If “Inglourious Basterds” was really a Spaghetti Western in a World War II setting, then “Django Unchained” is really a Blaxploitation film in Spaghetti Western clothing. This could be frustrating in its own way, but it may be that “Django’s” intentional identity crisis is what makes it seem jumbled, messy, overlong and almost incomplete.
The ironic part is that this is true of every Quentin Tarantino film. He’s crafted an entire genre all his own in which the messy parts make the experience so damn fun. But Tarantino really was working up to the wire on “Django;” reshoots and last minute editing took place up until early December.
Yet to call “Django Unchained” incomplete makes it sound as though there’s something missing. That would be like having a German folk legend without a mountain; of course there’s one. What’s absent is the spark and allure that made “Inglourious Basterds” so infectious and invigorating.
Gone is the tingling suspense in the dialogue that suggested Hans Landa knew more than he was letting on or that ordering a glass of milk was a sign of an epic search years in the making.
Here in “Django,” the characters are more exciting and colorful than the story, and their dialogue is concerned with whether someone will snap at yet another instance of the N-word and ignite a “Wild Bunch” proportioned firefight. The details behind the motivations seem to be just a matter of circumstance.
Take The Brittle Brothers, a mysterious and vicious gang with a big bounty on their heads. Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a man gifted with his guns but more so with his words, wants to capture them badly, but he knows neither their whereabouts nor what they look like. Django (Jamie Foxx) however, does. Schultz goes through the trouble of freeing Django from a pair of slave owners and enlists his help, and the two dismantle the trio of brothers in no time. The brothers’ threat and their reason for being matters little.
The real story then is Django’s quest to reunite with his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). They discover through the uninteresting means of a logbook that she is the property of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the wealthy owner of the Candieland plantation. Candie is an avid lover of Mandingo fighting, in which black people brutally beat each other to death in front of adoring whites, and Django and Schultz’s plan is to impersonate wealthy buyers so that they can purchase Broomhilda out from under them.
Even Broomhilda is no one of consequence to anyone but Django. Broomhilda’s transaction could conceivably be handled civilly, but Schultz craves a good battle of wits, and Candie is a Southern Gentleman who just doesn’t want to be made a fool. Django is really just along for the ride.
That’s the problem with “Django Unchained;” in its current edited state, the plot too seems to be along for the ride. Tarantino squeezes juicy moments from the lot, such as Django’s garish blue outfit, some verbose wordplay by Waltz and a few gunfights scored to gangster rap, but they matter less than in the Westerns and Blaxploitation films they were inspired by.
Consider one of the film’s best scenes in which Candie places a skull of a black man on his dinner table in front of Schultz and Django. He eloquently preaches the pseudo-science of Phrenology to explain why black men are inferior to whites, wielding a hammer in a threat to bash some skulls both figuratively and literally. The moment is electric, but it’s a put on, isn’t it? It’s very convenient that Candie has a skull lying around, and he’s only doing it to be showy.
There’s also the moment where a posse of whites ride in brandishing torches and wearing pillow sheets to lynch Django. Just before their attack, one of several of the film’s spontaneous spectacles, he rewinds back to a hilarious routine in which everyone complains that they can’t see out of their sacks. Wouldn’t you say this scene almost intentionally interrupts the movie’s flow?
By the time Tarantino arrives at his exorbitantly bloody finale, he barrel rolls past it to remind you it’s not a Western but a Blaxploitation film, wedging in a torture scene, a director’s cameo and a new, less interesting villain. Something is definitely jumbled if the climax seems to have passed.
“Django Unchained” is like Candie’s belief in Phrenology. The science seems to all be there, and it’s captivating when you hear it, but there’s definitely something about it that feels wrong.