Tarantino's brilliant script for "Django Unchained" is better than the fun, talky, well-made violent revenge western that he finally relinquished --weeks late--after a long battle in the editing room to get it down to 2 hours 45. This is nothing new for the slow and deliberate writer-director. But Tarantino has been accustomed to working closely with long-time editor Sally Menke, who sadly died at age 56 last September. She'd get started early every morning; he'd come in noonish to work with her for the day. He trusted her, and she could argue with him; she knew his rhythms, the pace of the long shots, dialogue and action, how to adapt to changes in tone, sequence by sequence. On "Inglourious Basterds," she convinced him to try to stucture the narrative without the separate chapters. It didn't work, and they returned to the way he wrote it. "Django" editor Fred Raskin worked as assitant editor with Menke on "Kill Bill" I and II.
Tarantino writes each script so that it can stand alone as a piece of writing, whether or not he will wind up directing. He puts things in that aren't necessary for him as a director. And he knows he'll lose things in the editing room. But this particular film, which throws the revenge theme of "Inglourious Basterds" into a provocative ante-bellum Southern setting, when the slave economy was in full swing, needed more time to find its proper pace and tone. It could have been a great film. It kills me to watch something that is almost there, not fully realized.
During a Q & A at the DGA at the film's first screening, Tarantino admitted that Leonardo DiCaprio gave him some ideas for adding phrenology to the film, which he did. "It wrote itself," he says. Not so fast. The movie lets DiCaprio run on with a skull in hand, gives him too much talk time. Similarly, Waltz gave Tarantino some material about the German myth of Siegfried and Brunhilde that goes on far too long. The director should have trusted his writer.
Jamie Foxx as the slave who comes into his own, Kerry Washington as his lost wife Broomhilda, who works for DiCaprio's plantation owner and Mandingo purveyor Calvin Candie, and German bounty hunter Christoph Waltz are all excellent. It's Samuel L. Jackson who really shines, because his layered performance as the head house slave comments on an entire history of actors playing Uncle Tom. The black actors had a tough time with this material, understandably. Washington asked that she really be whipped in one scene. There are ways that this story could have reached beyond spaghetti western to find real comedy and pathos; somehow it feels flat, constrained and stuck.
Tarantino's score, packed with anachronistic spaghetti-western style songs as well as some fabulous original Ennio Morricone, doesn't help; it feels noisy and disjunctive. The Weinstein Co. has rushed this unfinished film into holiday release without the extra cred and preparation that a festival like Cannes could provide; both smart house and black audiences will flock to it. But some will be offended by the sensitive subject amid blood-gushing violence. So far the award season takeoff has been slow--screeners take weeks to prepare and ship. "Django Unchained," with its stellar cast, got not one Screen Actors Guild nomination. With proper prep it would have.
Here's the review round-up.
Applying the episodic format and visual template of classic and spaghetti Westerns to a revenge saga mostly set in the Deep South just prior to the Civil War, the film makes a point of pushing the savagery of slavery to the forefront but does so in a way that rather amazingly dovetails with the heightened historical, stylistic and comic sensibilities at play. The anecdotal, odyssey-like structure of this long, talky saga could be considered indulgent, but Tarantino injects the weighty material with so many jocular, startling and unexpected touches that it’s constantly stimulating. A stellar cast and strong action and comedy elements will attract a good-sized audience internationally, though distaste for the subject matter and the irreverent take on a tragic subject might make some prospective viewers hesitate.