'Django Unchained': Tarantino aims wide, misfires
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Genre-movie-mad writer-director Quentin Tarantino's foray into Western World is a pretty grave disappointment. Sprawling, unfocused and featuring too many comedy bits that fall flat and action sequences that jar and disorient before they even begin to thrill, "Django Unchained" also, thankfully, features some entertaining moments and memorable portrayals, not to mention some provocative perspectives on history (both movie and United States) and iconography. But there aren't nearly enough of those latter qualities to save the movie from being an ultimately enervating experience.
"Django Unchained" draws its inspiration, as is Tarantino's wont, from the more obscure tendrils of the venerable movie genre. Two, to be specific: first, the sub-Leone Spaghetti Western -- that is, stuff along the lines of Sergio Corbucci's, well, "Django," made in 1968 and starring Franco Nero, rather than pictures like "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" (although this movie does have a fleeting reference to that Clint Eastwood-starring classic). Second, and perhaps more crucially, the even more obscure blaxploitation Western, of which some pertinent examples would be "The Legend of N---er Charlie" from 1972 and "Boss N---er" from 1975. (Don't look at me; I didn't title the damn things.) The movie begins promisingly with a nighttime confrontation between some nasty grizzled slave traders and a silver-tongued "dentist" named Schultz who wants to buy a slave by the name of Django (Jamie Foxx). Schultz is played by Christoph Waltz, who was such an admirable Nazi player in Tarantino's prior picture, the more successfully cheeky WWII pastiche "Inglourious Basterds." His part here is of a more sympathetic but equally lethal character, and the sequence ends with an impasse that Schultz resolves with some efficient gun work (everyone who gets shot in this film, by the way, releases about two pints of blood as soon as they're pierced by a bullet).
After Schultz informs Django that he wants to free him after the latter helps him identify three bad guys that he is after (Schultz has not practiced dentistry in some time and is in fact a bounty hunter), the two ride into a Texas town that's none too happy to see a black man riding a horse. It was at this point in the movie that I understood a colleague's sarcastic observation that the movie was a three-hour homage to "Blazing Saddles," Mel Brooks' still outrageously funny Western parody/love letter. This sequence isn't just the first of such a comedy bit in the movie: Later, Schultz and Django are set upon by a group of white men who disguise themselves by wearing white sacks over their heads. (The movie is set a couple of years prior to the Civil War, well before the actual existence of the Ku Klux Klan.) In a rather drawn-out bit, the dopey rednecks (pretty much every white character in this picture is either a dopey redneck or a paragon of effete sadistic evil, except Schultz) bitch and moan about the hand-cut eyeholes in the sacks, which are difficult to see out of. Mel Brooks would have known that such a joke ought to be dispensed with pretty fast, but Tarantino not only drags out the bit unconscionably, but he puts it in the context of a flashback taking place maybe 15 minutes prior to the present action.
Such infelicities of conception, writing and pacing continue to dog the movie, and turn near-disastrous in the midsection. Here Django, trained as a killer by Schultz and determined to fulfill his own destiny, goes with Schultz on a mission to free Django's wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from the near-legendary Mississippi plantation owned Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Now pay attention: Broomhilda has been trained as a "comfort slave" (think about it), and, because her original owners were of German extraction, she speaks German. This provokes Schultz's admiration (platonic, of course), and the whole thing reminded me of the German writer Karl May, who wrote Westerns that inspired early filmmakers such as Fritz Lang. (Only why, oh why, is the character's name spelled as that of a comic-strip character instead? The figure of German legend is called Brunhild, or Brünnhilde. Maybe Tarantino's operating at a level of metatextuality that's beyond me.) These intriguing associations get washed away not just by more questionable wordplay (Calvin's plantation is called "Candieland," ar ar ar) but by a character faceoff so pointlessly distended as to remove any of the brutal impact of the awful actions eventually committed by DiCaprio's venal Candie or by Samuel L. Jackson's scheming black master of the house, Stephen.
Tarantino movies have been justly celebrated for sequences in which rival
characters maneuver into and sometimes out of standoffs that seem likely to end
explosively, and frequently do. In the likes of "Reservoir Dogs" and "Inglorious
Basterds," these tense sequences seemed precision-engineered down to the last
microbeat. Not here. I don't want to come off as know-somethingish, but this
movie is, sadly, the first one Tarantino has made without Sally Menke, the
editor who worked with him on all his films and who died tragically in 2010. I
think her expertise is sorely missed here. I also think that somebody in a
position of authority ought to have advised Tarantino against giving himself an
acting role in the movie, particularly one in which he uses an Australian
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.