Being so naturally squeamish about gore that I used to leave the room when my mother pulled the giblets out of a chicken, I’ve avoided the oeuvre of bad-boy director Quentin Tarantino up until now, but I finally succumbed to the buzz around Django Unchained. It comes as a surprise to me that Tarantino never actually attended film school, because I emerged from his latest opus with a sense that this is a Cinema Studies professor’s nightmare: the movie that one’s most talented-but-smartalecky student would make if money were no object.
Make no mistake about it: Tarantino has brilliance, and knows the technical ropes of his profession as well as the tropes of various cinema genres (especially the cheesiest ones) inside-out. The problem is that he doesn’t seem to know when to tell himself no. Subtlety and nuance are not in his vocabulary. And I’m not even talking about the multiple bloodbaths that he apparently regards as obligatory in his films; they’re so Pythonesque in their Grand Guignol excess that you just have to laugh, rather than feel ill. It’s that everything in Django Unchained is over-the-top.
The opening scene, in which the slow progress of a chain gang of slaves through an improbably harsh landscape is accompanied by a hearty song that’s clearly meant to evoke the goofily earnest themes of ‘50s and ‘60s TV Westerns, sets up our expectations for what’s to follow, and Tarantino never disappoints: The blocking, the framing, the lighting, the sets, the props, the costumes, the makeup, the soundtrack and most especially the dialogue – everything is just too much of a muchness. It’s like a fleshed-out cartoon on a very big budget. And maybe that’s just what his many fans want.
An avowed devotee of spaghetti Westerns and blaxploitation films, Tarantino has characterized Django Unchained as a “Southern.” The story is a revenge fantasy about slavery, but it’s essentially an overblown Western. The hero, Django (Jamie Foxx), is a slave freed by a German dentist-turned-bounty-hunter (Christoph Waltz) who needs his assistance in identifying three of his former overseers. And in the course of a couple of seasons under Dr. Schultz’s tutelage, Django somehow becomes a marksman who never misses and an impostor who never loses his sangfroid. Instant larger-than-life hero; just add water and shake.
Foxx carries it off well, staring down the camera in classic gunslinger fashion, but Waltz is more fun – although his part is so overwritten that it took me a while to accept my fate and try to enjoy his acting. Dr. Schultz’s florid verbal style is deliberate; we’re supposed to laugh as the dumb rednecks scratch their heads over his fancypants vocabulary and overcivilized manners. While entirely capable of cold-blooded assassination, the character turns out to be the most honorable and likable in the whole movie – a great departure from Waltz’s sadistic Nazi role in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds – and one eventually gets into the rhythm of his affected speeches.
Other major characters are Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the owner of the plantation from which the bounty-hunting duo scheme to free Django’s wife (Kerry Washington), and Stephen, the head of Candie’s household staff (Samuel L. Jackson). Both DiCaprio and Jackson chew the scenery with zest in these cardboard roles: Candie is your standard ruthless Massa with unctuous Southern manners and Stephen the Uncle Tom to beat all Uncle Toms.
The rest of the large cast consists of the exaggeratedly scruffy hayseeds that this director seems to love; there’s barely a full set of teeth to be counted among them. And lots of familiar acting names – some having played in similar genre films or TV shows in decades past – drop in for cameos, including Don Johnson, Bruce Dern, Michael Parks, Franco Nero, Tom Wopat, Robert Carradine and Jonah Hill (not to mention Russ Tamblyn and his daughter Amber as Son of a Gunfighter and Daughter of Son of a Gunfighter). As in past efforts, Tarantino’s script is peppered with pithy, deadpan one-liners that his fans are presumably intended to quote for decades to come: the movie clichés of tomorrow, built on the ruins of the movie clichés of yesteryear.
For a yarn this thin, Django Unchained is also excessive in length, clocking in at an unconscionable two and three-quarters hours. Somehow this shaggy-dog tale manages to stay entertaining most of the time, even when a scene like the one in which the members of a proto-Klan posse whine about the poorly cut eyeholes in their feedbag masks goes on and on. It’s most often a silly mess precisely executed; but Tarantino knows how to manipulate the viewer with his trademark mix of opulent spectacle, scroungy characters and just-plain-weird humor, and it’s not surprising that the movie is proving popular, especially with younger adult audiences.
Some will complain that slavery is no laughing matter – Spike Lee for one has publicly opted out of seeing Django – but if anyone can get away with giving such a touchy subject such irreverent treatment, it’s probably Quentin Tarantino. Pulp masterpiece, guilty pleasure or tasteless waste of time? Your call, Dear Reader.