REVIEW: Tarantino's Django Unchained A Bloody But Bloated Affair

Movieline Score: 6
Django Unchained review

Quentin Tarantino continues his quest to fight history's great oppressors by way of the movies in Django Unchained. Inglourious Basterds conjured up a squadron of tough Jewish-American soldiers who took Nazi scalps and chased down Hitler with the help of a French Jewish theater owner, a British film critic turned lieutenant and a Allies-affiliated German movie star. Django Unchained doesn't literally bring the forces of cinema to bear against slavery in the same fashion, but it does use tropes of Spaghetti Westerns and exploitation films to build the character of a former slave who learns to shoot and eventually faces down the residents of a plantation in order to retrieve his wife. There's something inarguably rousing about Tarantino's exuberant revisionist history, about the way he rewrites wretched eras in the past so that those who suffered are able to have their bloody revenge.

And yet, Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds are my two least favorite works in Tarantino's oeuvre, not because of their concepts but because of their expansive, unhurriedly indulgent qualities. Don't get me wrong — he's still able to offer up scenes set to music that are the cinematic equivalent of a velvety slice of rich cheesecake, he has a facility with and takes an unbridled glee in dialogue in a way that's unequalled among filmmakers working today, and he comes up with unforgettable characters that feel intensely modern but also like they've walked out of some long forgotten but incredible film. It's possible that no one does momentary pleasures like Tarantino, and Django Unchained has no insignificant amount of instances of sheer enjoyment, from an introductory sequence in which a scene-stealing Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz liberates the titular slave (Jamie Foxx) from traders to one in which Django rides onto an estate to some anachronistic hip-hop.

But the film also comes across like a rough cut that was never looked at as a coherent whole, and some segments that start off as promising become interminable while others feel entirely unnecessary. There's no pressure on or expectation for Tarantino to please anyone other than himself, and the film feels overstuffed with ideas that should have been pruned. That sense of fun needed to power something this outsized wanes before the film reaches its ending, two hours and 45 minutes later — it's not a feature that you want to last forever, but one that seems to take it for granted that you feel that way. There's a good movie inside Django Unchained, maybe even a great one, but it hasn't been carved out of the lopsided excess.

Django Unchained begins two years before the Civil War in the wilds of Texas, where German dentist-turned bounty hunter Schultz pulls up alongside a line of slaves being transported across the state. He hates slavery, but needs the help of Django in order to identify a trio of murderous brothers who once worked on the plantation from which he came, and so he buys the man with a promise to free him and give him a share in the reward once the deed is done. Cheerful, eloquent and dryly funny — "If there are any astronomy aficionados among you," he tells a group of slaves suddenly facing the possibility of freedom, "the North Star is that one" — Schultz gets many of the best lines, and the segment in which he takes Django under his wing and shows him the ropes of being a bounty hunter are outrageously enjoyable, as they enact a Southern Western, face down an angry town from the confines of a bar, venture onto a plantation owned by Big Daddy (Don Johnson) to find their targets in a confrontation that splatters blood across the cotton growing in the fields, and face down the Klan in a scene that's pure Mel Brooks.

Waltz and Foxx are terrific together, the verbose, flowery Schultz balancing out the taciturn Django as he shakes off his former identity as a slave (just as he casts off his blanket in extravagant slow motion, bearing a scarred back) and becomes a confident force to be reckoned with. But the film slows its pace to a crawl as the pair travel to a giant Mississippi estate owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) called, naturally, Candyland, where they come up with a plan to buy back Django's wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Samuel L. Jackson is there too, playing a canny house slave named Stephen even more concerned with enforcing the power structure than his owner seems to be.

If the first part of the film is Schultz's, the second is Django's, but he's competing with big, talky performances from DiCaprio and Jackson that diminish his presence in comparison, as Tarantino lets a pair of scenes at a club and later at a dinner spin out endlessly like a virtuoso playing his instrument past his audience's threshold of enjoyment and, eventually tolerance. The film is so in love with certain elements, like DiCaprio's monstrous preening, his sister's (Laura Cayouette) exaggerated Southern belle simpering and Jackson's toadying, that the suspense of the ruse that's being played gets lost in the clutter. By the time the film ends, and then ends a second time, it feels exhausted, not electric.

Django Unchained is filled with film geek touches, including a cameo from Franco Nero, who played the title character in the 1966 Spaghetti Western Django, music from Ennio Morricone, the presence of both Russ and Amber Tamblyn in a town scene, and Zoe Bell and Tom Savini playing two of a group of trackers. They're classic Tarantino — but the film's not short on auteurist touches. It's an unfortunate example of a director disappearing so far into his own vision that he's lost interest in taking a step back and looking at it in its entirety.

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Comments

  • jack miller says:

    "Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds are my two least favorite works in Tarantino's oeuvre..." Stopped reading after that. If she didn't like IB why even bother seeing Django. Somehow I think I'll enjoy this more than the new Twilight film, which she also gave 6/10. What a joke.

    • Ronnie says:

      I had to take the review with a grain of salt after I read her thoughts on "Basterds" as well. But that's fine, everyone has different opinions, and the review was well written if nothing else. Reviews have been overwhelmingly positive overall, and I have little doubt it will be one of the year's best.

  • The Pope says:

    @Jack Miller... the reason why Alison Willmore went to see Django is because it is her job. And from her review, I think she does it well. Like many people I saw the Django script a long while ago and while it had flashes, it also felt flat in places. Having seen the film, little has changed.

    And as for you Twilight 6/10 complaint... false equivalency.

  • Rachel says:

    As much as I liked Inglorious Basterds, it was too damn long. I'm hoping that Django Unchained won't be quite so bad in that respect but I'm sure with all the incredible actors in it I'll stay entertained.

  • Kevin Goodis says:

    Even without seeing the film, this sounds about right. You either like Tarantino's self-indulgence or you don't. You either forgive him a raft of excesses or you don't. You believe he's earned them or you don't. In short, he treats the spectator like a lover. Some of us aren't willing to be in this relationship, and we look on as others accept the abuse. Meanwhile, the people who stay think there's nobody who can ever be this man's equal. It's a pretty strange dynamic.

    • Megan says:

      You sum it up pretty well, Kevin. The reviews I've read for this so far are divisive in quality, just like with Basterds. As for me, I adored Basterds and like almost all of what QT has done. I'm very much looking forward to Django.

  • Tony says:

    Pretty funny that she gave twilight the same score as Django.

  • kevin says:

    Stopped reading after you said Inglorious Basterds is one of his worst films.
    And giving Twilight the same score? Laughable.

  • I certainly wouldn't call Inglorious Basterds my least favorite Tarantino movies.....I loved it, and it was probably the best of 2010. Django doesn't quite hit the target the way Basterds does, but the sharply penned scrip and the incredible acting (especially from Dicaprio) really give this movie an extra boost despite the gaping running time. Sorry you didn't like it as much!

  • Kaiser says:

    This was actually a horrible review, I can understand maybe not liking it but for all the reasons she states of why she hates the film and just her writing tendencies in general are atrocious. Can't believe Rotten Tomatoes even counts any of her reviews.

  • Jamie says:

    Having seen the film last night, I think this is a fair and considered appraisal of its undoubted merits (Christoph Waltz a standout) and many flaws (QT's cameo being a particular lowlight). There's much to admire, but it's a long way off the standard he achieved with Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown. You can't help but feel a bit disappointed.

  • Personally, I loved Inglorious Basterds, but I don't judge Allison for pointing out she wasn't keen on it....that is a detail that is key here. The purpose of a review is to decide for myself if I am interested in seeing a movie. Bad reviews only say a film was good or that a film sucked.....this review dissects what did and didn't work for Allison....the fact that she didn't like Inglorious, and thought Django had many of the same flaws....allows me to know that I will probably still like this movie. It doesn't make her a bad critic that she doesn't agree with us.

  • Other Chris says:

    "There's no pressure on or expectation for Tarantino to please anyone other than himself"

    I had the exact same response to Kill Bill 1, as well as halfway thru Kill Bill 2 (walked out on the other half). It seems to me that the poor box office performance of Jackie Brown, Tarantino's most mature and restrained movie, prompted him to swing in the other direction and just pour on the cartoony violence and flimsy structure that mass audiences seem to be drawn to. It's the difference between being a great director and just a blockbuster sell out. Quentin is better than this, but it's Transformers that makes the money.

  • Darcus says:

    A pretty accurate review and refreshing amongst all the other fawning reviews that seem to have little understanding of what actually constitutes an entertaining film. This film was probably 45 minutes too long and rushed through production, giving Tarantino little time to fine tune nearly every aspect of it, from lazy dialogue to inconsistent characterisations and incongruous editing. Just when you think Tarantino is going to deliver a classic scene he moves on, leaving the viewer pondering a wasted opportunity. It could have been great, but just ends up being tedious with short breaks for half witty patches of dialogue and all too brief action scenes.

  • PeterC says:

    Agree a total indulgent pretensious mess of a movie.

    Tarantino is the biggest doochbag and plagiarist in the movie biz today. Lazy filmmaking is right on the button. This fool has fooled too long.

    Personally I think he is given waaaaaaaaaaaaaay too much slack - but the fanboys and fools will go out to see it. Go figure.

  • Johnny C says:

    Great review.
    Django is a cobbled together mess of a movie. It lacks cohesiveness, well-written characters, humor, suspense, a logical plot, editing--virtually everything that makes a movie worth seeing.
    Mel Brooks took on racism with an incredibly sly wit in Blazing Saddles. It was funny as hell. Tarantino takes on racism by blasting the racists head's off in slow motion with "artistic" sprays of blood shooting off in every direction. The entire movie, particularly his indulgent use of the word nigger, made me wonder if he really understands racism at all. It pained me to see such good actors trying to make sense out of such trash. Some movies I walk away from thinking that I wasted my time. This one I wish I'd never seen.

  • Daniel says:

    I went to see this movie tonight and left about half way through. I was not the only one to leave. The level of brutal violence makes watching this movie painful. PLEASE do not take your kids to this. While I understand the violence that was common in the slave days, this went abaove and beyond. Did not think the script was very good either. Not impressed!

  • Fazor Roth says:

    Ketchup-Porn.

  • buggsbunny says:

    Why is everyone reviewing the review? Who cares? Why is she better than I am at deciding if the movie is good? And what the heck does Django have to do with Inglorious Basterds, except it's the same Director? Seriously, each movie stands on its own. One can be good, another can be bad. In this case, I loved this movie so much, I saw it twice already. Tarantino's portrayal of over-the-top violence and blood shed is so over-the-top that it stops being real or disgusting. Christopher Waltz, as always, is perfect in his part. Jamie Foxx is just outstanding. Leonardo DiCaprio must have had a ton of fun playing the Southern Plantation owner (Candy land"-who but Tarantino would think of that?). There was some fine humor, but the movie portrays the violence, abuse and inhumanity of slavery in a realistic and terrifying way.

  • Leo says:

    Just seen Django and I didn't like it, I loved every piece of art that Tarantino made before, but with Django I couldn't feel the emotions in the guts. The characters are awesome; every actor plays the role perfectly. But the movie's pace made me feel like if something was missing. Even some of the tunes didn't get along with the scenes.

  • Michael Daly says:

    Alison Wilmore is a complete hack. She consistently snubs popular movies to make herself relevant like so many other unqualified "critics" who can't get a job with a legitimate newspaper. Start your own website, go against the grain for the sake of itself and anyone can become a name.

    • Darcus says:

      Just because a movie is popular doesn't make it good. I'm not a critic, I'm a filmmaker and a award voting member and Tarantino's film just doesn't stack up. It is rushed piece of work that had little script development and a rushed shooting/release schedule (as heard from the horses mouth when I saw the film last year at its second ever screening.) Unfortunately, the public is increasingly corralled into thinking what is good and what isn't as part of the huge marketing machines that are behind these films. If you understood anything about scripts, pacing, continuity and general story construction then you would see the huge glaring holes in this film. But hey, I don't care. If you want to waste your money, that's your choice. Thankfully only my time is robbed when sitting through 2hrs 45mins of tedium and missed opportunities, that passes off as an 'epic' and is just another case of the emperors new clothes.

  • Kevin K Walter says:

    Nice to read a well thought out and level headed review. Anyone complaining about the "score" given misses the point of a review... to read the damn thing. Django had moments of brilliance (many of them), and is at times the best job Tarantino has done of melding quirky storytelling, gorgeous dialogue, and excessive gore with dead serious subject matter to create his own brand of truly unique cinema. Poor pacing and editing are the film's undoing.

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