At long last, the director so often accused of “borrowing” from others to build his own career makes his influences as clear as Franco Nero’s icy blue eyes in Django Unchained. Sure, you could say that Quentin Tarantino was already wearing his inspirations proudly on his title card with Inglourious Basterds, but while that film merely paid lip service to the forgotten 1978 Enzo G. Castellari action opus starring Bo Svenson and Fred Williamson, Django Unchained could easily be taken as a belated installment of the raggedy, unofficial Western series that spawned somewhere between 30 and 100 installments depending on who’s counting. Alas, while Django Unchained arguably displays much more of a grind-house sensibility than Death Proof, here as in that film, Tarantino proves his own worst enemy by not knowing when to reign himself in.
Two years before the Civil War pits brother against brother, German-born fugitive hunter Dr. King Schultz (Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz) arrives in America determined to capture the outlaw Brittle brothers dead or alive. In the midst of his search, Dr. Schultz crosses paths with Django (Academy Award winner Jamie Foxx), a freed slave and skilled tracker who seeks to rescue his beloved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from ruthless plantation owner Calvin Candie (Academy Award nominee Leonardo DiCaprio). Once Django has aided Dr. Schultz in coralling the Brittle brothers, the two team up to capture some of the most wanted men in the South. Meanwhile, Django never loses sight of his mission to free Broomhilda from the treacherous slave trade before it's too late. Upon arriving at Candie's nefarious plantation, dubbed Candyland, Django and Dr. Schultz discover that slaves are being groomed for gladiator-like competitions by Candie's malevolent right-hand man Billy Crash (Walton Goggins), and together they skillfully work their way onto the compound for a closer look. But just as the two men locate Broomhilda and plot a daring escape, Candie's house slave Stephen (QT regular Samuel L. Jackson) catches wind of their plan and informs his master of the betrayal. Now, as a clandestine organization attempts to back them into a corner, Django and Dr. Schultz will have to come out with pistols blazing if they ever hope to free Broomhilda from Candyland and the clutches of its vile proprietor.
Ever since Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino has had an unusual knack for appropriating the works of his heroes. Whether he’s being flamboyant about it (Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill Vol. 1) or a bit more veiled (Pulp Fiction), his unique gift for molding the familiar into something exciting and new has resonated with legions of adoring cinephiles. And with the late Sally Menke as his editor, Tarantino always had a collaborator who was willing to break out the shears when he got a bit too self-enamored. Sadly for both film lovers and the director himself, Menke is no longer with us. An experienced editor in his own right, Fred Raskin has boldly stepped in to fill Menke’s empty chair at the editing bay. He can no doubt cut a solid action scene (as evidenced most tangibly in an explosive gunfight near the end of the movie) and has a knack for comic timing, but by allowing a rather simple story to run 166 minutes, Raskin isn’t doing Tarantino any favors when it comes to building narrative momentum. Whereas the 152-minute running time of Inglorious Basterds was arguably justified by a richly complex story that juggled multiple characters in a run-up to a world-changing payoff, Django Unchained is a small-scale tale of two men with a very clear mission, and it sports so much fat that it appears to be in danger of getting diabetes.
Make no mistake, there’s quite a lot to love about Django Unchained -- the gunfights are some of the juiciest ever committed to film; the performances by Waltz, Foxx, Jackson, and DiCaprio are all to be savored, while Washington and Dennis Christopher are fine supporting players; and an argument over ill-fitting proto-KKK masks might be some of the finest comic dialogue Tarantino has ever written -- but here he allows his story to meander much too far off course to really maintain dramatic momentum. Of course, it’s fun to watch as the oddly benevolent bounty hunter and Django escape into the mountains for the winter to solidify their alliance, and few would contest that their eventful day trip with Candie works well to highlight the growing tensions that will soon erupt into violence, but in filmmaking there are always sacrifices to be made, and here Tarantino stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that his strengths can quickly become his shortcomings when left unchecked. In Menke he had a collaborator with the ability to hone his talents to a fine point; in Raskin he has an editor who can assemble a movie with style, yet doesn’t seem certain of how to make it work as a whole. At the same time, frequent Tarantino cinematographer Robert Richardson makes everything look positively sumptuous by bathing the flashback scenes in high contrast and using sunlight to striking advantage, ensuring that our pupils remain dilated even as our posteriors grow numb. Somewhere in this overlong cut of Django Unchained exists a great movie. If only Tarantino were willing to admit that not all of his ideas sparkle like gold, it might have been the one that we actually got. Instead, we’re left with an overindulgent shadow of what could have been a much better film. leave a comment --Jason Buchanan