Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, Jamie Foxx
Rated: R, for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity
Runtime: 2 hours, 45 minutes
Bottom line: It is a Tarantino film
Quentin Tarantino. The name inspires a wild mixture of reactions.
Tarantino has unquestionably given us a couple of the most memorable works of the last 20 years of American cinema: “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction.”
He is an auteur with a style as distinct as any living filmmaker, combining the broad characterization, indelible imagery and intentionally outrageous violence of exploitation cinema with the graceful cinematography, quality acting and complex structures of art cinema.
However, his movies are also among the most self-indulgent of any major filmmaker. The things that seemed joyful and fresh in his first films grow more tiresome with each new release.
The films have grown longer without becoming more substantive. His characters deliver pop culture soliloquies rather than speak like believable people. He casts himself and his childhood heroes in his films, which fails as often as it succeeds.
Tarantino has an encyclopedic knowledge of film history and loves to celebrate his influences. Yet the more familiar one becomes with Tarantino’s influences, the weaker his work seems because we realize he isn’t just influenced by these earlier filmmakers, he steals directly from them.
He copies sequences shot for shot, bases his characters on characters from other films (the name Django comes from the Italian films “Django” and “Django 2,” starring Franco Nero), and reuses music that was used distinctively in earlier films.
With “Inglourious Basterds,” Tarantino demonstrated a willingness to rewrite history, too. Most filmmakers feel an obligation to stick to the basic facts when adapting a historical event to film. Tarantino approached World War II with the shameless attitude of a grindhouse schlock master — which is, when you get down to it, his true identity.
Each time Tarantino releases a film, you know it’s going to be something to deal with, to either love or hate, to defend or denounce, but definitely to discuss, whether you want to or not. At almost 50 years old, he is still an enfant terrible.
Every one of these trademark qualities are on full display in “Django Unchained.”
For two-thirds of the film, I thought I was watching Tarantino’s masterpiece. There’s a distinct moment that launches us into the final act of the film, and right up until that moment, “Django Unchained” is better — and better by a long shot, mind you — than anything Tarantino has done.
Perfect compositions, beautiful cinematography, witty turns of plot, references to earlier Westerns that pay homage without distracting and all of it against a backdrop of meaningful themes: slavery and race relations.
The performances are also a joy to watch. Christoph Waltz devours scenes as a scheming bounty hunter who takes far too much pleasure in his work. It’s a delight, and possibly even profound, to watch Waltz and Jamie Foxx (as Django) team up against some of the most abhorrent figures of the Reconstruction Era.
Speaking of, be prepared to hate Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson in ways you never have.
But then, the third act comes along, and the other Tarantino takes over, the Tarantino incapable of editing himself, who prefers to provoke rather than offer a coherent message, and who absolutely, positively has to kill every character in the room.
Tarantino loves to end his movies with grand guignol-style climaxes of bullets and blood. Here, he borrows egregiously from “The Wild Bunch” and numerous spaghetti Westerns, but the climactic scenes are embarrassingly clumsy.
And the movie drags on and on. It’s 165 minutes long but seems even longer.
But then, you probably know all of this already because you know what to expect from a Tarantino film. What is there to say about “Django Unchained” that can’t be inferred from the name of the director?
Perhaps it is time to stop reviewing Tarantino movies altogether. Perhaps it is time to merely write of any new Tarantino film, it is a Tarantino. In spite of myself, perhaps that is the highest compliment I can pay any filmmaker.
Jeff Marker teaches film and literature at Gainesville State College. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.