After a lifetime of slavery, Django (Jamie Foxx) has just been freed by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German dentist turned Wild West bounty hunter. Planning to use Django to help identify three slavers with warrants on their heads, Schultz ponders that maybe he can “make this slavery malarkey work to my benefit”. Somewhere in the darkest recesses of Quentin Tarantino’s brain, the Hollywood outlaw appears to have been thinking much the same thing.
Ostensibly an anti-slavery rebuttal to Inglourious Basterds’ raucous Jewish revenge fable, Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a fusion of blaxploitation and spaghetti western, never manages to be either with much success. Sure, there’s plenty of sampling of Ennio Morricone and hints of African American badassery, but the film is so tepidly formulaic, watch-glancingly drawn-out and, criminally for a Tarantino film, eye-raisingly predictable, that it feels more like the film of a Tarantino impersonator than of the mastermind of Pulp Fiction himself.
Starting strong with richly shot desert landscapes punctuated by a marching chain gang of slaves and a witty introduction to Schultz as he frees Django and grants the other slaves a bloody vengeance on their owners, Django Unchained never lets its steam build. Waltz, the multilinguist character actor prone to delightful moments of wide-eyed madness, brings life to the underwritten Schultz. Often all he has to do is deliver some flowery English with an accent to shoot for cheap laughs – which he does with verbal marksmanship – but the dialogue is beneath him, which is all the more startling given the same writer/director gave him Hans Landa to run amuck with only a few years back. Waltz should be complimented furthermore for holding so much of the film up on his shoulders as he stars opposite Foxx, a man-shaped charisma-vaccuum whose constantly confused face and hopelessly delivered questions evoke less the heroes of the spaghetti westerns or Shaft, and more Jake Lloyd in The Phantom Menace.
Once Django has helped dispatch his former captors, he is trained by Schultz to be a bounty hunter as well, and the not-utterly-unlikely duo go on the hunt for more badguys. This is one of the film’s least disagreeable sequences, with truly impressive location shoots on wide brown hills and in snowy valleys, featuring some mildly thrilling shoot-outs.
Then everything goes pear-shaped. Schultz agrees out of the goodness of his barely defined heart to help Django rescue his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), educated by a German family and now sold to vile plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Disguising themselves as “Mandingo trainers” (referencing another blaxploitation gem, Mandingo), who buy muscle-bound slaves to pit against each other in fights to the death, Schultz and Django blag their way into Candieland, Candie’s ironically titled homestead. The plan seems to be getting along without a hitch, until Candie’s purse-lipped house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), a militantly pro-white Uncle Tom, begins to suspect a ruse, spelling zip-a-dee-danger for our heroes.
Dragging its heels at a merciless 165 minutes, Django Unchained relentlessly fails to cut to the chase, despite having only a light sprinkling of story. It does however look great, with bright colours cleverly contrasting the inherent nastiness of the era, and superb production design that never holds back on the excesses and inhumanity of slave-mistreatment. Flashbacks are amusingly shot in grainy, colour-bled Grindhouse style. The soundtrack makes some fine selections and new compositions team Morricone with contemporary rap. For these things Tarantino and his team can be applauded.
But really Django Unchained never feels as tight as a Tarantino film should. One scene in which a moronic masked lynch mob, a Special KKK if you will, surrounds the dynamite duo, spells it all out. A sketch begins in which the vigilantes complain that the eyeholes in their bag-hoods are in the wrong places; it extends to an eye-rolling five minutes. Once upon a time the scene would at best have been a lesser quality Gary Larson cartoon, but at least then it would have been just one frame, not 5x60x24. Jonah Hill cameos for no reason. Worse still, the scene is preceded by Schultz laying out explosives to greet the mob – disembowelling the scene of tension as its wit runs thin. This from the director of the opening scene of Inglourious Basterds!
When the film threatens to be clever, it shoots itself in the foot. Schultz draws parallels between Django’s quest for Broomhilda and the German hero Siegfried’s seemingly similar quest in the epic poem Nibelungenlied, but it is only paying lip-service and the comparison never properly pays off. Tarantino has always been so competent with his literary and movie references, but here he seems to be getting off on reading a Wikipedia entry.
The Siegfried comparison drags up one of Django’s biggest problems. While some have gone after the film for its overuse of the N-word, something which feels mostly in keeping with the time, the story is inherently racist in that this tale of a black man taking revenge is only possible because a much smarter and more talented white man is willing to help him. Tarantino, who previously saw Jews pull off not one but two successful assassinations against their great enemy, here has a simple black man have his hand held while a brilliant white man does all the hard work. It’s as if Tarantino is saying a black hero isn’t really believable – and it’s certain that once Django goes out on his own the film takes on a far more cartoonish air. The less said about the fact that the film features a black slave liberated by a white “Dr. King”, the better.
Kerry Washington is hardly used at all as Broomhilda, bringing to an end Tarantino’s near-20-year run as the best director of strong female characters in American cinema – Joss Whedon will be along to pick up the sash and crown shortly. DiCaprio should be lauded for going against type as the villainous Candie, but his boyish gurning does not make for a very strong performance of a weak character, who feels less like a Tarantino villain than like Peter Ustinov’s Prince John in the Disney Robin Hood. A pox on the phony king of the world. Samuel L. Jackson is the only actor keeping any kind of pace with Waltz, giving Stephen plenty of vitriol and uppity outrage, while milking the black-hating black man discrepancy for all it’s worth. However, the character feels like a milder version of the grotesque, black-despising Uncle Ruckus from the animated comedy series The Boondocks, a show Jackson is no doubt familiar with, given that he voices one of its characters. That character, for the record, is a white guy who likes to talk street, a far greater racial commentary than anything Django Unchained has managed.
As if the tension-free, extended dinner scene, with its repetitive dialogue and phrenology demonstration (we get it, slavery and Candie are evil and stupid), aren’t enough, Tarantino concludes with his greatest filmmaking sin ever. Just as the final action sequence – an entertaining, splatter-gored shoot-out that oddly borrows Austin Power’s repeatedly injured henchman gag – reaches its crescendo, Tarantino halts the action for 20 minutes of scrotum and director cameo, before returning to exactly the point where we left off. This outrageous act of self-indulgence is the director at his very worst. It does seem fitting that his appearance as an Australian slaver follows so quickly the inverted genitalia, given this dramatic cavity is Tarantino’s final descent into artistic auto-fellatio.
Whatever fun there is to be had in Django Unchained is undermined utterly by the excessive whims of its power-mad auteur. Condescending to black audiences, humourless and regularly just plain boring, Django Unchained is a white stain on the blouse of film history. Too stupid to be homage, too self-important to be parody, it is hopefully the worst film Tarantino will ever direct.