Django Unchained is a western, or a “southern” Quentin Tarantino calls it because it takes place in slave country in the 1850s. It is his tract on the brutality of 400 years of slavery in the American south, much as Inglourious Basterds was his tract on Nazis.
The films seem as though they should be important, and while the Nazi film was pretty darn fresh and good, Django is disappointingly meh.
The perplexing thing about Quentin Tarantino is his refusal to change. At one time he was the envelope pusher of his generation; his movies are now essentially remakes of his others, referring to tropes he started 20 years ago, or to sixty year old genre films.
His reliance on exploding bodies, spattering and obviously fake blood, a head count, retro stars grabbed from the films he raids, and anti-heroes on the fringe with the gift of the gab is total. He seems driven to do the same movie over and over again. Sometimes they work– Inglourious Basterds for one, but Django Unchained doesn’t. It’s too familiar, too easy, and too lazy.
Christoph Waltz, the dentist Dr. Schultz, encounters a chain gang of slaves in the woods. Schultz is a bounty hunter looking for a certain slave to take him to three murderous white brothers so he can collect money for their dead bodies.
Jamie Foxx, Django, knows the brothers and after much slave owner blood is shed, partners with Schultz and sets out to find their respective quarries. Schultz wants his bounty and Django his wife (Kerry Washington).
Django also gets a life makeover. Now well suited – once he ditches the blue taffeta – groomed and flush with a new sense of belonging, he experiences life as a free man with a friend, a white man, as they go forth to win, win, and win. This is the most interesting and rewarding part of the film, the fish out of water, with its humor and pathos.
While the townspeople can’t stomach the sight of a black man on horseback or in their shops, Schultz is from Europe and knows no such racist prejudice. They make a good team. Schultz thinks fast, Django shoots fast. Thus begins a bloody long adventure that winds up at the Candie ranch of a sadistic slave trader (Leonardo Di Caprio) where plenty of ugliness takes place.
As far as the women’s roles are concerned, worse. Washington’s Broomhilda is delegated to the screaming, crying damsel in distress type and Laura Cayouette gloriously named Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly, plantation owner/ slave trader’s wife and enabler, smiles submissively, stupidly until she’s literally blown away. These aren’t women; they are dolls, imaginary, badly written, stick women.
Naturally there’s not much incentive for Tarantino to do anything outside his niche because he is successful and has a reverent fan base. What was funny and unusual twenty years ago, no longer works.
Repetition is key to his popularity, like comic books or Star Wars marathons, the same comforting wash of violence and obvious characters his fans so enjoy. The yawning absence of growth doesn’t seem to bother anyone but me. Sure back in the old days, his juvenile, retro splatter laughs were fun and unique.
The music is Tarantino generic. It is going to be obscure or long forgotten, fifties or sixties based, with pounding percussion and a rock and roll finger poppin’ beat. The music of teenager hormonal grandeur still serves.
Django Unchained is occasionally entertaining, but it’s done and done, familiar and labored. Nothing to be gained or learned. He’s officially out of ideas. When he doesn’t know what else to do, he blows everything up, the most familiar dénouement of them all.
Tarantino relies on his sole theme – revenge – served up with gleeful, juvenile abandon. There are sympathetic characters but in general, life is cheap in a Quentin Tarantino movie, and unless you’re an incredibly charismatic leading man or woman you gonna die.
Is he capable of stepping outside of himself? An artist – or should I say content provider – must consistently develop new and original ways of expressing himself, expanding, experimenting, and forging new ideas. But history tells us this is the outer limit of what Quentin Tarantino can do.
There is a wealth of western cinema masterpieces but this isn’t one.
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35mm action adventure
Opens Christmas Day
Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
Runtime: 165 minutes
MPAA: Rated R for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity