run by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), Broomhilda’s current owner. It’s here that Django, which has already relocated its savage Wild West mentality to the antebellum South, takes its most subversive turn in the form of Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), an Uncle Tom who is implacably loyal to his master and eager to betray a fellow black man. But it is also here that Django, exquisitely staged and fiercely acted, starts bearing limited fruit.
Tarantino stacks the deck so that the film only contains enough to support his characters’ blood thirst. Stephen is a character with great potential, but he remains entertainingly enigmatic. He is a character that could have gone deeper, but one on whose creator and portrayer refuse to shine a light. And DiCaprio, letting loose with a confidence and specificity rarely exhibited on the screen before, is stuck treading dramatic water; as a bad guy, Candie lacks the arresting dialogue and spooky sequences afforded Waltz as Landa. The final, stretched-out hour of Django hits all the expected chimes of retribution, but not a single not further.
As an auteur, Tarantino’s skill remains tops. But as a provocateur, Django is lacking. Part of that is that he is playing to an already converted audience in a “post-racial” society. We’re all in agreement that slavery and oppression are atrocities, and agree who the bad guys are. There is no need for any kind of social moralizing. And his cartoonish tone is better suited to his film’s early buildup than later events. But part of what’s missing in Django is a sense of newness.
Django’s journey does not deviate at all from where we think it will go, and there are no revelations along the way. As the events pile up – and bodies too – there’s ultimately no catharsis, just convention. There’s plenty of bloodshed, but no feeling. Perhaps it is time for Tarantino to break this chain.