Django Unchained is yet another two and a half hour Hollywood film with slavery as its backdrop from another white American director. While Lincoln was primarily about democracy and the sixteenth president, Django Unchained has even less to do with slavery and is more of a throwback to the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s and 1970s.
Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave, who is freed by Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist/bounty hunter. They form an alliance since Django can point out some people that Schultz is looking for and, in return, Schultz can help Django get his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) back. Broomhilda was sold into slavery and is under the thumb of brutal plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
It is difficult to review a Tarantino film without addressing his career so far, something that Tarantino himself openly invites with all his talk of a legacy. The fact is that Tarantino hasn’t made a good film since 1997, with all of his films since ranging from unlikeable self-indulgences to potentially interesting films that are both badly written and just too long. The two Kill Bill films and Death Proof fall in the latter category and his apparent comeback Inglourious Basterds suffered from being over-written and over-long. Django Unchained falls into both oddly enough, being a film that is too childish to say anything interesting about its supposed subject, slavery, and is also much, much too long.
Tarantino has been making westerns since Kill Bill: Volume 2, so his first straight western feels tired. But, primarily, the problem is the length. Tarantino wishes to emulate a kind of exploitation cinema in which a running time over ninety minutes would have been too much and yet he makes a film tribute that is almost twice as long. Whether its ego or the inability to stop once the fan boy enthusiasm kicks in, there is a decent eighty-minute film somewhere in Django’s bulk just waiting for the judicial use of a pair of scissors. However, even this is debatable as Tarantino has made an extremely childish film, one that would be best aimed at twelve-year olds where it not for the repetitive and overused violence. Tarantino himself has claimed that the film addresses slavery, but it doesn’t. It uses slavery as the historical background for yet another revenge plot, but the film has nothing to say about the subject. Worse still, the slaves barely get a look in – if they aren’t silent, they are monosyllabic. And Django is not much of a hero, or indeed a character, his arc moving simply from victim to victimiser. Schultz, Candie and Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), a not-so radical revision of the Uncle Tom stereotype, are all more interesting characters. In fact, all of the film’s best scenes are Christoph Waltz’, particularly a sequence late in the film involving a handshake in which Dr Schultz decides that he cannot ignore the evil he has seen any longer, an irritating suggestion of what the film might have been if Tarantino had curbed all his inane stylistics.
Django Unchained is full of violent sequences depicting the horrors of slavery such as hot boxes, unleashed dogs and whippings. Most grotesque is a sequence involving Mandingo fighting, in the film a death match between two large weapon-less slaves. However, it is unclear whether Tarantino is using these atrocities to make a point about America’s bloody past or if he is merely raising the stakes in his revenge narrative and delighting in violent spectacle as usual. Tarantino has never been one to make a point and his post-1997 films have rarely been adult or political, but his fascination with historical violence makes one slightly uneasy. It is strange that Inglourious Basterds rightfully avoided addressing the Holocaust and yet Django Unchained feels that it can say something about slavery. Indeed, it is telling that as soon as the horrible spectacle of Mandingo fighting is over, Tarantino opts straight away for a cringingly bad Franco Nero (Nero played Django in the 1966 original film) cameo, returning to what really interests him.
Django Unchained is full of longueurs, which can often be spotted a mile away. When Schultz mentions the legend “Die Nibelungen” or when DiCaprio pulls a skull out of a box, we know that a long explanatory monologue will follow. Tarantino remains a talented writer-director and there are many moments where Tarantino knows exactly what he is doing, but these moments are few and far between. One of the problems with the film is that certain things are over-egged (two climactic shoot-outs) while other, more complex moments are under-developed (there is a suggestion of a dark side to Django but nothing is made of it).
Django Unchained is yet another frustratingly bland film from Quentin Tarantino and another wasted opportunity to be as smart and complex of this filmmaker can be – Reservoir Dogs remains his most interesting, most challenging and shortest film. Though not entirely unrewarding since, as with Inglourious Basterds, there are a few moments of interest, though much less here, Django Unchained is too long, too flippant and too childish. Rated 18, it is way beyond the demographic that would appreciate it most. Yet, since it was a hit, expect Tarantino’s next film to be exactly the same, if not worse.