For a filmmaker so innovative and original, Quentin Tarantino can be surprisingly predictable in some ways. His films all drag on far too long, padding their length with a half hour or irrelevant material that a less talented director would be forced to cut. We’re always glad to see them, but it becomes increasingly difficult to give them repeat viewings like we did his earlier movies. I’ve still not seen Inglourious Basterds more than twice – the second time for a Blu-ray review – and I don’t feel any strong need to see Django Unchained again. I say that in the same breath that I praise its innovation and cinematic verve to the skies. No one but Tarantino would think to marry 70s era blacksploitation to a 19th Century slave drama – or, to put in other terms, what Roots would look like if John Shaft were involved. It’s bold, it’s beautiful, it’s a sheer delight… and a more disciplined approach might have made a masterpiece out of it.
As it stands, we get to meander a bit. And by “a bit,” I mean “interminably.” Tarantino’s always potent dialogue keeps us company and the four big stars (Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson) are in fine form, but at some point we just wish they’d get the hell on with it. That becomes most acute during the final third, where a would-be climax devolves into a laborious set up for an even more drawn-out finale. I quite like the last scene; I just wanted it to take place without the twists and turns Tarantino insists on plopping down in front of it.
The remainder of the film works in much the same way: an amiable shaggy dog that never bores us but sometimes struggles to find its point. To it Tarantino mixes some very disturbing (in a good way) realities about the slave trade in the antebellum America. Django (Foxx) earns a reprieve from a pair of Texas slave traders when an earnest bounty hunter named Schultz(Waltz) needs his help. He’s hunting a trio of fugitives and only Django can identify them. Two dead racists later, the duo reach an agreement: Django will help Schultz find his targets and Schultz will help Django rescue his enslaved wife (Kerry Washington) from the infamous Candie Land plantation run by the sadistic Calvin Candie (DiCaprio).
And just like that, we’re off on a round of Shoot the Bigot, with Django serving as a protean equivalent of Sweet Sweetback and various hapless white folks behaving horribly in order to suffer their just comeuppance. As usual, Tarantino invests it with his unique not-quite-satirical voice: amplifying the ridiculousness just enough to let us see the stereotypes for what they are. At times it scores surprising laughs (the Jonah Hill cameo, in particular carries one of the funniest scenes I’ve seen this year), but it also exists alongside some intense brutality.
I’m not just talking about the violence (intense and over-the-top as usual), but in the way Tarantino depicts the “peculiar institution.” Rarely have we seen the details of slavery portrayed as horrifically as they are here: hideous cruel shackling devices, men ripped apart by dogs, and commonplace tortures that even hardcore horror buffs may have trouble watching. Here’s where the director’s genius really takes hold: he never allows the exploitation to bleed over into these details. He simply shows them to us and lets us react without embellishment. He pays similar respect to the characters’ emotional cores. Django loves his wife more than life itself, Schultz believes in the righteousness of his derring-do and the villains – as evil as they are – still accept their crimes as the way life works in the era to which they belong. Few filmmakers are capable of being so ridiculous and so true to the characters at the same time.
Which brings us to the film’s most complex character: Jackson’s cunning old slave Stephen. Having obtained a position of privilege in Candie’s household, he behaves like an equal to his horrible master: teasing him, complaining at him, even speaking to him behind closed doors like a mentor rather than a subordinate. And he’s utterly dedicated to maintaining slavery in every form. Django Unchained spends most of its running time righteously punishing whites for the bloody roots of their privilege. But it saves its deepest vitriol for this perceived race traitor. It’s a scary, daring choice for actor and director alike. I doubt another combination could have pulled it off so audaciously, or turned a potential disaster into something so complex and fascinating.
You could say the same thing about Tarantino himself. It’s hard to imagine another white director taking this stuff on and succeeding. Whatever mojo he possesses, it gives him the confidence to pursue the unthinkable and prevail. He does it with innovation and style, as always, along with a tremendous eye for supporting actors. (He gets mad props for giving Tom “Luke Duke” Wopat a choice part, as well as making a clever not to the original Django, Franco Nero.) My complaints don’t stem from his greatness; they stem from those moments when he stops just short of that. He’s done it a lot lately. A little more editorial craft, a slightly tighter narrative and this could have been one of the best films of the year. Instead, we get to wander along with it, hardly an unpleasant prospect, but one that eventually grows more wearying than it should. Greatness has defeated Tarantino in some ways, for only one so talented and so driven could surrender to self-indulgence so regularly. So it is with Django Unchained: a fascinating cinematic and social exercise that can’t quite scale the impossible heights it sets for itself.