Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Short Take: Django Unchained

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Writer-director Quentin Tarantino has become easier to pigeonhole as time has gone by. He’s essentially a 21st-century hipster version of Mel Brooks. He also has a fondness for 1970s blaxploitation tropes, a remarkably tasteless approach to historical subject matter, and a penchant for bloodletting that makes Sam Peckinpah look squeamish. Brooks went from one movie genre to another with his free-for-all spoofs, and so does Tarantino with his absurdist bloodbaths. He tackles the Western with Django Unchained, and, well, I much preferred Blazing Saddles. For starters, it was a lot shorter. (Django Unchained runs two hours and 46 minutes.) Jamie Foxx stars as the title character, a freed slave who is partners with a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) in the late 1850s. The first half follows their adventures hunting down criminals and collecting rewards. The second half is a convoluted melodrama in which the two conspire to free Django’s wife (Kerry Washington) from her current owner (Leonardo DiCaprio). He is a Mississippi plantation owner who is an enthusiast of “mandingo” fighting, an ahistorical sport that has two male slaves fight until one beats the other to death. I suppose Tarantino is trying to portray the dehumanizing horrors of slavery with this and other depictions. Among other things, the viewer is treated to whippings, brandings, and a runaway slave being torn apart by dogs. But Tarantino doesn’t use these for anything more than shock value, and the absurdist context--almost every scene has an oddball spin--makes their inclusion seem especially inappropriate. Tarantino isn’t in particularly good form outside of these moments, either. The dialogue is some of the flattest he’s ever written, and most of the scenes are poorly shaped and meandering. The action scenes are so violently over-the-top that they quickly become tiresome. One sits there marking time until the blood explosions end. Christoph Waltz is one of the film’s few saving graces. He has exquisite comic timing, and he plays his character’s impeccable manners off the barbarous environment hilariously. The other actors are nowhere as interesting. Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington are stolid bores, while Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson, who plays the plantation’s chief house slave, take turns chowing down the scenery. Their cartoonishness is of a piece with the rest of the film tastelessness. Robert Richardson provided the handsome cinematography.

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