Friday, February 22, 2013

"Django Unchained"

 3.5 / 5 

Too much of a good thing is not necessarily a better thing, as it goes with both the overall length and the graphic violence of Django Unchained.

On screen is the proof of just how much Quentin Tarantino has grown, matured and developed as a filmmaker -- and just how stuck in his ways he remains.  Like the fascinating person who doesn't know when to shut up and finally becomes dull and ponderous, Tarantino is so proud of his capabilities he can't resist indulging in them.

His use of on-screen violence isn't a commentary on masculinity, a satirical jab at a violent society, or even an effort to depict savagery as mesmerizing art -- it's simply sheer excess, and goes so over the top in the last 40 minutes of Django Unchained's bloated running time that it becomes exhausting.

And yet ... Django Unchained is an often masterful, fantastically entertaining movie that combines and reflects so much film history -- absorbs and reinvents it -- that there are times when it is a revelation,  never more so than when Christoph Waltz is on screen as the improbably named German dentist-turned-bounty-hunter Dr. King Schultz.

It's Dr. Schultz who gets the story going by unchaining the enslaved Django (Jamie Foxx, who's very good) in the first place, which an onscreen title card places two years before the start of the Civil War, even though the year depicted is 1858.  (Why the mistake?  Clever or honest?)  Schultz does so with an eloquently verbose flair that is his signature style, and Waltz turns a caricature into an indelible character with effortless ease.  Why in the world the Academy defined this central role as worthy of a Supporting Actor nomination is a mystery; Django Unchained relies on the Schultz-Django dynamic, placing Schultz at the forefront of the action throughout much of the story.  Waltz brings joyful mirth to a wholly original character, and he's a sophisticated delight throughout the movie's bloated running time.

Roughly the first third of Django Unchained wears the trappings of a post-modern, self-aware Western, beautifully photographed by Robert Richardson in widescreen glory.  Schultz teaches Django the ways of a bounty hunter, agrees to pay him a third of his rewards, and treats him as an equal.  One night, he asks Django about the woman named "Broomhilda" who the slave frequently talks about.  (Another one of those is-it-a-mistake-or-not moments, since Brunhilde is the German heroine and Broomhilda is a comic-strip witch.)

The story switches gears and gets into a very long second act that sees Django and Schultz trying to rescue Broomhilda, who turns out to be Django's impossibly beautiful, German-speaking wife, played with quivering dignity by Kerry Washington.  She's the property of plantation owner Calvin Candie (a fey Leonardo Di Caprio), and just as this vignette threatens to wear out its welcome, things seem to be moving toward a conclusion.

And then ... come to find there's another 40 minutes.  Another bloodsoaked 40 minutes on top of the great fun we've already had of seeing a horse's brains blown out, a black man torn limb from limb by savage dogs, and dozens of geysers of blood.

Capping it off is the film's seemingly clever but ultimately off-putting insistence on using the "N-word" as frequently as possible.  I lost track somewhere in the several dozens of uterrances.  The word is so pervasive it begins calling attention to itself, and over the course of 2 hours, 45 minutes, it's no surprise the mind wanders to questions of propriety.  Use of the word is demanded in a film that takes place in the Civil War ... but with so many other concessions to modernity in the film, no matter how anachronistically, is Django Unchained overloaded with "n---er" simply to shock, like the physical violence?  And when it's used by a black person as an epithet for another black person, context doesn't sap the word of power to disgust; ultimately, it feels inserted more for shock value than artistic integrity.

But still ... Django Unchained recalls everything from Gone With the Wind to Robocop, from Boyz N the Hood to Song of the South.  It mixes visuals from The Searchers and High Noon with Jerry Goldsmith's haunting theme to Under Fire.  It's a crazy quilt of classic movies that becomes something else entirely -- an almost-masterpiece.

Though Django Unchained is at times too self-absorbed and smug to work completely, and at others so violent that it cries out for a serious exploration of how effectively the NC-17 rating is being administered, it still manages to be almost ludicrously entertaining.

It's almost a victim of its own excesses.  Almost.  But, fortunately, not quite.

Viewed 2/22/13 -- ArcLight Hollywood


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