Quentin Tarantino has always been a quandary for me. I enjoy all of his movies (with the obvious exception of ‘Death Proof’), but there’s just something about them that bemuses me. I think it’s the ponderous nature of his work. Instead of just getting on with the action, I’ve always felt he’s more content to let his, admittedly impressive, dialogue go on too long. Almost as if he loves to hear his own prose more than anything else. There are numerous examples of what I’m referring to: Jules’ speech in the diner at the end of Pulp Fiction, the Superman rant at the end of Kill Bill vol. 2, that seemingly never ending German bar scene from Inglorious Basterds etc. As long, and some would say needless, as they are, there is no denying they’re impressively written and it’s that dichotomy that leaves me confused by my feelings towards the man. It also means I have to check out his latest offering when they arise.
Which brings us to Django Unchained, Tarantino’s homage to the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960’s. The title of the movie is taken from Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 classic, Django, which starred Franco Nero in the title role. Nero himself even pops up in a cameo here, curious as to the spelling of our hero’s name.
To cut to the chase, it’s a great film. In my opinion, probably his most enjoyable since Jackie Brown. It’s funny, quirky, supremely violent and just plain fun. This is fundamentally a revenge movie, made of two halves: the first sees Django (Jamie Foxx), an African slave, free’d by dentist come bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (a truly wonderful Christoph Waltz), to help him hunt down and ultimately kill the plantation overseers who branded Django and whipped and sold his wife (Keri Washington). The second is about Django’s quest to find his wife, the unlikely named Broomhilda von Shaft (only Tarantino), who was sold off, away from her husband as punishment for repeated escape attempts from their ‘owner’. They find her located in Mississippi, working as a ‘comfort girl’ to psychotic plantation owner, Calvin Candie (a show stealing Leonardo Di Caprio).
The performances here are virtually all fantastic, the stand outs of which have to be Waltz, Di Caprio and a revelatory turn from an almost unrecognisable Samuel L. Jackson as the chilling and loathsome Stephen, Candie’s elderly house-servant. Waltz, reprising the uber-smart, verbose, well spoken gentleman act he did in Basterds (but this time playing a much nicer character), is as tremendous as expected. His chemistry with Jamie Foxx is very good, they’re a great comedy double act and the viewer is left totally convinced by their friendship. Mr. Di Caprio is also on fine form as the ‘petulant boy emperor’, Candie. He’s clearly having far too much fun in a role he’d get to play all too infrequently. Like Jackson, he’s playing very much against type and the threat of violence and psychotic outburst is never far from the screen whenever he’s on it.
However, as much as I enjoyed the film, there were a few problems. For starters, it is way too long. At almost 3 hours in duration, I can’t help but feel some things should have been trimmed. As mentioned above, it’s a movie of two halves and the first is almost perfect. The second is where it flounders somewhat for me, with the return of that old bug bear: those long, ponderous monologues (In particular, a tense dinner table scene, that likely could have been even more effective, if the pontificating about three dents in a skull was reduced) and I can’t help but feel that these moments of dialogue potentially harm the flow of the film. The fact is, there just isn’t enough story to take up nearly 3 hours. But this is a Quentin Tarantino movie, so we all know what to expect going in. Criticising him for such things would be like criticising John Woo for his use of slow motion.
Also, Tarantino seems to want the best of both worlds with regards to the depiction of violence. He portrays the horrors of slavery in a very brutal, realistic fashion (the floggings, the hot box, the horrifying ‘Mandingo’ fight), however, any shoot out is plain comic book excess (in particular, the OTT but totally awesome gun fight at Candie Land). With the tone of the movie being somewhat comic, especially the tremendous scene with the hooded Klansmen that is almost Blazing Saddles-esque, I can’t help but feel that these scenes seem somewhat out of place.
These are minor quibbles, however as Django Unchained is a wonderful return to form for a modern directorial great. Go check it out everyone, unless you have a problem with violence. In which case, why the hell would you be at a Tarantino movie anyway?