Messy, nasty, outlandish, and overlong, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained continues two rather unfortunate trends that have plagued 2012 films. First, it suffers from a lack of editing. This is likely intensified in Django due to the regrettable loss of Tarantino’s long-time editor Sally Menke, who died in 2010, shortly after completing Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino has always been self-indulgent (auteurs are often more vulnerable to this characteristic than other directors), but this film could have benefited greatly if it were 135 minutes as opposed to 165.
The second trend is that of filmmakers capable of making great films making films that are “merely good.” Tarantino started his career on a high point in the 1990s with the one-two punch of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, which have since become crime and film noir classics. Some subsequent films, such as the Kill Bill martial arts extravaganza, have escaped comparison with his best work. Others (Jackie Brown, Grindhouse) have not fared so well. Django struggles in its comparison with Basterds.
The script is witty and over-the-top, and the cast is in fine form, with Christoph Waltz leaving his unsettling Col. Hans Landa persona behind and adopting a good-hearted dentist-cum-bounty-hunter for Tarantino’s new film. Jamie Foxx is adequate, though other actors may have taken the title character in more interesting directions.
As promised, and as easily predicted from Tarantino’s knack for memorable villains, Leonardo DiCaprio has the best role and is responsible for the best scene in the movie (the “skull” narrative). DiCaprio is gleefully unhinged: angry, smarmy, vicious, and unforgettable, undoubtedly the one to bet on for the film’s Supporting Actor nomination.
However, the film lacks the instant classic moments of the farmhouse scene at the beginning of Basterds, or the showdown in the underground pub, or the final shootout. It sorely misses the presence of a strong female character such as Melanie Laurent’s Shosanna, who was independent, assertive, and strong-willed. On the contrast, it’s almost as if Kerry Washington’s Broomhilda stands around waiting to be rescued.
In addition, some scenes are particularly overcooked. Tarantino’s signature cameo was jarring, and Jonah Hill looked out of place. In fact, while the whole KKK “mask mockery” was amusing, its tone was rather disjointed from what followed. The film is also phenomenally violent, with several scenes topping Tarantino’s sky-high threshold for brutality.
Django Unchained is one of the more entertaining films of the year. Nevertheless, it remains a slight misstep from one of America’s most talented and idiosyncratic directors. It’s the most fun Tarantino has had in a long time, and nobody does a bloody revenge epic like him, but in terms of returning to the thrilling heights of Mr. Blonde and Jules Winnfield, we will have to keep waiting.