Quentin Tarantino has said more than once in the last few years that if he retires, which seems like the prospective plan, he would like to eventually just write novels. And this writer would argue that the "Pulp Fiction" filmmaker is already doing so and then adapting them for the screen. Which brings us to his latest, the Antebellum spaghetti western/slave vengeance picture "Django Unchained," which has the unstructured, long winded architecture and pace of a novel -- or at least a novel that doesn’t have to concern itself with the format demands of a visual medium that lends itself to around a two hour experience. All to its own detriment.
As such, "Django Unchained" isn't much of an adaptation for the screen as it is a completely faithful distended adaptation of a screenplay that reads better as a book. That's not to say films must adhere to the three-act structure ("The Master" is a great example of bucking the design), but if you're making an almost three hour film that certainly also feels like three hours, the rhythm and construct of fits and starts (dull and then exciting burts) followed by long passages of dialogue, could use a rethink.
"Django Unchained" has very little of a forward engine, the kind that propels most movies forward and creates momentum. It spends at least one leisurely hour of its running time setting up a discursive narrative -- Jamie Foxx’s titular slave character is rescued by a Dr. Schultz, a bounty hunter played by Christoph Waltz, in exchange for helping him track down the Brittle Brothers (a trio of thuggish brothers that have a bounty on their head). This leads them to a plantation owned by Don Johnson, lots of flashbacks of slavery and lashings, and eventually lots of blood when the brothers are brutally and comically dispensed with. Six months later (as we enter the middle third of the movie), after the duo have become bounty hunting partners, the pair finally set off in search of their main goal -- rescuing Djagno’s wife Broomhilda, a slaved played by Kerry Washington who has been sold to a nasty Mandingo baron and plantation owner Calvin Candie (played with delicious relish by Leonardo DiCaprio). And so it's not until the point that the actual story begins.
"Django Unchained” also possess little suspense. Django and Schultz come to Candie’s plantation with a subterfuge of being novices who want to enter the Mandigo fighting game, but actually are looking for a way to fool Candie into selling Broomhilda. The two are welcomed with some traditional Southern hospitality, but soon, Candie’s ornery house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) discovers their plot with nothing more than an observational eye and a hunch. Suffice to say, Candie feels duped, gets very angry and then hurt feelings lead to violence. But even that violence is unnecessary. Without revealing too much, the faux climax in “Django Unchained,” which can possibly be described as part one of the three extended third act parts, doesn’t have stakes to sell the sizzle. The situations are resolved and all parties can leave peacefully, but essentially pride gets in the way. Which isn’t really much of a credible motivator to keep the story going on, but alas, it does. From there, “Django Unchained” keeps going and going...and going, with a meandering story of capture, freedom, revenge, revenge and more revenge.
Touted as a love story, the suggestion itself is a sentiment funnier than 90% of all the jokes in “Django Unchained” because its dispassionate approach has nary a feeling. And whoever described the film as an homage to “Blazing Saddles” over Twitter has apparently never seen a Mel Brooks film before. The cartoonish ultra violence in the film is especially twice removed. Buckets of blood fly fast and loose in the third act, but with no one to really care about or root for -- not even Django who inadvertently becomes the least interesting character of all, yet leads the film. As such the film is especially empty.
There are things to like about "Django Unchained" if taken on their own merits. Leonardo DiCaprio makes for an especially malevolent villain and as the role takes him out of his usual comfort zone of "the moody protagonist," he shines and you want him to continue down this unusual path. While Schultz is essentially a mild variation of Christoph Waltz's Hans Landa character -- an unnecessarily verbose and erudite German -- the actor brings a likeable warmth to the role that goes beyond those obvious notions of Tarantino being on the other side of the camera, mouthing along with the words he clearly has fallen in love with. Jamie Foxx too is rather strong when he's given something to do, but oddly, even though his character is the center of the film, he's an afterthought in service of the more colorful DiCaprio and Waltz. Musically, the drama is also rather enjoyable and it’s easily the best use of music in a Tarantino film in some time. The anachronistic selections of songs by Rick Ross, John Legend, James Brown and 2Pac far more effective than the out-of-nowhere appearance of David Bowie in "Inglourious Basterds."
But apart from some individual moments worth savoring, "Django Unchained" doesn't coalesce or add up to much. While the film has a few moments of humor, generally courtesy of DiCaprio or Jackson, the film is nowhere as funny as it believes it is. And yes, with its casual pace and guffaw-worthy little jokes, the picture does have an almost disturbing air of self-satisfaction -- the cherry of which on top is a Tarantino cameo, that much like the scene itself, is completely superfluous. Such is the problem with “Django Unchained,” a bloated, complacent narrative that saunters along at a delicate pace with scene after scene that, when everything is tallied all up, reveals that many of them simply don't need to be there. If any other filmmaker in the world delivered this film to Harvey Weinstein, the shears would come out. Alas, Tarantino is apparently above the conventions of narrative, and audiences (and critics) tend to give him a big pass.
While Tarantino has called ‘Django’ a chance to hold up America’s ugly past up like a mirror, this is empty rhetoric and the picture has almost nothing of substance to say socially or politically about race or slavery other than it was unfortunate and atrocious -- seemingly the only two comments the filmmaker can make (as he did with WWII). Ultimately, it all seems like an excuse for bloody revenge, superfluously flowery dialogue, homages to genres he loves and a cool song or two.
"Django Unchained" might be called a love story or a comedy, but it’s not particularly funny or moving and it's terribly self-indulgent. Flamboyance and cartoonishness rule, there's hardly a moment of genuine emotion, and most overtures in that direction are superficial. As a picture ostensibly about love, revenge and the ugliness of slavery, "Django Unchained" has almost zero subtext and is a largely soulless bloodbath, in which the history of pain and retribution is coupled carelessly with a cool soundtrack and some verbose dialogue. Though it might just entertain the shit out of the less discerning. [C-] - Rodrigo Perez