Friday, July 10, 2015

Django Unchained

Django Unchained (2012) is Quentin Tarantino's Spaghetti Western, set in the Antebellum South, and centered on a freed slave as he searches for his wife. But unlike the gritty work of a Sergio Leone, whose Westerns were practically cinematic operas, Tarantino's film is much more polished, ironic work and at times almost a dark comedy. It's also overlong, repetitious, and filled with some of Tarantino's more indulgent tendencies.

Three things happen in the opening moments of the film that alerted me that this would not be one of Tarantino's finer pictures. A subtitle tells us the year is 1858, which the film tells us is two years before the Civil War started; the Civil War didn't begin until 1861, so we're still three years out. (although this inaccuracy is benign compared to the suggestion that Hitler was blown away in a French movie theater by Eli Roth). Soon after, two slave traders moving a group of slaves, among them Django (Jamie Fox), halt when a mysterious wagon approaches.

"Who's that stumblin' around in the dark? State your business or prepare to get winged," says one of the traders. I winced when I heard that line; it just sounded so phony. It would have been more to the point to just have him say, "Who goes there?" but I guess that's not quirky enough for Tarantino, so he overwrote a line that does nothing but draw attention to itself.

The third sign comes at the end of this scene, after the slaves are freed by the man driving the approaching wagon, Dr. King Schultz (Cristoph Waltz), a German dentist and bounty hunter. He's killed one of the traders and left the other trapped underneath a dead horse, helpless. He tells the slaves their options and leaves with one of them, Django (Jamie Fox). Rather than ending the scene there, Tarantino shows the slaves graphically murdering the trapped the man. Since we could already figure out they were going to do that without it being shown, it plays as unnecessary and gratuitous. I'm not trying to preach a moral high ground, but in a bloated movie, fat needs to be trimmed.

On with the plot. Schultz needs Django because he has a warrant for the Brittle brothers, and Django knows what they look like. If Django will help him identify his targets, Schultz will free him. Eventually, Django joins the bounty hunter's life, and with Schultz's help, he searches for his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who was purchased by plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonard DiCaprio).

The Spaghetti Westerns from such directors as Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci were gritty, violent, rough movies, huge departures from most American ones starring the likes of John Wayne. They were raw, the characters didn't look like actors playing a role but real people who lived in a harsh environment, both physically and morally. The desert was grim and dirty, the roads were muddy, and flies crawled over everything. The line between good and bad wasn't always so clearly defined. Sure, the technical details - i.e. the dubbing of non-English-speaking performers - wasn't always so hot, but these movies conveyed a rugged reality.

By contrast, Django Unchained is just too clean, too polished, and too gimmicky. Sure, it's just as violent and definitely bloodier, but the violence is more along the lines of a splatter horror movie, not realistic and more there for show than to create any kind of impact. Tarantino uses the classic theme from the original Django (and in fact, original star Franco Nero turns up in a cameo) as well as music by Ennio Morricone, but he also inserts hip hop songs, and the result is rather jarring. One gets the sense Taratino is straining to make his movie seem cool, but go back and watch these original Spaghetti Westerns: they just naturally are.

The film also a weird sense of pacing. There's a scene in which a plantation owner played by Don Johnson leads a group of hooded horsemen to attack Schultz's wagon. The raid begins, they ride for the wagon, and then the movie cuts to before the raid to when the horsemen discuss whether they can see well enough through the slits of their mask. This comic vignette goes on so long, by the time we return to the attack on the wagon, the momentum's gone. The movie's biggest pacing sin occurs at the end, when after the confrontation we've been building to occurs and is resolved, the movie continues for another half hour.

For a two-and-half hour movie, Django Unchained feels underwritten. Kerry Washington is given next to nothing to do; the movie builds up like she and Django are going to have this great reunion, and then she faints and remains just the object of his mission. Calvin's sister is also introduced and set up like she's going to be important, but nothing is ever done with her. The movie also repeats scenarios and character types: twice Schultz shoots a man and uses his warrant to get out of trouble with a crowd after the fact, and the two plantation owners, Don Johnson and Leonard DiCaprio, are so similar in presentation and character, I don't know why Tarantino didn't just combine them and streamline the movie's narrative.

Django Unchained needed to be lean and mean; it feels padded. I don't entirely dislike it. Waltz is wonderful as the dentist-turned-bounty hunter, and Fox brings the appropriate intensity and focus. Other performers aren't as good. DiCaprio is not menacing or slimy enough for this kind of villain role, and Samuel L. Jackson as his loyal house slave is just impossible to take seriously with the distracting old age makeup and cartoonish performance.

I laughed some times (when some people unexpectedly get shot) and was shocked at other times (a runaway slave is torn apart by dogs). The look of the movie is wonderful, great costumes and settings that range from wintry mountains, shanty saloons, and bright plantations, but the movie is overall lugubrious.

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