Bosco’s Word: Django Unchained
Tarantino’s warped view of reality is one of the many things that’s always fascinated viewers. From the hyper-stylized universe of Kill Bill to the alternate reality of Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino’s refusal to play by the rules is both fascinating and exciting. In Django Unchained, Tarantino tackles one of the most gruesome chapters in human history with fearlessness and a complete disregard for boundaries. In other words, just the way we like it.
Separated from his wife by a trio of plantation workers and slave traders known as The Brittle Brothers, Django (Jamie Foxx) has been living life on a chain gang, walking through the endless deserts of Texas. One night his owners are stopped by a dentist known as Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). After killing the two men, Schultz frees Django and offers him a chance to work with him as a bounty hunter in order to find and kill The Brittle Brothers.
Django agrees on the condition that Schultz will help him find Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the love of Django’s life. Schultz digs up Broomhilda’s location and finds her to be under the ownership of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a ruthless plantation owner who operates the infamous Candieland, which is also run under the jurisdiction of Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), the world’s freest slave. Together, Django and Schultz must find a way to leave with Broomhilda in one piece, something that’s much easier said than done.
If ever a film could be accused of a director who seems to be phoning it in, Django Unchained would be the prime offender. After Tarantino’s masterpiece, Inglourious Basterds, this follow-up companion piece is weaker on almost every level. From the predictable dialogue to the sub-par camerawork, everything about Django seems rushed.
At two hours and forty-five minutes, the film is essentially an origin story that tracks Django’s progress from common slave to superhero. But within those 165 minutes is a minimal amount of character development. Early scenes depicting the bond between Schultz and Django are repetitive and aimless. They share stories, kill people, and move on. Might I remind you that this goes on for about an hour. Then, when Schultz and Django finish out a winter of murder, they seek the location of Django’s wife, Broomhilda, which brings us to Calvin Candie, the proprietor of Candieland, an infamous plantation that serves as the home to Candie and his clan.
Leonardo DiCaprio portrays Calvin Candie so flawlessly it’s almost a disservice to the character. Tarantino underwrites Candie so drastically that DiCaprio, at a certain point, starts to distract the viewer with how intriguing he is. From the implied incestual relationship he shares with his sister to his questionable sexuality, DiCaprio adds a layer to Calvin Candie that probably wasn’t intended when Tarantino wrote it.
In interviews, Tarantino has said that he didn’t enjoy writing Candie. In fact, it was the first villain he hasn’t enjoyed writing in his entire career. With that said, it makes sense that Tarantino would want to portray him as the psychopathic lunatic that he is, but DiCaprio, who is accustomed to his status as a leading man, seems to be on a different wavelength than Tarantino. He wants to steal the show even when he isn’t in it. He plays the role as he would a main character and, while a better focus on Candie would have rewarded his efforts, it tips the balance a little too far in his favor.
As for the rest of the cast, Jamie Foxx is excellent in his subtly affecting portrayal of new found freedom, while Christoph Waltz offers a lot less in his performance because his character is written so thinly. What you see is what you get with Dr. King Schultz and Waltz works best when he seems to be hiding something (see: Inglourious Basterds). Kerry Washington, who I’ve never really enjoyed as an actress, seems to be taking her role too seriously when surrounded by the cartoon-like Calvin Candie and the outgoing Dr. Schultz. Like DiCaprio, Washington seems to be working on a different wavelength than Tarantino and offers a performance that is better suited to a straight drama.
Since the major themes of Django Unchained depict slavery and Mandingo fighting, which was not a common practice during slavery and is actually a reference to the 1975 blaxploitation film Mandingo, one could expect brutality against slaves. And while brutality against slaves is depicted in certain scenes, Tarantino never really commits to any of these themes and instead includes them as just another aspect of the setting. While it’s understandable that Tarantino lives to entertain, Inglourious Basterds showed the ugly side of World War II and even had the power to humanize certain Nazi characters without ever compromising the film’s entertainment value.
For what seems like the first time in his career, Tarantino has written an entirely linear narrative that tracks a hero from beginning to end. Unlike Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill, and Inglourious Basterds before it, Django Unchained has a tendency to seem aimless. Tarantino exploits his biggest weakness with Django, his weakness stemming from the fact that he doesn’t work well under the constructs of a traditional narrative.
The passing of the great Sally Menke may also attribute to the film’s slack pacing, but certain sequences offer the suggestion that Django Unchained would have probably worked better as a mini-series. Amber Tamblyn shows up in two shots for no apparent reason, and a bandana-wearing Zoe Bell is given a couple of close-ups in what is sure to be an abandoned subplot. If a four, or even five, hour cut of Django Unchained emerges somewhere, I’ll be sure to watch it. But this half-baked, underdeveloped, mind-numbing piece of cinema isn’t what I’ve come to expect from Tarantino.