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Quentin Tarantino, Slave To His Habits: Django Unchained, Reviewed

Illustration for article titled Quentin Tarantino, Slave To His Habits: emDjango Unchained/em, Reviewed

1. Django Unchained is giddily entertaining, powerful, confident filmmaking by a guy who keeps finding new tricks up his sleeve with every movie. It's a big, sprawling statement that throws everything at the wall and sees what sticks, which has always been one of the strengths of Quentin Tarantino, one of the reason his ceiling is so much higher than most other filmmakers': He's absolutely fearless. You can almost hear Quentin Tarantino whispering off-screen OK, what if we try THIS? The downside that comes with that is that even geniuses need someone to rein them in from time to time, lest they forget the people they're ostensibly creating their art for. Django Unchained has moments of brilliance, and it is certainly never boring. Tarantino might have had a little too much autonomy this time.

2. The story is told in a far more straightforward fashion that any of Tarantino's other films. He sees this as an epic Western and thus doesn't want use his usual narrative zig-zagging. We have three sections: 1) A bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) purchases and frees a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) and together they take down a group of evil brothers; 2) The duo teams up to make money as co-bounty hunters; 3) They head to a plantation headed by an evil slave master named Calvin Candle (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his "house Negro" (Samuel L. Jackson) to free Django's wife (Kerry Washington). This is meant to be Django's tale, as we see him grow from illiterate slave to trained killer to strategic mastermind, but it becomes clear early on that this isn't Django's story, it's Tarantino's. Django, as a character, is a series of badass poses, and he's so loquacious, heroic, and iconic throughout that he's less a man on a journey than a Tarantino Definition Of Cool who stands still as various settings pass him by. Foxx gives Django an undercurrent of cold fury, but I'm not sure Tarantino thought much about what makes Django tick. He just want him to kill stuff.

3. That's fine. A large part of the fun of Tarantino's movies is the righteous violence, of which there is plenty in Django Unchained. But it feels oddly disjointed from the thrust of the story. Tarantino has made a movie about a slave's retribution, a riposte about a historic shame, akin to the virtuoso, magic trick he pulled off in Inglourious Basterds. But that movie felt almost preternaturally justified, blessed by the heavens even. The scene of the theater burning down as the image of Shosanna Dreyfus fills the screen, screaming "This is the face of Jewish vengeance!" has a visceral, primal power. There are touches of that here and there in Django, but mostly, this is Tarantino having fun, occasionally in ways perpendicular to the material. You want to see Django avenging the sins of a nation, exposing America's secret shame through rage and blood, but Tarantino keeps getting in the way, pointing at this Western homage he just dreamed up, to say ain't it cool? It is cool, sure, but Django Unchained, like Basterds, needs to be about more than is just cool; you don't get to attach yourself to a matter of such historic import and peril like slavery and then beg off because you get entranced by repeating a shot you saw in one of your old favorite spaghetti Westerns.


4. I can't help but wonder if the loss of Tarantino's longtime editor, Sally Menke (who died in September 2010) has hurt him here. The movie feels untethered, wandering loosely from place to place. The narrative through-line is supposed to be Django saving his wife, but Tarantino keeps pulling us away from it to noodle around. The tone is never consistent either, even more so than in other Tarantino films. We careen from a bloody standoff to a slapstick, not particularly funny Ku Klux Klan scene to Django having some sort of crisis of conscience out of nowhere to hey, there's DiCaprio, the guy we were supposedly trying to find the whole time. The movie was supposedly even longer, and I'm not sure Tarantino cut the right parts and left the right parts. The movie feels both meandering and truncated, often at the same time. And don't get me started on Tarantino's extended cameo, without question the worst acting of his career. He seems to need another steady hand on the tiller, and he didn't have it.

5. I don't want to go over the top here. This is still wildly fun at many moments and is full of those Tarantino moments that only he can pull off. I'm pretty sure Christoph Waltz was born to recite Tarantino dialogue; his cadence is perfectly paced to wring every ounce of enjoyment out of every word. Foxx and DiCaprio have an chemistry together that would be undeniable if only the director himself had recognized it. Oddly, Tarantino fails to give them the real faceoff you're waiting for. You will definitely get your money's worth. But this is one of Tarantino's minor works.

Grade: B.

Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.

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