Monday, December 31, 2012

Review: "Django Unchained"

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Runtime: 165 minutes

Moving from one historical horror to another (the Holocaust to American slavery), Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained has all of the ingredients to be another riotous and incendiary work of film making. Yet what's most curious about Tarantino's latest offering is that, despite so many strong ingredients, the film feels in need of serious reigning in, more so than any of the director's previous work. Perhaps the greatest irony here is that even though Django contains some of Tarantino's most direct dialogue, the film as a whole still comes off as protracted and indulgent. When the various pieces of the film click, Tarantino achieves some furiously entertaining and compelling results. Unfortunately, there's far too much limp plotting in the early stretches that undermine much of the proceedings.

Opening with, as one would expect, credits perfectly recreated from a classic Spaghetti Western, Django gets its plot moving quite soon. German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) rescues the slave Django (Jamie Foxx), so that Django can help him identify the wanted Brittle Brothers. Eventually the two extend the agreement. If Django helps Schultz, he'll help Django rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from sadistic plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

And, like Tarantino's previous film, 2009's Inglorious Basterds, Django begins by introducing us to Christoph Waltz's character. And yet, from the get go, something feels off. Whereas Basterds began with slowly building tension, teased out by engaging dialogue, Django quickly succumbs to a strange sense of prolonged tedium. So much of the film's moments, even the bursts of violence, are telegraphed so early that tension is defused before it even accumulates. Tarantino has a knack for drawing out conversations in an entertaining fashion, yet here the technique feels tiresome. In an unexpected departure, much of the dialogue (especially in the early portions) is quite straightforward, getting to the point instead of dancing around said point. The great irony of this is that Tarantino's more direct approach to certain scenes feels more tiresome than his diversions.

Even the cast are somewhat let down by Tarantino's less embellished writing. Waltz, who remains a perfect fit for the writer/director's style, seems to get bored as he cuts through his lesser dialogue in order to get to the meat of the part. The same can almost be said for DiCaprio when he first appears. However, once the film settles in at Candie's plantation, DiCaprio truly comes to life, and thoroughly dominates a prolonged dinner sequence that culminates in a soon-to-be iconic speech about a skull. DiCaprio can sometimes falter when he tries to go 'big' with his performances, but here the actor is aces. His slow rise from steady boil to full blown explosion is among the film's acting highlights. It's over the top, to be certain, but the best performances in Tarantino's films rarely veer towards intimate subtlety. The film also receives an unexpected burst of energy from Samuel L. Jackson as a curmudgeonly slave on Candie's plantation. Jackson is both compelling and riotously entertaining in the role, and it stands as the actor's best work on screen in years. 

Unfortunately, even though Django is set amid the horrors of the slave trade, two of the most important black characters are among the least interesting. Kerry Washington is given little more to do than look worried and scream. More disappointing is Jamie Foxx. Despite being the titular character, one charged with a desire for bloody revenge, Django winds up feeling more like a cipher. Despite the occasional good one-liner, the character spends most of his time observing Dr. Schultz, who's more of a driving force even though the story isn't his. Foxx brings little to the role other than some sass, though there's not quite enough in the character for him to work with in the first place. 

And even when Tarantino hits the sweet spot, he sometimes ventures into overkill. A massive shootout, filled with orgiastic levels of spurting and spraying blood, nearly becomes out of control in its overwrought execution, even by Tarantino's standards. Worse are the more grounded moments, meant to highlight the abhorrent treatment of slaves. The film gets the point across - such as when two slaves are shown fighting to the death for mere entertainment - but the violence is so relentless that it threatens to become exploitative, rather than appropriately horrifying.

Yet perhaps the biggest stumbling block is the film's near-shapeless plotting. After building to what feels like a riveting, albeit vague, climax, the film trudges on for another 25 minutes to a solution we can already see coming. It's hard to know how much of this has to do with the fact that longtime Tarantino editor Sally Menke sadly passed away before the film even began shooting, or if even she could have reined the film in. Regardless, Django is easily one of Tarantino's least consistent offerings, with his indulgences getting the better of him at an alarming rate. Say what you want about his films, but they've never failed to intrigue or entertain me at every turn until now. Yet here there was a palpable lapse in energy from the get go, one that at times allowed me to wander off into tiny day dreams without the slightest concern that I was missing anything. Django may be off of the chain, and rightfully so, but Tarantino needs to be put on a much shorter leash.

Grade: B-

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