Between 1992 and 1997 there were three terrific films released that would solidify a director as a force to be reckoned with:Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown. During this breakout, critically and commercially successful phase of director Quentin Tarantino’s career I was, like most, genuinely excited by whatever was going to come next. Unfortunately, the upward trajectory that those first three films initiated would be altered by the rest of his output which has consisted of films that, for me, progressively lost narrative focus and relied too much on his penchant to pay homage to the film world of the past. His popularity with film geeks everywhere as a director and purveyor of film-nerd taste has obviously encouraged him to forgo his talents in telling new stories in favor of stringing together a kind of long-winded cinema’s greatest hits. He has allowed himself to be swallowed up by his cinematic obsessions and Frankenstein’d their random parts into massive, uneven movies like Django Unchained.
At almost 3 hours in length, Django has plenty of things going on but like his Kill Bill films, the sum has been lost to the parts (some very good, others not so much). Lingering on things that don’t necessarily seem to matter and then rushing through things that seemingly do; Django suffers from pacing issues. And while the once highly sought after guru of sharp dialogue can still unload the monologues, none of the ones in Django rise to the mesmerizing level of Christopher Walken talking of watches or Samuel Jackson explaining Ezekial 25:17. One passionate speech given by Leo DiCaprio that involves a skull is so out of nowhere, so forced, that it deflates the very tension it was designed to create. Other scenes still show some of the QT sparkle though, like one involving the KKK and their not-so-functional hoods that is laugh-out-loud funny. Seriously, it’s one of the funniest scenes I have seen in years.
The film looks great (top notch cinematography by frequent Tarantino collaborator Robert Richardson) with plenty of beautiful outdoor scenery and visual punch. The wall to wall, eclectic soundtrack that has been a mandatory element in all of his films is present and accounted for. And while the music over visuals works for the most part it has also become another item to be checked on the QT checklist. Another item on that checklist is the Tarantino cameo. Unable to help himself, he shows up in a minor role (remember that scene from Pulp Fiction that you wish could be re-cast?) near the end. And just to make sure that it will completely pull you out of the movie he decided to sport an unconvincing, Australian accent. The other performances are only as good as they are written and so, accordingly, they are all over the map. Jamie Foxx plays the slave-turn-bounty hunter title character with plenty of macho-cool. Infinitely more colorful and engaging is Christoph Waltz as Dr King Shultz, the bounty hunter who takes Django under his wing. Leonardo DiCaprio swaggers and screams as the muculent plantation owner Calvin Candi. The ham bone of the year award goes to Samuel Jackson as Stephan the head slave of Candi’s plantation. Jackson has one note and he plays it all night long. There are only two female characters that get to do anything aside from blending in to the background. Unfortunately,their roles are limited to smiling a whole lot (Laura Cayouette) and looking frightened a whole lot (Kerry Washington) as they say their handful of lines.
There has been some controversy over Tarantino’s decision to immerse his story in the ugliness of slavery in the south. My own feeling is the problem lies in the fact that Tarantino has created a cartoonish world that does not bode well with that very real and ugly part of American history. I think his intent was to provide a cathartic, stylized revenge picture similar to Inglorious Bastards. The end result, for me, was that it worked some of the time but at other times it left me feeling uneasy. There is an immature tone that permeates the film; a kind of 9th grade view of all of the characters and situations. It’s as if Tarantino is in over his head.
Django is, of course, filled with millions of bullets and gallons of blood. And though the violence is extreme and bountiful; it didn’t do much but remind me that Tarantino loves Peckinpah and Leone. Moreover, the big, final, show-stopping gun battle is lazily staged with an endless stream of “bad guys” entering doors and windows to be fodder for Django’s bullets. Other scenes are better handled like the one that opens the film and I am pretty sure it includes a first in screen violence. Let’s just say he ups the ante on Mel Brooks.
I realize that this whole review has been more about my disappointment with Tarantino’s career than Django. That is mostly because I desperately wish that he was still capable of making something as good as Jackie Brown. But I continue to lose confidence with each film he releases. Moreover, as I think about Lincoln and how Spielberg has managed to stay relevant (with his share of misses to go along with the hits) for almost 45 years; I am frustrated that QT has undermined his own career to be the purveyor of all things retro-film-cool. He is content to play in the limited space of his own film-fetish-playground.