Django Unchained, The Weinstein Company, 2012, R
Director Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Django Unchained, an Antebellum South–Spaghetti Western, is no history lesson. It’s a flashy, crude, 165-minute exercise in historical fantasy that, despite its deficiencies in pace and plot, makes for a bloody good time. Like his Inglourious Basterds (2009), Django more than happily bends history for the sake of entertainment purposes, which is just fine, as it is so thoroughly entertaining.
A third of the way through the film our heroes, Django (Jamie Foxx) and Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), come in conflict with a bumbling group of Ku Klux Klan members. The history books explain that the Klan showed up post–Civil War, while the action here unfolds entirely in 1858. But by the time the film’s absurdly hilarious KKK scene takes place, in which a number of raid-minded Klansmen quibble about their subpar white hoods with misshapen eyeholes, the viewer realizes that these not-so-tall-in-the-saddle individuals are not necessarily planted in the Old West but, like characters appearing in Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill and Basterds (among others), in the very mad and fun “Tarantino World.”
And throughout Django’s first act, which takes place “somewhere in Texas,” it is assuredly mad and fun. A well-spoken bounty hunter and German immigrant, Dr. Shultz, purchases a slave named Django to help him catch and kill the Brittle brothers for reward. Django, presumably, is one of the few people who knows what the brothers look like, and in exchange for his help, Shultz will give him his freedom. But as Shultz himself points out, Django is a “natural” at the bounty-hunting business, and the duo stay on together throughout the winter. It appears the film will turn into something resembling a buddy cop flick (in this case buddy bounty hunters), and part of me wished it had.
But a montage and a title card later, our duo is suddenly off to take care of a matter more serious and personal (at least to the title character)—going to Mississippi to free Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). She’s a “pleasure slave” at Candyland, the plantation owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a Southerner who is a Francophile but can’t speak French, who has his alcohol served in coconuts, and who is a little too close to sister Lara Lee (Laura Cayouette). Candie is deliciously evil, and DiCaprio dives headfirst into his insanity, delivering probably the most off-the-wall performance of his career. Candie also has a penchant for the fictional “Mandingo fighting,” gladiatorial death matches between slaves. It is by posing as rich Mandingo-buyers that Schultz and Django plan to infiltrate Candyland and save Broomhilda.
Tarantino’s knack for long, dialogue-heavy, sometimes tense, sometimes hilarious, sometimes both at once scenes defines his authorial style, and such scenes prove the highlights of Django. The best usually involve either Samuel L. Jackson’s conniving and vulgar Stephen (Candie’s right-hand slave) or the long-winded, Oscar-winning Waltz. But this formula wears thin as the film ventures into its third hour, during which Tarantino subjects us to not one but two cartoonish gunfights, with blood spurting out like shaken Big Red soda, and to an overly long exchange with Australian (why Australian?) slave traders in the desert. Tarantino is guilty of overwriting in places, and as the film winds down, so may its audience, even amid all the violence.
If that’s what keeps Django Unchained from being a great movie, it still remains a very good one—good enough to receive a best-picture Oscar nomination. Both duos of the film—Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx (the good), and DiCaprio and Jackson (the bad and ugly rolled into one)—work splendidly against one another. As a result the audience is rewarded with some of the most entertaining scenes of the year, such as the climactic dinner at Candyland or the Brittle brothers’ bounty at the plantation of Big Daddy (Don Johnson). Yet one hesitates to place Django at the summit of Tarantino World pictures, because even though Django ultimately proves himself worthy of the handle “the fastest gun in the South,” it just takes him a little too long to get there.