Django Unchained is Tarantino Unrestrained, a film that simultaneously displays the very best and worst of this filmmaker. After rewriting the history books with the audacious climax of Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino has now turned his attention to slavery, using American cinema's most iconic and durable genre to explore the most shameful period in the country's history. Having allowed the Jews to turn the tables on Hitler, this second historical fantasia follows a freed slave who turns bounty hunter and wreaks bloody vengeance against plantation owners in the Antebellum South. It's a volatile premise, and there's certainly something bracing in the idea of one of the most singular auteurs in American film engaging with the subject of slavery in his typically forthright manner.
The problem is that Tarantino isn't really engaging with America's slavery past because Django Unchained doesn't really take place in America. Every film Quentin Tarantino has made from Kill Bill onwards has existed in Tarantinoland; a place slightly removed from the real world and governed by the rules of film genre. Django Unchained follows the pattern of the films that have preceded it by acting as a showcase for Tarantino's stylistic verve and indulgent monologues before climaxing in carnage, but rarely digging beneath the surface to find some human emotion. It's no coincidence that Tarantino's last recognisable 'real world' film (Jackie Brown, the only film he has adapted from someone else's material) is still, I think, his best work.
Django Unchained is far from Tarantino's best, but in its opening hour it looks like it might get there. In its favour, the first half of the movie gives the spotlight to Dr King Schultz (Christopher Waltz), a dentist-turned-bounty hunter who frees Django (Jamie Foxx) from his chains and hires him to help locate the Brittle Brothers, a gang of outlaws he has been fruitlessly tracking. Waltz is the perfect actor for Tarantino, so at ease with the director's verbose dialogue and such a pleasure to watch as he uses his superior intellect and verbal skills to manipulate every negotiation to his advantage. His loquacious civility is a perfect foil for the silent steeliness of Foxx's performance, whose Django often seems as bemused by the white man riding alongside him as everyone else. Tarantino gets plenty of comic mileage out of the incongruity of this partnership, and the opening hour contains some of the director's best visual work, with potent images such as a Klan raid at night or blood splattering onto cotton being skilfully photographed by Robert Richardson.
Unsurprisingly, Tarantino doesn't soft-pedal the racism in any way. Many of the southerners Django rides past simply gape open-mouthed at the mere sight of a "nigger on a horse" while others respond more aggressively, but Tarantino makes them all buffoons, playing up their ignorance and incompetence for comic effect. These characters are habitually dumbstruck by Schultz's verbal dexterity (even a word such as "ascertain" prompts the response "Speak English!") and the Klan raid is halted by the riders complaints about the eyeholes in their hoods, with the man whose wife made the hoods leaving in a huff. In fact, Django and Schultz don't encounter any racists who carry a genuine threat until they reach Candieland. Regrettably, this is also where the film stalls and never recovers.
Candieland is the plantation run by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose favourite pastime is watching two black slaves fighting to the death. He currently has in his possession Django's wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), and in order to get her back Schultz comes up with a plan that involves them posing as Mandingo experts and offering to purchase one of Candie's fighters. It's a needlessly convoluted approach that adds nothing to the film but a lot of repetitive talk. DiCaprio is miscast in the role – he can't express the character's sadism and menace when it counts – but he appears to be having a lot of fun as the moustache-twirling villain of the piece. What struck me about halfway through the long Candieland sequence was the realisation that I wasn't having fun, and hadn't been for some time. Django Unchained is 165 minutes long, but what matters is not how long a film is but how long it feels, and the film feels bloated and sluggish, like a rough cut in need of another pass in the editing room. Scenes are allowed to drag, cuts disrupt the film's rhythm, and even some of the musical choices feel like temp tracks awaiting further tinkering from the director.
It's a shame Tarantino couldn't have cut off some of the film's fat (his own risible cameo would be a good place to start) and instead exploited the rich potential in some of his supporting characters. As Candie's wizened and toadying manservant Stephen, Samuel L. Jackson gives the film's most startling performance; a fascinating portrait of subservience and malevolence that eventually marks him out as the film's most interesting antagonist. I was hoping Tarantino would give the talented but perennially underused Kerry Washington a meaty role, but she's nothing more than a damsel in distress here, and even after Django rescues her she takes no part in the final revenge, waiting patiently outside for her man. Broomhilda strikes me as the first totally nondescript female character Tarantino has ever written, and in a film about the uprising of the downtrodden black man, it seems like a missed opportunity to not give her at least one strong moment.
But the biggest disappointment of Django Unchained is that the film ends in the only way Tarantino seems to know how, with a bloodbath that suggests the director is trying to one-up his previous efforts. The climactic shootout is long and messy, with blood spurting out of multiple wounds and splashing up against the white walls. Tarantino directs Django's bloody vengeance against the white oppressors with obvious glee, but in doing so he makes the film seem ever more cartoonish and undermines the seriousness of the white-on-black cruelty he attempts to depict in a more sombre tone. The violence in Django Unchained isn't shocking or cathartic, it's just numbing and puerile. Tarantino has made another film that satisfies all of his own urges – referencing his favourite films, including his favourite music, starring his favourite actors – but again I find myself being disappointed in his determination to make a film that fits neatly within the filmography he has become obsessed with rather than daring to engage with something bigger than movies. Django Unchained could have been a bold and shocking examination of American history, but it's just a Spaghetti Western that has been badly overcooked.