Whatever their various failings, Quentin Tarantino’s movies are consistently bold, inventive and unique. They’re sometimes fiascos, but they’re always interesting to watch. As Tarantino has achieved greater success and acclaim, he’s had an increasingly difficult time reining himself in, filling each movie with seemingly every idea he has, no matter how well it all fits together. Tarantino’s latest, Django Unchained, is his longest movie yet (if you count Kill Bill as two), but in many ways it’s also his most focused in years, more cohesive and less scattered than Inglourious Basterds, Death Proof or Kill Bill
For its first 45 minutes, Django is pretty perfect Tarantino. As he did in Inglourious Basterds, Christoph Waltz makes a masterful entrance, here playing dentist-turned-bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz, who roams the American West of 1858 looking for wanted fugitives whose corpses he can trade for cash. In pursuit of his latest targets, the good doctor acquires a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx), who at first merely helps Schultz to identify the men he’s after, but soon becomes an equal partner in his business. From its first moments until Schultz and Django take down their initial targets, the movie balances witty, playful dialogue, creative shot composition, energetic performances and an engaging story. But that’s just Tarantino’s opening act.
The plot really kicks into gear after that, when Schultz, who despises slavery nearly as much as he enjoys killing miscreants for money, sets Django free and vows to help him reunite with his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who has been purchased by a sadistic plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Like Inglourious Basterds, Django is an over-the-top fantasy in which a historically oppressed minority (in this case, African-American slaves) is given the opportunity to take violent revenge on its oppressors. As Schultz and Django ingratiate themselves into Candie’s world in order to liberate Broomhilda, the movie builds toward a blood-soaked climax that does for slaves and slave owners what the similar climax of Basterds did for Jews and Nazis.
Along the way, Tarantino delivers plenty of gleefully gruesome violence, as well as homages to the spaghetti Westerns that inspired him (in particular, 1966’s Django, whose star, Franco Nero, has an extended cameo). Waltz is wonderfully flamboyant (and very funny) as Schultz, allowing Foxx to give a more understated, intense performance. DiCaprio, however, is never quite in sync with Tarantino’s style, and always seems like he’s trying a little too hard to strike a balance between cartoonish and affecting.
As the movie approaches the three-hour mark, all of Tarantino’s entertaining excess starts to feel a bit redundant, especially when he stages one massive, violent confrontation that comes off like the story’s culmination, only to detour for 20 minutes and then come back and do it all over again before the credits finally roll. Django is undoubtedly one of the most creative and striking movies of 2012, but it’s also one of the most exhausting.