In Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino has achieved that rarest of feats (for him, anyway) — he has made a film that bored me to tears.
I make my case through the contrast between two exchanges. In Kill Bill Vol 2, there is a scene where Bill tells Beatrix the story of Pei Mei’s Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique. He pauses in between (long, beautifully constructed) sentences to play on his flute, speaks slowly and really stretches out a small incident into something approximating an epic. Consider now the story of Broomhilda as related by Dr. King Schultz to Django. This is an actual epic, and you sense that Schultz can really narrate the heck out of it, but Django is impatient and asks too many questions. The beauty of QT’s cinema is that his characters relish their dialogue to the point where the Universe — the audience, the camera, even the other characters in the scene — pauses and lets them speak, and cares not for such trivialities as plot and loaded guns and Mexican standoffs. Not here. As blood-soaked as his frames get sometimes, the principal reason why I love Tarantino’s films is the dialogue that precedes the bloodbath.
Now, this may seem like a minor quibble. One could even argue that Django’s approach is true to his character, even if the tale is diminished in its telling because of it. But the trouble is not with this scene per se. It is symptomatic of the film itself, which focuses more on what happens rather than on how it happens. There is the occasional moment to relish, such as an argument between some KKK members about the masks they’re wearing. But scenes like these are scant consolation in a long, bloody film. Too much gore is not a problem per se — too much gore without the prospect of anything entertaining in between is.
Why, you might ask, am I expecting humour and whimsy in a film about the abominable cruelty of slaveowners in the Deep South and the bloody revenge meted out by Django and Schultz? I submit that Tarantino’s subjects have never been all about sweetness and light anyway — his last film was set in Nazi-occupied France, for heaven’s sake! What makes his films so interesting to me is his ability to mine that thin vein of sublime ridiculousness even in subjects that nearly every other filmmaker would treat with grim fascination — half the time, your enjoyment comes from watching him get away with it. Without that critical ingredient, what remains is a lot of stylized violence, and the style wears thin after a point.
Understand that my problem is not with this movie being different from what he has made before. I would’ve been perfectly content, had he made a good movie that was unlike any of his previous ventures. In my opinion, this one simply isn’t all that good.
One cannot fault the actors here — given the material they have to work with, they do a damn fine job. Kerry Washington has precious little to do as the MacGuffin in this particular plot, but you can see why a man would walk through fire and fight a dragon for her. Jamie Foxx gives a surprisingly restrained performance, given the description of his character in the title. Christoph Waltz does wonderfully in a role that, post Inglourious Basterds, can now be described as the Christoph Waltz role. Samuel L Jackson is in fine form as usual, but this is not a big stretch for him as an actor.
The standout, for me, is Leonardo DiCaprio as the plantation owner Calvin Candie. Here is a performance that suggests that he could’ve perhaps taken a shot at playing Bill “The Butcher” Cutting in Gangs of New York — it is unlike anything DiCaprio has done so far, and he digs into it with palpable relish. His Calvin Candie directs the violence rather than personally indulge in it, and yet manages to convey the sense that he could explode any moment. A critical confrontation at the dinner table with Django and Schultz is handled with such fearsome intensity that it makes one wince. Django unchained can be fearsome, but Calvin unchained is a truly chilling prospect. He deserves better than this film.