Quentin Tarantino's new movie, Django Unchained, is by turns brilliantly executed, wickedly funny and interminably tedious all at the same time. Starring Jamie Foxx as a pre-Civil War era slave — the aforementioned Django himself — the film is yet another platform for film-nerd Tarantino to lovingly name-check (and update, in the post-modern fashion) sub-genre films long ago forgotten.
In this case, the hommage is aimed at the shoot-'em-up epics of director Sergio Leone, the Italian master of what came to be called "Spaghetti Westerns," in which the cunning and irony of the dark-hatted hero did bloody battle with disreputable and amoral villains. It was sometimes hard to make out one from the other, giving these films a contemporary and cynical edge. One could see how 1960's audiences worn out by the same old western tropes would find such films compelling.
In the case of Django Unchained, the wiliness and cunning is provided by an itinerant German bounty hunter, played with delicious restraint and bounteous good humor by Christoph Waltz (who won a best supporting actor Oscar in Tarantino's last film, Inglorious Basterds). Waltz's partnership with Jamie Foxx makes for one of the more inspired buddy films in memory, and is the heart of this blood-spattered and schizophrenic film.
Why is this an example of bipolar filmmaking? Because at the end of the day, Quentin Tarantino — whose Pulp Fiction I have always revered for its verbal panache and absurdist touches — doesn't quite know if he's a comedian or a tragedian. While I find the sequence in Django where the KKK dudes can't get their white-mask eyeholes straight hilarious, it's tantamount to having the S.S. monsters in Schindler's List start dancing Gangnam Style at Dachau. A conflict in tone, to say the very least.
At 2.5 hours, there had better be plenty of compelling dialogue or ramped-up action to justify sitting us down for such a spell. Though one could take a nap in the expository first hour, the second and third acts are reeling headlong to a brutal barrage of bullets mindful of Brian De Palma's much-satirized ending of Scarface. Whatever one thinks of screen violence, when it's overdone so thoroughly it becomes more of a live-action cartoon than anything else. Think of Quentin as a combination of Walt Disney and Howard Hawks. Or as a funnier Sam Peckinpah.
Colloquially and casually speaking, I enjoyed the film, but suspect the storied Chinese food effect is about to kick in— I'll be hungry for something more substantial and memorable in a few hours. Tarantino is a master of transitory entertainment, yet one suspects he has grander moral ambitions wedded to his "exploitation-film" sensibility that are never quite realized. That he chooses villains like Nazis and sadistic slave-traders as fodder for his dramas indicates he needs broad barns to project his revenge fantasies onto. Nuance is absent, which is part of the allure — prepare to be assaulted rather than massaged!