DJANGO UNCHAINED Review: The Good, the Bad, and the Bloated
(I began writing this review after I saw Django Unchained in the theater. Life got in the way and I was never able to complete it. I have since watched the film again at home, so this review is based on two viewings that occurred about two months apart.)
I used to work at a video store.
In the early days of home video, many of the folks most knowledgeable about movies – other than Hollywood types, paid film critics, and people who were old enough to have seen many classics upon original theatrical release – could be found working in video stores. Because the VHS era was also the pre-Internet area (and the pre-mammoth bookseller era), resources to determine minute details and endless trivia were limited. It was only through countless watches (and re-watches) of films, plus the endless discussions about them (again with the reminder that things like Twitter didn’t exist back then, either), that video store clerks became the walking encyclopedia on cinema.
Then along came the Patron Saint of Movie Geeks: Quentin Tarantino.
Tarantino was the little-leaguer we played with who made it to The Show – a video store clerk who found great success in Hollywood: first with his writing/directing effort Reservoir Dogs (1992), followed by his screenplay for 1993’s True Romance. Then Tarantino topped them both with 1994’s Pulp Fiction, for which he won his first Oscar (Best Original Screenplay, shared with Roger Avary). In the nearly-20 years since that film, Tarantino’s body of work has grown, and impressively so. Unfortunately, as goes the body, so goes the head, and just as Tarantino’s body of work has grown large, so too has his head, if not exponentially so.
Django Unchained is fairly simple, as stories go. A Lincoln-era bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) seeks help from a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx). Schultz, in the guise of a traveling dentist, is looking for the Brittle brothers, but he does not know what they look like. Enter Django, who does. After purchasing Django from his current owners, Schultz makes the slave a deal: help find (and collect the bounty on) the Brittle brothers, and Schultz will not only set Django free, he’ll throw in $75 in pocket money and send him along on a horse he can keep.
Django takes up Schultz on the offer, hoping to use the money to buy freedom for his wife, Broomhilda von Schaft (Kerry Washington). After their encounter with the Brittles, they continue their partnership in bounty hunting, where Schultz collects and shares rewards with Django, all the while teaching the slave everything he needs to know about bounty hunting. Over the course of that winter, they also confirm that Broomhilda is the property of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a vicious and greedy plantation owner with a penchant for Mandingo fights. Schultz concocts a plan to rescue Broomhilda but, as is usually the case with plans in movies, this one doesn’t go that smoothly.
When asked who I thought would win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, I immediately said Christoph Waltz for Django Unchained because, while one of the other actors might be better (I don’t think any are, but I’m willing to entertain the notion), if those other roles had been portrayed by other actors, those other films wouldn’t have suffered the way this film would have suffered without Waltz. The fact that it was a supporting role seems to me more about billing than performance. Foxx is the titular star, Waltz supports him. Sure, DiCaprio is third-billed, but c’mon – he’s Leo. He’s a star. But really, Waltz’s role is much more a lead than either Foxx’s or DiCaprio’s. (Waltz went on to win that Oscar, by the way … his second, both of which were for Tarantino films).
While Waltz is wonderful (as is DiCaprio, and more so on second viewing), Foxx is a non-starter. I’ve always thought him to be overrated as an actor, and my opinion hasn’t changed as a result of this. As Django the Slave, he is mediocre. As Django the Business Partner (a part of Schultz’s plan to rescue Django’s betrothed), he is actually pretty good. The problem is that Django the Slave is supposed to be playing the part of Django the Partner, and I never get that from Foxx. He is always either one or the other – he is never one playing the other. As his wife, Kerry Washington hits her marks and says her lines; she does nothing wrong, but she is nothing more than a living, breathing McGuffin.
That leaves Samuel L. Jackson, and to be honest, I might have to watch this thing a third time and only watch him. Normally, I don’t care what the general consensus is when it comes to these sorts of things; if I believe what I believe, I’ll stand by that, popularity be damned. But because the reviews on Jackson have been so good, and because I do not like Jackson even a little bit (to me, he plays the same character in every movie), I’m concerned that my negative bias is clouding my judgment … and I’m willing to admit that. Hey, if Leo was better the second time around, maybe Jackson will be better by the third time.
As for Tarantino, his eye for detail is remarkable. Whether in carefully selected shots that pay homage to Hollywood’s great directors, or in tight closeups of action that normally happens just out of frame, or with yet another sublime soundtrack, or in his inspired selection of actors for bit parts and smaller roles (the list is simply too long to print here, but they include James Remar, Tom Wopat, M.C. Gainey, Bruce Dern, and my favorite, Don Johnson), Tarantino manages to get so many little things right. There’s even a quick reference to a man with the last name of Koons, who, if you are willing to accept the connection (and I am, because Tarntino has that kind of commitment to, and command of, his own universe), is an ancestor of the Christopher Walken character – Captain Koons – from Pulp Fiction.
There is so much good here. And yet.
I don’t know how fine the line is between greatness and overindulgence, but it matters not; Tarantino doesn’t occasionally brush that line with his toes, or walk it like some tightrope, or even hop over for a bit and then hop back. No, Tarantino crosses the line into overindulgence on a Harley and never looks back, instead flipping the bird to the line and laughing obnoxiously all the way into the abyss.
On the whole, the script is superb, and worthy of the Oscar it won. The problem is Tarantino’s use of the N-word – or should I say overuse of the N-word – but not how you might think. The excessive use of the word never strikes me as offensive, but instead lazy. I don’t know enough about the Civil War era to know the prevalence of that word in everyday language, but as far as its use in this film, I just get tired of hearing it. And again, it isn’t an issue of offense. According to the Internet, the word is used 110 times in the film. It feels like more, but even if that number is correct, it’s still far too many times. If the word “ponies” had been used 110 times, I would have the same criticism. Someone with Tarantino’s writing skills can do better than using one word 110 times.
More overindulgence comes in a scene featuring a group of Klansmen, led by Johnson; the men decide to go after Schultz and Django. Tarantino turns the whole thing into a joke about the challenges of seeing through poorly-cut eyeholes in the white sacks on their heads. The scene even features a cameo by Jonah Hill who, while recently nominated for a Best Supporting Actor role for the drama Moneyball, is an actor whose name is synonymous with comedy (be it funny or failed). The whole scene smacks of, “Dude! You know what would be hysterical?! What if …?”
And then there’s the director’s obsession with appearing in front of the camera. Late in the film, Tarantino shows up in a bit part (but not too bit … he has lines). His acting is dreadful, and the flow of the film is broken by that “Oh look! It’s Tarantino!” moment. For a director who is reverent of the great directors who have come before him, Tarantino needs to take a page from Hitchcock’s book; if he MUST appear onscreen, make it quick and don’t say a word.
But Tarantino’s greatest overindulgence is the bloated and wholly unnecessary third act, which is nothing more than an exercise in ratcheting up the body count and attempting to set a record for most squibs popped in a film, all because it feels like Tarantino doesn’t know how to end the thing. I was reminded of the 1996 Robert Rodriguez film From Dusk Till Dawn (you can read my Cinema Sentries review here), which was written by Tarantino (and oh yeah, starred him, too). The first two acts of that film were solid, and then it turned into … a violence and blood fest. Sound familiar? Violence doesn’t bother me, but just like my feelings about Tarantino’s use of the N-word, as I viewer of excessive violence – violence for the sake of violence – I reach a point where I ask, “To what end?” It leaves a funny taste by the time end credits roll.
Overall, Tarantino has delivered a very good film, but the next time he sees himself onscreen, he’ll see the person responsible for preventing Django Unchained from becoming his greatest film yet.