The Western gets the Tarantino treatment has been the vainglorious gist of the media campaign for this unassuming little fragile film. Well, the good news is that it’s a far superior piece of revisionist history than Inglorious Basterds. The bewildering critical and commercial success of that film continues to baffle me. It was a war film without any real war. Despite its epic running time, it was sketchy and incoherent. Despite its ‘men on a mission’ premise it was barely an ensemble piece. It seemed the goodwill glow engendered by that rightly revered opening farmhouse scene convinced cinemagoers that the uneven mess that followed was of a similar calibre.
Thankfully, the first hour of Django is a different beast entirely. For a while, Tarantino seems intent on curbing his own predilection for indulgently long scenes. Initially, this film has short connective scenes that move the story on with pace and addictive momentum. Genuinely, the opening half of this film as Christoph Waltz’s bounty hunter Doctor King Schultz frees Django (Jamie Foxx) in order to track down the fugitive Brittle brothers is as good as Tarantino has been in decades. Perhaps since his career opening salvo.
To Quentin’s immense credit, Waltz has been handed a peach of a role as the charmingly verbose German who plies his retrieval trade under the guise of a travelling dentist. His eloquent use of English habitually confounds his cow poke adversaries giving him a lethal advantage in any duel. His originally self-serving liberation of Django softens slowly into mutual respect and friendship – a relationship endearingly accelerated by the mere coincidence that Django’s beloved wife goes by the Germanic name Broomhilda. Schultz’s simple desire to speak his native language with someone is a brilliant insight into his character’s loneliness and alienation within America of that era.
With all the verbal fireworks handed to Waltz, it’s a deceptively tough spot for the ostensible star Foxx to be in. By necessity, he is forced to be the stoic, hardened and taciturn hero at the heart of a quest to find and free his enslaved wife. Some occasional humour emanates from Django but the spotlight is constantly dragged elsewhere with Waltz at first and later Leonardo De Caprio and Samuel L Jackson dominating the screen. Foxx excels as the strong, silent type but it’s a losing battle for the film to keep the focus on his character especially once the action transplants to Calvin Candie’s plantation – the incongruously titled Candyland.
Beyond his blackened teeth, Leo’s Calvin Candie is not that vivid a creation. He is all costume, accent and affectation but there’s no real insight into his heart of darkness. True, there are instances of extreme cruelty that emanate from his character but he hardly registers on the baddie scale and is utterly usurped by Jackson’s indelible etching of the house slave Stephen who is so outraged by Django’s open flouting of freedom. Seemingly brainwashed by generations of slavery, Stephen is bitterly committed to the enforcement and maintenance of the supremacist status quo. In fleeting screen time, Jackson easily eclipses fellow villains Di Caprio and the mute moustachioed gunslinger Kurt Russell with insouciant ease.
The main crux that infects the film is that it slows to a snail’s pace upon arrival at Candyland. Tarantino’s fondness for long–winded rhetoric re-emerges at the worst possible time as it all goes a bit ‘Downton Abbey’ with everyone sitting down to supper. In doing so, Tarantino allows the audience too much thinking time. One is allowed to consider that isn’t this just a reprise of that kitchen table scene from ‘Inglorious’ albeit at the opposite end of this movie. And isn’t he just remaking the same revenge film constantly and just changing the milieu? And then finally when the speechifying is done, the self referential aspect goes haywire as we are treated to a cowboy variation on the Crazy 88. The slaughter is all masterfully handled and some will love the bullet fest but I was left pining for something different and more. Considering the setting, the climax could have been leaner, darker and derived from character instead of dependent on scale and blood squibs.
And then the audience discovers that even this violent crescendo is not actually the end. The film goes on again with an ill fitting epilogue featuring a lazy escape where Tarantino abdicates his writing duties for an incredibly easy option. More violence follows but mentally, everyone is already in the car park.
In fairness, this film is an entertainment behemoth. It gives major bang for your buck but I can’t shake the feeling that the two-hour version of this film is a stone cold classic Western. What emerges here is big and bloated. To over-extend a metaphor, in this film Tarantino allows himself plenty of rope resulting in large stretches of slack. When snapped taut, Django Unchained is superb. How much the various languors diminish your enjoyment is probably a matter of personal taste. It may be a Western but there’s no reason why everyone has to end up feeling saddle sore!!!