“Django Unchained” is the eighth full-length film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, who has manifested one of the most brilliant careers in the history of cinema. His is a vision and point-of-view that is unique and uncompromising. In addition it is one that he expressed from the very beginning of his career with total indifference to what is considered marketable, either for the studios or the indie movement.
Yet, with great irony, he has virtually redefined popular movies. Only the Danish director, Lars von Triers, with his “Dogma 95” movement, has had a comparable level of influence on contemporary filmmakers.
I count myself among his admirers, but I regret to announce that “Django Unchained” is the first movie I have seen of his that reveals the limits of his talent, and that includes a talent for publicity. Early on he generated controversy at the beginning of his career because of the extreme and sadistic level of violence in his films. Furthermore, there were also complaints that his characters were excessively cold and decadent.
However, Tarantino had such a brilliant flair for dialogue, comedy, and narrative, and such an evident passion for the art of cinema, that he always won the battle for praise by critics and audiences over the resistance of his detractors.
His most recent films have only intensified the level of violence and sadism, as if he were putting his fans to the test. Unfortunately, one of the problems with “Django Unchained” is that some of the intended jokes don’t quite hit their mark.
For example, in the film, set during 1858 America, a group of slaves in Texas, forced to trek in chains, are freed from their by a conscientious German-born bounty hunter posing as a dentist. They are now going to wreak a violent vengeance on their former Simon Legree-like overseer, who is not only wounded, but trapped under a dead horse.
The overseer tries to forestall the inevitable by making a few lame jokes and behaving as if he can generate some goodwill in his executioners, and we are supposed to laugh at his failed attempt to prolong his soon-to-be concluded life. The problem here is credibility. For humor to be effective, there must something for which an audience would likely find believable or even better, identify with. Yet the total improbability of his reaction nullifies the “comedy”, and leaves a lingering air of banality.
This is not to say the talent of Tarantino has flown; there is one hilarious scene that involves a posse of racist cowboys who interrupt their assault on the protagonists so they can complain about the ineffectiveness of their hooded masks.
However, though his talent is still evident, in total, “Django Unchained” is uneven as entertainment, and unevenness is something that an artist such as Tarantino cannot risk. Without the pleasure of consistently effective laughter, the violence and cruelty in his films becomes not only unpleasant, but tedious.
“Django Unchained” is, in part, a tribute to the spaghetti westerns of the years 60s, but with an African-American, rather than a Caucasian, protagonist. The story involves a slave, who with the help of the German bounty hunter is liberated and longs to rescue his wife from her own evil overseer.
To that end, there is a LOT of violence; frequently with heads exploding, and it is closer to the spirit of Sam Peckinpah than Sergio Leone. There are also, incongruously, a few moments of lyric beauty and romanticism, but the total effect of all the extreme bloodletting is to devalue life itself.
Ultimately, the final triumph of the couple is virtually ironic, in that there seems to be nothing else outside their existence beyond the nihilistic, misanthropic world created by the writer-director. The charisma of its actors — particularly Jaime Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel Jackson — helps sustain the viewer’s attention over its 165-minute running time. Still, Tarantino does not provide enough compensatory pleasures as a filmmaker to conceal the conceptual weaknesses of “Django Unchained”.