It is two years before the Civil War in the American South and an itinerant German dentist (Christoph Waltz) frees a slave, Django (Jamie Foxx). The dentist and the newly freed slave make an arrangement: together they will form a bounty-hunting team that brings in wanted men dead or alive. It's a "flesh for cash business," the dentist explains to his new partner, an ironic and slightly pointless statement when you consider that Django has spent his entire life in bondage. No matter, because Django proposes a more daunting task: the two men will find and rescue his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who had been captured by a cruel plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio). Easy-Peasy/Lemon-Squeezy, right? And so the two men set out on horseback to accomplish this very thing leaving a few laughs, more than a few uncomfortable moral quandaries and buckets of blood in their wake. As most of you know, the above is the set up for the film, Django Unchained, the latest opus from Quentin Tarentino, the man-child director who brought us Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown and Inglorious Bastards. What you may also know is that the film has already won the director a Golden Globe for Best Screenplay, has received numerous accolades from the critics and a ton of criticism for its possibly-wanton use of the N-word. It is also has a great, star-studded cast - Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz, Jamie Foxx, Samuel L. Jackson - ripe dialogue and easily one of the funniest scenes involving the Klu Klux Klan ever written. Here's what you don't know, though, I suspect: no horses were hurt in the film's making. Do you want to know how I know that? There is a statement to that effect at the end of this almost 3 hour-long (!) film and the reason I noticed it was because I had kept my eyes closed for most the last 20 minutes of it. When I finally gathered the courage to open them again, I saw that statement and laughed and laughed and laughed. Perhaps a disclaimer warning that our sensibilities and imaginations might also be in danger might have been better suited. But I'm getting ahead of myself....
Anyone who has ever sat through a Tarentino film would know only too well that what hefinds consistently exciting are people being murdered, people screaming in pain, people begging for mercy and in this,Django doesn’t disappoint. But the film is so self-indulgent that tension
eventually dissipates. There’s an entire 10-minute sequence (with the
Australian cowboys) that could’ve been omitted, or at least rewritten that adds so little that you begin to suspect that it only made the final cut
because it stars QT himself, making a lamentable attempt at an Aussie
accent. The first half is picaresque and essentially irrelevant, though
things do improve once we get to the plantation (‘Candyland’) only to
degenerate again in the mindless final bloodbath. Don't get me wrong: the film isn't all bad. The main asset here are the performances. Leo plays has Candie, a bored libertine who lives for “a good bit of fun” with a decadent gleam
in his eye. Samuel L. Jackson is initially clownish and finally chilling as
his grotesque, Uncle Tom-ish retainer and I promise you, you won't look at him the same way again. Waltz has the juiciest role, though, (he
won a Golden Globe last week) from a story-moving point of view. He embodies the hypocrisy, or just complexity, of a man whose heart bleeds for the
“poor slaves” yet who also has no compunction killing people labelled
‘bad’ by the system (even if they’ve turned over a new leaf. His dentist would make
for a great character study – I also expected him to be called on the
fact that he offers Django a third (not half) of the bounty money,
making him a sidekick as opposed to an equal partner – but in fact
Tarantino is unwilling, or unable, to accommodate such moral shadings.
He points out the contradiction, but does nothing more with it. When Inglourious Basterds re-wrote history
by having Hitler shot in a movie theatre – just like that! – it made an
exhilarating point about cinema’s ability to improve on real life. But
Django takes a trickier subject and offers less, not more. An attempt is made to make a complex moral issue that been tackled a million times by filmmakers more engaging but, ultimately, the drama lacks richness. This is a
film made in broad stokes in which you are either black or white or bathed in blood.