January 10, 2013
During the opening scenes of Quentin Tarantino’s revenge-fantasy, “Django Unchained,” a bounty hunter opens fire on a pair of slave traders. The bounty hunter kills one man, but his second bullet goes astray, causing the realistic and graphic death of a horse. It’s the second killing in a toll destined to exceed three dozen men and several animals, but the death of this creature is particularly unsettling.
How and why all the mayhem occurs might be more affecting in a less surreal story, or if the characters, who needed killing, possessed some redeeming qualities.
Tarantino intends to kill most of his characters, but their deaths are no more meaningful than that of the typical disposable comic book villain – notable for copious quantities of red annotated by “splats.” In an effort to amuse us, Tarantino fills walls with arterial blood spray, shoots human heads off above the nose, and repeatedly depicts the length of a victim’s state of consciousness after receiving a lethal bullet to the heart.
While treating his characters superficially, Tarantino is interested in their topics of conversation. This strategy works when the topic is novel or interesting, but the director regularly exceeds the tipping point, blunting our interest by over-discussing.
Set in 1858, two years prior to the Civil War, “Django Unchained” places a rifle in the hands of freed black slave Django, then provides Django with any number of reasons to gun down a host of bad men who take pleasure in hurting and killing the innocent.
Mixing his favorite genres, the spaghetti Western and blaxploitation, Tarantino casts six name actors, each of whom he must have promised 25 minutes of screen-time – perhaps necessitating the film’s 2-3⁄4-hour runtime.
While Jamie Foxx, as Django, exudes charismatic cool, the film belongs to Christoph Waltz, and fades once he exits, approximately 100 minutes in. Waltz appears as Dr. King Schultz, a soft-spoken German bounty hunter. Through his association with Django, Schultz discovers that he is also a passionate abolitionist, although puckishly addicted to making money by killing those “Wanted Dead or Alive.”
Humorously, Schultz has mastered a nonthreatening brand of prattle designed to put murderers at their ease, moments before he offs them using a small concealed pistol.
Django, the slave Schultz frees, possesses the hand-eye coordination of a natural sniper and agrees to become Schultz’s partner in return for help finding and freeing Django’s beautiful, enslaved wife (Kerry Washington). Following a montage of killing set to Jim Croce’s “I Got a Name,” Django and Schultz arrive in Mississippi, where they’ve tracked Django’s wife to Candieland, a plantation belonging to the sadistic, obscenely rich Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio in an unctuous, mannered performance that eventually wears thin).
Samuel L. Jackson shows up in the creepy role of Stephen, referred to by Candie as “my house (blank).” Befitting the time and place of its story, the film makes abundant use of the “N-word,” but breaks its spell with an anachronistic musical score that includes rap pieces.
Humorously, Don Johnson is cast against type as vengeful, money-hungry slave owner, Big Daddy, but once again, Tarantino goes too far by scripting Big Daddy’s hood-wearing posse to obsess over their hoods’ inadequate “eye-holes.” Likewise the director depicts the torturing of slaves, but his point is diminished by prolonged scenes that finally qualify as satiric torture-porn.
Wildly uneven, “Django Unchained” is a flabby collection of inspirations that get lost amid writer-director Tarantino’s refusal to perspire while editing himself or the extremely disconcerting death of a hapless horse.