Django Unchained is Tarantino at his most grisly, brutal, but also straightforward, a film made for instant satisfaction but little resonance. Tarantino’s pulp slavery-era Western is certainly in line with QT’s current fetish for grindhouse-worthy cult-cinema. While Django Unchained is more Inglourious Basterds than Death Proof, there’s a strange feeling of emptiness not present in both Kill Bill and Basterds. That said, I don’t think three hours have ever gone by faster for me in the cinema.
Django Unchained (2012) dir. Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo Di Caprio, Samuel L. Jackson
By Alan Bacchus
The film runs two hours and forty-five minutes and yet Tarantino wastes little time setting up the scenario and getting his hero on his journey. A German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Waltz) frees Django (Foxx) and recently traded slave into the hands of a pair of nefarious slavers. Django get roped into helping Schultz search out his other intended victims, resulting in a some nice Leone-style standoffs and cathartic white-man beatings and torture.
Di Caprio enters the film as the sadistic landowner Calvin Candle who owns Django’s long lost wife. Posing as traders looking to buy a Mandingo slave (a slave who fights other slaves for gladiatorial sport), the pair attempt to bamboozle Candle into selling Django’s prize, the German-speaking Broomhilda.
Tarantino crafts the film in his usual compartmentalized way. Distinct and often lengthy sequences and set pieces form the structure. Here the Di Caprio scenes take up most of the second act, a marvelous example of sustained tension, which reminds us of the bar scene in Inglourious Basterds, except longer and more vicious.
Downtime in longer journey films is a necessity, and Tarantino consistently writes his best stuff in the quietest moments. In particular, the fireside conversation between Schultz and Django where Django reveals his marriage to Broomhilda. The German connection to the famous name allows Waltz to tell the German fable Siegfriend and his imprisoned wife Broomhilda, which is revealed to be the key literary metaphor in the film.
The dialogue and performance is wonderful and the metaphor is welcomed, but also on-the-nose and sadly QT fails to capitalize on our interest in the moment the way he did in the similar fireside conversation between David Carradine in Uma Thurman in Kill Bill Vol 2. That scene, of course, set up the death move which ultimately does Bill in. Unfortunately Django is missing this kind of payoff. Periodic flashback which include brief cameos from the likes of Bruce Dern also fail to payoff.
This in fact exemplifies the disappointment with the film. While riveting in the moment, it’s without the richness of Tarantino’s other more layered films. There’s a feeling of missed opportunities with the minor characters. In particular the slaves Django frees along with the way and the introduction to most audiences of the brutal Mandingo sport Candle exploits. Thus there are a number of hanging threads, we can’t help but think might have been fleshed out in a longer version of the film.
Part of this is the narrative conventionality he chooses. Tarantino opts for a strictly linear approach, and never straying from the point of view of Django and Schultz. In Basterds, Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction, his fractured timelines and ensemble characterization allowed him to indulge in the smaller characters and deepen the backstories of his mains. In Django there’s little beneath the surface, little to reveal over the course of the film. By the end everything is on the level and worn on the characters’ chests, it becomes purely an action film.
That said, once the bullets starts flying it’s a magnificently crafted set piece worthy of QT’s influences in this regard, Sam Peckinpah, Walter Hill and John Woo. Blood squids are packed with extra milky red goo and explode with extra pop and explosive power. There’s a third act after this massive gunfight which seems superfluous, and without the added emotional and visceral gravitas expected. We never get it, but it’s replaced by one last cathartic explosion of violence on the collective complicit participants in the slavery trade, thus packing the ending with a punch and smile.