Warning: This review contains multiple uses of the T word.
For Quentin Tarantino every day must be like Groundhog Day, though a bloodier version in which a bullet tears through Punxsutawney Phil’s brain, the accompanying spear of burgundy breaking over Bill Murray’s face. One sympathises with the egotist as one journalist after another asks the same question about violence in his movies. What offends the humble observer, because one party in this threesome has to be humble, is not the idiocy that informs the question; each knee-jerkoff confusing the cathartic release that accompanies fantasy violence with a temperamental predisposition toward real world aggression; but that they’re digging in the wrong place. Why, they should demand to know, are Tarantino’s movies now so bloated, so self-indulgent? Why does a two page dialogue scene last for five pages now the magpie has apparently lost his wit? Does he think flamboyance is enough? He gets angry when people ask him about the gore. Just imagine how he’d respond to pertinent questions.
The bad news for anyone hoping that Django Unchained would be the Tarantino joint that finally married the style from his Noughties output with the quick witted dialogue of his Nineties numbers, is that all of the aforementioned questions still demand a response. He’s made a great movie but an underwhelming film; the kind of flick that paddles in the shallows with an ostentatious swimming costume. There’s fine samples from absent friends – Leone, Corbucci, Peckinpah – and Tarantino finally makes good on his From Dust Till Dawn promise to “turn this place into the fuckin’ Wild Bunch” with sublime, geyser inflected violence, but the film has no moral ambiguity; the hallmark of the great Spaghetti Westerns.
His heroes are well motivated and righteous; their enemies callous, opportunistic and self-serving. That’s fine but the Leone movies that made QT hard in his video rental days had antiheroes and villains brutal on the back of brutal reputations. There’s no scene in Django Unchained to put a lump in your throat like Henry Fonda’s child-slaying in Once Upon a Time in the West.
No sir, it seems that these days Tarantino is content for his movies to look good and say zip. There’s undoubted talent on display; a bewitched eye for composition, an instinct for what the camera can do and where to put it, but style is one thing, concision another. Tarantino, who’s probably seen more movies than you’ve had disappointments, is so in love with his own characters and the world they populate, reconstituted from his VHS collection, that he’s forgotten that judicious cutting can tighten a flick to within a frame of its maximum potential.
Too much of this Django seems long-winded with not a great deal being said at some length. Can you imagine? Here, it’s possible to see a filmmaker trapped by his reputation. Tarantinoids expect the master’s movies to be verbose and good-humoured but at what cost? I can say I’m reviewing Django Unchained or I can venture a proposition whereby I hereby give notice that I’m to write a notice, that’s notice of a notice, which you may be inclined to notice, of this most well-crafted and not displeasing photoplay from the heretofore mentioned winner of the Palme d’Or, but you may wonder why I couldn’t just get on with it.
There’s a lot of that verbal peacocking in Django…; Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio have their feathers permanently displayed, and whereas it doesn’t detract from the movie’s confident storytelling, there’s the sense that these moments on the lips add considerable girth to the film’s hips. Cutting to the quick and sometimes just cutting might have given it the momentum of an out of control stagecoach but Tarantino luxuriates in each scene like a coprophile in an outhouse. The movie’s still fun, the setpieces grand but such ornate packaging was made for finer contents.
Frustratingly Tarantino toys with substance, not least the deference and fierce loyalty of Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen to DiCaprio’s hereditary plantation owner, but beyond sketching that relationship he’s either unwilling or unable to dig deeper. Instead, sadism and directorial superciliousness drive the picture forward. Does Tarantino have a real movie in him? One that isn’t just a genre shot to the backside? Your guess is as good as mine. In the meantime we’ll just have to be content with Jamie Foxx’s djangos and a reservoir of blood.