Quentin Tarantino’s characters love to hear themselves talk…just like their creator. Some can prattle on and on regardless of subject matter. Others have a point to make.
Tarantino’s monologues have provided actors that Hollywood long forgot a new lease in movie-making life. In some cases, they have led to some delightful discoveries, as is the case of Christoph Waltz who, as “Jew Hunter” Hans Landa, virtually stole Inglourious Basterds away from Brad Pitt. And they all provide aspiring actors everywhere with juicy audition material to impress theater and film casting directors alike.
But sometimes Tarantino’s logorrhea gets in the way of a good story. That’s the case of the slightly disappointing, word-drenched bloodbath Django Unchained. The monologues, more often than not, overstay their welcome, stopping whatever little forward movement the film has dead on its tracks. Django Unchained does have some great set pieces. But the connective tissue that ties these together slowly but surely strangles them, tasking our patience far more than the entire first hour of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Like Tarantino’s previous, and far more coherent, film Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained takes place in an alternative “what if” universe, in this case pre-Civil War America where a black slave could be purchased, freed and trained in the use of short- and long-range weapons by a German bounty hunter and take revenge upon white folk for enslaving his people and upon those black folk who betrayed their own. In its story of a team of Jewish-American soldiers knocking off Nazis, Inglourious Basterds paid tribute to The Dirty Dozen and its many rip-offs; in his new film Tarantino tips his hat to Sergio Corbucci’s spaghetti westerns (specifically Django, starring Franco Nero who here makes a cameo appearance) and to 70s blaxploitation films, and to some obscurities from that era like Mandingo.
Django (Jamie Foxx) is bought and freed by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) for one reason: he can identify the three elusive overseers responsible for enslaving and separating Django from his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). In exchange, Schultz promises Django that they will search for and free his wife. Schultz trains Django in the art of bounty hunting and the moral choices it entails with the occasional discussion of literature, opera, and German mythology thrown in for good measure. For Schultz is an enlightened man, a liberal with a gun who detests slavery.
Once they kill the three men, Schultz and Django set off in search of Broomhilda who is now the property of one Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), an unctuous plantation owner who trains slaves for mandingo fighting. Schultz and Django pose as Mandingo buyers and plan to make an offer Candie cannot refuse: a high price for his best fighter and, as a sweetener, a couple extra bucks for Broomhilda. But Candie’s right-hand man, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) smells something rotten in the air and all hell (plus hundreds of blood squibs) breaks loose when the scheme is uncovered.
If only Django Unchained had been as neatly and economically told as that brief summary. But Tarantino cannot let a good idea or a good scene stand on its own. He has to pummel it down to a bloody pulp. Take, for example, the KKK raid against Django and Dr. Schultz in the film’s first hour. For Tarantino it is not enough to briefly show these Klansmen as buffoonish. He belabors the point by having them engage in a long-winded discussion about their hoods. Or take the repetitive use of the n-word throughout the film which ends up being as gratuitous as the film’s many massacres (for these are not shoot-outs) full of bodies gushing fountains of blood across walls, staircases and each other. Tarantino has never been a subtle filmmaker but his best films (Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill Volumes I and II, Jackie Brown and Inglourious Basterds) offer an emotional payoff that is sorely lacking here.
Django Unchained is yet another example of a film in need of an editor – the one wielding a big red marker while perusing what most probably turned out to be a 180+ page script (one screenplay page being the equivalent of one screen minute), leaving big X marks as red as the gallons of blood sprayed on the film’s set. Such an editor would have mowed down the film’s many unnecessary endings and could have told Tarantino “this is a great idea but you are shortchanging it,” “you need to do more with this character,” or, more importantly, “do more with less.”
Django Unchained IS full of great ideas and great characters and some great scenes. Christoph Waltz is fantastic as Dr. Schultz, an elegant man who relishes the richness of the English language (especially because it is his second and maybe even third language) while knocking off some bad guys. Jamie Foxx cuts a dashing figure as the almost silent Django, a man for whom action speaks louder than words in the best Western tradition. DiCaprio is adequately sleazy as Candie, a man whose racist ideology is far more dangerous than those spoused by the Klu Klux Klaners Schultz and Django so easily dispatched early on. But not as dangerous as Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen, a man who represents every individual who sold his country, his soul, his fellow men and women to the highest bidder for the creature comforts of power. Made-up like the old gentlemen that decorate the boxes of “Uncle Ben’s Rice”® and “Cream of Wheat”®, this is one character so full of self-hatred that he doesn’t mind playing up to the stereotype to get what he wants.
Great ideas and great characters, drowned out by too much noise.