Did the Oscar voters leave after two hours?
I wanted to love Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, and I actually did enjoy much of it, for about two-thirds of its 165-minute running time. (Which is to say, for about the duration of the average feature.) It’s remarkable how good the good stuff is: Tarantino has a gift for whipping up a sense of novelty in a context that might initially suggest mere pastiche, and here the surprises keep coming for a long time.
Much of the opening third evokes the rousing side of Westerns (both the Italian and the home-grown kind). This rambling epic’s first set piece comes when former slave Django (Jamie Foxx) and his bounty-hunter mentor Schultz (Christoph Waltz, a deserving winner for Best Supporting Actor) descend on a plantation run by Southern-fried patriarch Big Daddy (Don Johnson). The two bounty hunters are not unduly challenged by anyone they meet here: much of the sequence plays like a goof — until Django learns that the three slavers he and Schultz have been pursuing are on the property. Django grabs a whip and begins lashing one of the white men, and nothing else in the film carries the same fierce charge as this historically loaded, transgressive image.
True to his penchant for abrupt shifts in tone, Tarantino follows that jolt with a foray into broad comedy, when a posse of bumbling proto–KKK members try to go after Django and Schultz. Their buffoonery plays out for a while, but I didn’t object: Ridicule is an effective weapon, and the mockery here is clearly a riposte to the heroic Klansmen of D.W. Griffith.
Django learns from one of the slavers — before he kills him — where his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) has been sold. It soon becomes clear that the detour to Big Daddy’s plantation was the relatively light-hearted warmup for the main event of Django Unchained, the feel-bad extravaganza of the Candieland sequence. As the action shifts to Mississippi, the sense of freedom and clear mountain air that graced Schultz and Django’s adventures out west is wiped away by a sweltering, oppressive atmosphere. It’s as if a huge dark cloud settles over the movie, and from here on any laughter prompted by the scattered moments of wit will feel much more nervous and tentative.
It’s in this middle third that Django Unchained recklessly plows into material that would be ugly and uncomfortable to watch in any context, but especially in a blockbuster that was released in more than 3,000 theatres on Christmas Day. The film that has been action-packed and full of gags, as if willing to do anything to entertain you, turns a corner and takes on unexpected gravitas. A grotesque “mandingo fight” where two slaves have to fight to the death under the nose of plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) is followed by another appalling scene wherein a runaway slave is attacked by dogs. Tarantino succeeds almost all too well in getting across a visceral sense of horror and revulsion about slavery here.
It’s an open question as to when the ugliness ceases to have any impact and instead leaves a viewer feeling numb. I imagine that Tarantino would argue that the overkill is precisely the point: He has to keep pressing on the viewer’s sensibilities to remind us — or awaken some of us, perhaps — just how habitually cruel and inhumane this slave-based social order is. Of course the violence is too much. Of course it’s repellent. That’s everyday life on the Candieland plantation.
In the midst of the screaming bad vibes of Candieland, Django and Broomhilda reunite, but only for an instant; Broomhilda faints at the sight of her long-lost husband. The moment is like the teaser for a passionate reunion that we never really get to see. Broomhilda is the object of Django’s quest, but one of the disappointments of Django Unchained is that Django and Broomhilda barely interact during the movie.
It’s especially disappointing given Tarantino’s talent for writing substantial, memorable female characters — Reservoir Dogs aside, every one of his previous features has had at least one great part for an actress. Maybe the absence of a great scene between Django and Broomhilda stems from the fact that Tarantino the screenwriter finds revenge to be a kind of Ur-narrative, and as such endlessly compelling. Whereas romance, not so much.
To seal their purchase of Broomhilda away from Candie, Django and Schultz are obligated to endure a dinner party from hell with Candie and his retinue. The long, long dinner is both the movie’s natural climax and its breaking point. As riveting as much of it is, the scene goes on too long. I was reminded too much of the beer-cellar set piece in Inglourious Basterds. The setup and the beats are familiar this time around, and — exceedingly rare for a Tarantino script — even a little predictable. The verbal conflicts escalate the tension, and everything about the scene begs for a dramatic release.
I found myself pulled out of the scene, simply because of how long it goes on. I guessed that instead of a climactic payoff (which would have been perfect, in terms of pacing), some kind of horrific, sadistic smackdown was looming over Schultz and/or Django, to be followed, eventually, by some even more over-the-top payback. Even the unexpected deaths that occur here are reminiscent of Inglourious Basterds. The dinner scene should lead right to the climax, but instead this is more like the end of Act Three in a five-act epic.
Tarantino presumably felt that the movie’s dramatic focus had to shift solely to Django, to make even more explicit his ascent from fearful slave to fearless hero, when up until now Schultz has been the film’s dominant personality. And since Django is due some righteous vengeance, Tarantino no doubt figures the audience will be happy to indulge. But the verbal duels at Candieland are more tense and interesting than the actual bloodbath that ensues. With no worthy adversaries left, Django just uses a bunch of stooges for target practice.
Stretching on long past its natural climax, the movie gets less smart by the minute. Earlier we had allusions to Germanic myth and Dumas, fascinatingly recontextualized in the Old West and the antebellum South; now we get the cheap laugh of a dimwit thug screaming and writhing on the ground as he gets shot in the knee again and again, each bullet sending a bright red spray of blood into the air. I assume Tarantino meant this to be a cathartic release for the audience, but it’s as if his adolescent glee in being outrageous and disreputable overpowered his wit and inventiveness, and made off with the movie.
The moral weight of Django’s quest, and the whole picture, dissipates. The climactic massacre at Candieland has none of the startling intensity of the earlier violence at Big Daddy’s plantation, when Django declared “I like the way you die, boy” with righteous fury. The last 30 minutes of Django Unchained feel so empty that it becomes hard to remember how novel and even electrifying the movie was earlier.