For his most recent film, 2009's Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino restaged World War II so that his Jewish heroes had their revenge on the Nazis. It ended in an orgy of violence, and I loved it.
Likewise, Tarantino's new film, Django Unchained, is a pulp fantasy of the antebellum South in which a black man avenges slavery by killing a lot of white people. It, too, ends in an orgy of violence. I didn't love it.
The premise sounds like satisfying entertainment, and it is for the first hour or so. The title character, played by Jamie Foxx, begins the film as a degraded, dehumanized man in bondage, being transported across the Texas desert to be sold. He will stop at nothing to save his wife, Broomhilda, from whom he was forcibly separated. Broomhilda? Yes, that's one of the film's early charms —Django's wife is a German-speaking enslaved African-American.
At the outset, Django is saved by Dr. Schultz, a German-born bounty hunter who needs his help to find three particular fugitives. Schultz is played by Christoph Waltz, who won a well-deserved Oscar for his Nazi in Inglourious Basterds. This time, however, he's playing a good guy. Schultz and Django develop an unlikely relationship as they head eastward into Dixie. At heart, they are buddy cowboys in a Western.
The charming scenes continue: There's the sight of Django on horseback in a Little Lord Fauntleroy getup, and there's a scene involving an early, botched design of the Klansman's hood. There are fond cameos, too—Don Johnson, Russ and Amber Tamblyn, a Carradine. The music presents another lovingly curated Tarantino mixtape comprising old spaghetti Western themes by Ennio Morricone and Luis Bacalov and songs by Richie Havens, Jim Croce and Johnny Cash.
But soon enough, Django and Schultz enter the heart of the movie's darkness, a terrifying plantation called Candyland, ruled by a sadist named Candie. Perhaps it was the sight of that character being played by a millionaire white actor, Leonardo DiCaprio, that pushed me away from the film. DiCaprio has permission to spew out "nigger nigger nigger" while consigning a black man to be eaten by dogs. He sits idly in a parlor, encouraging two black men to beat each other to death for his entertainment. At Candyland, we also meet Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), a hideously fawning house servant who serves at Candie's command.
I began to wonder how the film had earned the right to depict such horrors in the pursuit of entertainment. Is American history too important or maybe too tied to many of this country's current problems to be left to pulp filmmakers? It's a tricky question: Steven Spielberg will never be accused of bad taste with his careful, solemn history pageants like Amistad and Lincoln. But his movies have failings, too; black characters, for instance, scarcely existed as autonomous beings in Lincoln.
No, I don't trust Tarantino to have his way with this country's history of slavery, or even to have his way with the 19th century and the Western, not in an 1858-set film where dynamite is used as a key prop (it wouldn't be invented for another decade, in Europe). In other scenes, Schultz and Django effortlessly shoot moving targets at long distances; given that the invention of the rifle was a few years away, this marksmanship is probably beyond Buffalo Bill. Fans of the traditional Western may balk at a scene in which Django and Schultz shoot an unsuspecting unarmed man in the back from a safe sniper's distance. John Wayne wouldn't have done it that way.
It's just a movie, right? And Westerns have been violating the historical record for a century, even though John Ford's Westerns were notably attentive to period detail. Perhaps Tarantino felt on surer footing with Basterds, which explored a more recent and heavily documented subject. Django Unchained shows signs that Tarantino did little research beyond repeated viewings of Sergio Corbucci's 1966 spaghetti Western Django and a blaxploitation from 1975 called Boss Nigger, written by and starring Fred Williamson.
Historical oversimplifications make Django Unchained less interesting than it could have been. Whenever white people see Django on a horse, or accompanying Schultz in anything less than a position of abject bondage, they look on with horror. It's the setup for an obvious punch line, which Django provides with obsequy: "They've never seen a nigger on a horse." It makes for a good laugh, but truth is, there were many free African-American cowboys in the West; in Texas, one in four cowboys was black. Free blacks were common in urban areas like Charleston and New Orleans, and literacy was not unheard of.
Indeed, there are only two well-drawn black characters in the film: the righteous Django and the despicable Stephen. The other black characters (including Broomhilda, who, as played by Kerry Washington, is little more than a quivering damsel in distress) are passive and helpless, given little to do but gawk at the action or be brutally killed. The situation is a marked contrast to Inglourious Basterds, which featured an entire cadre of individually realized Jewish commandoes. Why couldn't there have been a band of inglourious black cowboys?
But Tarantino doesn't aspire to Spielberg's respectability. Even if the historical reality were more nuanced (where some African-Americans were able to live with a semblance of freedom and dignity, and not every white person a cretinous psychopath), it would do little to mitigate the unconscionable barbarity of the antebellum South. The whips, chains, rapes and murders were all too real. An evil era is fair game for a sensationalist like Tarantino.
Still, Django Unchained is not his best work. Inglourious Basterds—like Jackie Brown, Pulp Fiction and the second Kill Bill—included narrative invention and surprise that is missing here. In Inglourious Basterds, when the Jewish fugitives hid in a cellar while Waltz's terrifying (and terrifyingly funny) Nazi interrogated their protector, the suspense became extraordinary because we didn't know what would happen next. In Django Unchained, with comparatively minor exceptions, I always felt I was astride of the plot, if not a step ahead.
That feeling takes its toll during a movie that, in the end, is simply too damn long for bloody-minded revenge. The original Django lasted 97 minutes, while Boss Nigger was even tidier at 87 minutes. But Tarantino's redneck Grand Guignol is 165 minutes long. The last hour is an excruciating coda of bloodletting kept alive by a single plot point: Candie's refusal to accept an extravagant sum of money to rid himself of a troublesome slave. The glut of carnage, sadism and a cameo by Tarantino (distractingly bad as always) drains the fun from the film. If Tarantino had found a way to wrap up his entertainment sooner, Django Unchained would be a decent, disreputable night out.
But at nearly three hours, it's overkill in every sense of the word.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Research and/or rhetoric."