I know many of us have gone to a movie simply because of the “over-hype” where the end product was nowhere nearly as good as the sales job. I have just discovered another arena of disappointment: “over-expectation.” As a big fan of westerns and of the films of Quentin Tarantino, I have awaited Django Unchained as if it were the star on top of the Christmas tree. Imagine my surprise when the film he delivered did not live up to what I envisioned he could deliver. And I’m not saying it’s a bad film, but it has enough little things wrong with it to chalk it up as a disappointment.
I knew it was basically a “southern” as opposed to a “western,” as it’s set in the deep south before the Civil War and was influenced greatly by Richard Fleischer’s 1975 “southern” Mandingo. But it also had the trappings of the classic Spaghetti Westerns from Spain and Italy, including the now-familiar use of music cues from other films by Ennio Morricone. In Django Unchained, there’s good use of the main theme from Don Siegel’s Two Mules for Sister Sara.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Jamie Foxx is the title character, a slave acquired by a bounty hunter to help him track down some baddies who he knows by sight. Christoph Waltz, an Oscar-winner for Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, is terrific as the German dentist turned tracker. And Leonardo di Caprio may win his first Oscar this year as the menacing, merciless plantation owner who also happens to own Django’s wife. He plays a vile, contemptible creature who has no redeeming qualitites whatever. After all, a person would have to be that to make a living in the slave trade business. His performance crackles with evil, all to the betterment of the film. Kerry Washington and Samuel L. Jackson have the other two roles with the most screen time, Washington as Django’s wife, and Jackson as di Caprio’s manservant who has his fair share of evil within as well.
As usual, Tarantino gives bit parts to such stalwart character performers as Don Johnson, Michael Parks, Bruce Dern and others. But unless you stayed for the end credits, you wouldn’t know that Robert Carradine and Russ Tamblyn were in there, as they are totally unrecognizable.
At two-and-three-quarters hours, there is not enough plot and characterization to keep things flowing. The third act, once Django and Dr. Schultz get to di Caprio’s plantation, seems to go on forever. Tarantino came up with a script full of ideas, and he wanted to make sure that all of them made it into the finished film, instead of honing and polishing it into the best possible film it could be. Editing is virtually non-existent in Django Unchained, and that is its major downfall. It’s a western, it’s a southern, it’s a comedy, it’s a treatise on racism and slavery, it’s this, that, and something else again. The stunt casting of Jonah Hill for one scene… if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen his entire performance… injects echoes of Blazing Saddles to the proceedings.
I could go on for a while about all the little things that bothered me, but I won’t. I’m still a big Tarantino fan, and if you are as well then you should see Django Unchained. If you are not, and are put off by excessive violence, brutality and language, you won’t like it anyway.
For the next outing by this imaginative filmmaker, I’ll just have to heed my own advice and not expect too much. Maybe in doing that, I’ll be thrilled by what I see.
The R-rated Django Unchained is currently showing at your local Cineplex.