Too much style over substance in 'Django Unchained'
Following the colossal impact of ‘Pulp Fiction’, Quentin Tarantino's reputation kept him a cult favourite straight through smaller pictures like ‘Jackie Brown’, the ‘Kill Bill’ series, and even the less impressive ‘Death Proof’.
But 2009's ‘Inglourious Basterds’ proved that Tarantino was capable of extending his reach to new viewers, utilising his unique stylistic sensibilities to harness rich, booming, emotional stories.
In the wake of ‘Inglourious’, we expected the same marriage of style and substance from ‘Django Unchained’. An immediate follow-up to the 2009 masterpiece, ‘Django’ keeps in step with ‘Inglourious’ in framework: they're both period pieces, both stories about a people's oppression, both vehicles for the tremendous talent that is Christoph Waltz.
But where Tarantino's World War II wonder felt like a meticulous melding of his outsider auterism and mainstream dramatic cinema, ‘Django’ is more an example of Tarantino's heightened confidence as a result of ‘Inglourious’ — he has conquered the mainstream world, and now can infuse it with everything he might have been holding back last time around.
But this is where ‘Django’ falters: while roundabout conversations and stylistic violence are a staple of Tarantino's work, here his usual gambit feels overdone, and more than a bit worn out.
The story takes the charismatic King Schultz (Waltz), a pre-Civil War dentist-turned-bounty hunter, on a mission to assassinate a trio of known criminals. He teams up with slave Django (Jamie Foxx) — whom he apprehends by murdering his masters — because investigations have led him to understand Django is someone who can identify by sight the targets in question.
A moralistic opponent of the very idea of slavery, not to mention a big-hearted romantic, Schultz agrees to both grant Django his legal freedom and to help him rescue his beloved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of a sinister slave owner in exchange for his assistance in completing a montage of bounty missions.
The pair's early journeys offer a good deal of fun — the first act of the movie is chock full of Jedi Mind Tricks imparted by Schultz upon enemies of the conquest, Kill Bill-ian cutaways, and an off-kilter vignette that plants a horde of Klan members in goof-around banter that would be more at home in ‘Blazing Saddles’.
But once Schultz and Django arrive at the plantation of the dastardly Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, who has fostered a great deal of excitement with this casting but downplays any opportunity for memorable madness) to rescue Broomhilda, the fury of the film dips.
Several meandering exchanges between Candie and his visitors (employing the façade of slave traders interested in purchasing some of Candie's prized Mandingo fighters) precede a dinner setting that is established to grant the heroes certain triumph or certain doom.
Where this chapter of the story should easily be the most engrossing — akin in form to the high-anxiety bar showdown of ‘Inglourious' or the diner robbery in ‘Pulp Fiction’, we never break a sweat.
Even when suspicions arise — courtesy of babbling house servant/secret mastermind of the Candie operation Stephen's (Samuel L. Jackson, whose performance is a gem) watchful eye — we're never too worried about the outcome. The stakes are never presented with as much weight as they deserve.
But alongside this absence of substance, there exists overstuffed style: far too many "endings" to the movie (as Tarantino feels the need to tack on new forays for Django long past the story's expiration date), one too many shootouts, a few too many bad guys (the sheer number robbing each of his effective villainy), and conversations that even devoted Tarantino fans will find to be rambling.
And while all this could be prepared successfully, it would need something more below the surface to make it work.
We never really get to know Django and we're dealt a "damsel in distress" so flimsy we never form any real attachment to her.
As such, we never feel in danger, even in the film's hardest moments. And while we might have fun at a few points along the way, without this gravity, it doesn't quite feel like a successful journey.
Star Rating: 3/5