Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio
You may like this if you liked: Django (Sergio Corbucci, 1966), Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Sam Peckinpah, 1974), Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, 1974) – trust me on that one!
Unsure what the targets of his next job exactly look like, German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Waltz) buys the freedom of a slave by the name of Django (Foxx), who knows the exact identity of these targets and can help Schultz track them down. The two form an unlikely friendship and Schultz makes Django his deputy bounty hunter. Django agrees to do this for the following winter, but afterwards, now a free man vows to find his wife Broomhilda Von Shaft (Kerry Washington) who is a fellow slave separated from his just after their wedding day. After winter is over Schultz feels compelled to help Django and vows to do so. However, Broomhilda is owned by ruthless plantation owner Calvin Candie (DiCaprio) and to get her back will require intelligent negotiation and not just quick gun slinging.
I would love to get inside good ol’ Quentin’s head and know exactly what his intentions were when making this thing as that would make it a damn sight easier to review the bugger. For me Django Unchained is potentially many things but fails to be specifically anything, making it almost an enigma. However I prefer to refrain from using that word as that sounds too much like a compliment.
Is it a serious depiction of the age of slavery in America? Is it a buddy comedy? Is it a spoof? Is it a homage to westerns of a bygone era of cinema? Is it just an orgy of over the top violence?
Well, there is potential for Django Unchained to be any of these things. However, all that it feels like is Mr. Self Indulgent being even more self indulgent than ever with no actual idea of what he is trying to specifically make.
I fail to see how it is possible for this to be a serious document of a moment in history. I would be out of my depth commenting on this too much, but when there are so many moments of outrageously cheesy and over the top dialogue, as well as some outrageously hammy performances (DiCaprio and Sam Jackson in particular) and moments which are intended to be farcical and humorous this cannot simply be possible. There have also been complaints about the language used throughout the narrative, but I am not going to dwell on this as I think it is pretty obvious that this is not ever meant in a derogatory or insulting way. Anyone who knows me will know I have plenty of bad things to say about Tarantino, but I firmly believe the language used is solely there to represent the language used of the era it is set.
However, to say Django Unchained is not like Blazing Saddles is not entirely true. There is far too much farcical humour here that is genuinely funny, but detracts from this ever being a serious film. It is the comedy and Tarantino’s eye for snappy and witty dialogue that is Django Unchained’s saving grace. The first third is an absolute blast; it is tremendous fun and works perfectly as a buddy comedy that never takes itself too seriously. Waltz is on top form and a joy to watch whenever he is on screen, Foxx is however very forgettable in what is supposed to be the title role. It is the charismatic and extremely likeable character of Schultz that not only seems to drive the narrative forward but makes Django Unchained effortlessly watchable and tremendous fun.
However, when the two protagonists go to retrieve from Von Hilda from Candie in the final two hours (!), this is when Django Unchained takes a serious nosedive and becomes almost knotted up in its own self awareness and indulgence. As with most Tarantino films Django Unchained contains many obvious moments of ‘inspiration’ from films and genres of the past. There is of course nothing wrong with this, but Quentin just seems to be like Peckinpah, then Sergio Leone, then John Ford. These are all great film makers of this genre, but here this just leads to a frustratingly uneven tone to the narrative which does actually get quite boring at times. Quentin is obviously a man full of ideas, but he needs to develop some kind of filter to know to leave the bad ones out of his films. There is still an amateurish sense of a man that knows a lot about films, but nothing about making films. I know a lot has been said about the running time, and I am afraid I will have to say I am in agreement as Django Unchained is at least 45 minutes too long. There are so many moments, both of action and dialogue that add nothing and just make Django Unchained an effort to watch.
In the final third when the (occasional) action happens and the whole theme of ‘vengeance’ takes over this is once again all done with a lot of filler that detracts from the potential guilty pleasure fun that could be had by the ridiculously over the top violence. The whole experience feels very frustrating in that when things are going to kick off, they infuriatingly do not. There are also some very lazy plotting devices to keep things ticking over: The plot device that Schultz is German and Von Hilda was raised by Germans feels a little too contrived and almost Dickensian in terms of its neatness. This would work if the film was constantly tongue in cheek, but due to the running time and self indulgent tone, it cannot help but feel a little lazy.
In my opinion, the fact is the protagonist and actual story are too weak for this to ever work as a serious character driven vengeance thriller, especially one that is 165 minutes. Also, two minor quibbles: A director cameo involving an embarrassing Australian accent and occasionally using 21st century rap music were very bad ideas Quentin!
In summary, (yes, finally) with all the comedy, over the top performances, even more over the top violence and a (much) shorter running time, Django Unchained would work perfectly as a not to serious fun period romp that even gets away with a little self indulgence. It is certainly worth a watch with some genuinely great moments, but prepare to be frustrated by an uneven, inconsistent self indulgent narrative mess.