Judging from the controversy surrounding its release, it would seem that Quentin Tarantino's sprawling spaghetti-western homage has, unlike his previous exercises in revisionist genre mythology, hit the wall of political correctness head-on. A simultaneously gruesome and cartoonish revenge fantasy set just before the US Civil War within the strict codes of westerns regardless of their garden variety (traditional, spaghetti, revisionist), Django Unchained tells of a freed slave (Jamie Foxx) become righteous African-American avenger of the evil of slavery done by Southern white men, as the right-hand of men of German bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). All of it is, as usual in Mr. Tarantino's work, played simultaneously "for real" and "for laughs", with the writer/director's dazzling command of language, knowledge of genre tropes and love of garish, climactic set-pieces constantly present.
And, yet, the new film feels curiously stilted, shapeless, lacking the vibrant energy that propelled his earlier work, though thematically and stylistically it is the reverse twin of the previous Inglorious Basterds: a fanciful actioner rewriting history in keeping with the bowdlerization of classic American genres by 1960s and 1970s low-budget European productions, shifted from the WWII mission movie to revenge-western mode. Django takes its title from a Sergio Corbucci western of the 1970s, and the blood-red title cards, ochre-tinted cinematography by the ever-wondrous Robert Richardson and clumsy fast zooms that pop up regularly reveal the depth of detail the director puts in its pastiche of period popular cinema. But just as Inglorious Basterds was a sort of dialogue-as-action movie, Django Unchained takes that concept one step further, in such a way that distends the film into a bulky, unjustified nearly three-hour length, so enamored and self-aware of its writing and of the number of clever ideas and similes it gives birth to that it stops cold far too often for no obvious reason.
Wagnerian references to Twilight of the Gods mesh with blaxpoitation classics and low-budget cult entries - Django is out to save his beloved Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington), a slave taught German by her former masters, to the idiosyncratic sounds of modern hip-hop or Morricone-like instrumentals, while supporting stalwarts such as James Remar, Bruce Dern or Franco Nero show up in bit parts - but there is a sense of bloated excess at work here. Part of it probably comes from the more linear structuring of the narrative, unusually straight-forward for Mr. Tarantino's back-and-forth scripts; the non-linear storytelling of previous films like Jackie Brown or Kill Bill worked better for the constant tonal shifting of the story's episodic momentum than a more traditional narrative, where a lot of it is presented as lateral sidetracks that flesh out but are not essential to the main narrative thrust. It should probably not be forgotten that Mr. Tarantino is here working for the first time with a new editor, Fred Raskin replacing the director's long-term associate Sally Menke, who died unexpectedly after Inglorious Basterds; this could probably explain the lack of "bounce" in the film's more conventional rhythm, as well as the almost entire reliance of the film on the dazzling power of words to create their own world.
The director's appropriation of genre for his own ends is as fascinating and impressive as it has always been - he is effectively rewriting the history of slavery as he rewrote the history of WWII in the previous film, under the cover of a pitch-perfect genre homage - and the cast throws himself with relish into the serious playacting asked of them. Tarantino regulars Mr. Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson (the piece's real villain, playing a powerful head slave at a plantation) come off best, giving the director's choice dialogue perfect intonation, but Leonardo di Caprio as an effete but ruthless slaveowner gives as good as he gets, and Mr. Foxx has only to look cool to pull off a role that seems somewhat underwritten, for all of his centrality to the plot. And, as daring and unexpected as a lot of the film seems, what is most unexpected is that Django Unchained suggests a director let loose in his toy box without actually having a tight, taut idea what he wanted to use it for. For all the choice moments, there's a sense that Mr. Tarantino never really found the true film he wanted to make - and that, more than anything else, is probably why so many people are decrying his chilling depictions of the brutality of slavery and his exhilarating approach to revenge.
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Christopher Waltz, Leonardo di Caprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, James Remar, David Steen, Dane Gourrier, Nichole Galicia, Miriam F. Glover, Don Johnson, Franco Nero, James Russo, Bruce Dern, Jonah Hill, Lee Horsley
Director and writer: Quentin Tarantino
Cinematography: Robert Richardson (colour, widescreen)
Designer: J. Michael Riva
Costumes: Sharen Davis
Editor: Fred Raskin
Make-up effects: Gregory Nicotero, Howard Berger
Producers: Stacey Sher, Reginald Hudlin, Pilar Savone (The Weinstein Company and Columbia Pictures)
USA, 2012, 160 minutes
Screened: distributor advance press screening, Columbia Tristar Warner screening room (Lisbon), January 4th 2013