This may be a back-handed compliment, but I can’t, for the life of me, explain why Django Unchained worked so well as a movie. Yes, Tarantino is a skillful director and a masterful writer. I know the actors are talented, lauded performers, and I always find it clever how Tarantino juxtaposes visuals with music unmoored from it’s original time and meaning to create his unique atmosphere. I just can’t pinpoint why it’s so effective every time.
I first discovered QT renting Reservoir Dogs blind at a local video store. I liked Harvey Keitel and thought the graphics on the cover looked cool. I watched it after my parents and siblings had gone to sleep, to avoid distressing my brothers and sisters or defending the movie while I was watching it to my parents, who have no interest in violence in films. The broken timeline, swaggering dialogue, and perfect timing hooked me, and I knew I had found a storyteller I’d keep an eye out for in the future.
Of course that paid off when I saw Pulp Fiction, his masterwork. As someone who loves Jackie Brown and thinks the Kill Bill movies are ridiculously entertaining, Pulp Fiction towers above everything he’s done or will do. But even Pulp Fiction confounds me when it comes to why it is as good as it is. I don’t try pulling it apart, though. Because I fear doing so would diminish it somehow. Too often behind the curtain there’s just a small man toying with machinery.
So in keeping with my love of his movies, I went to see Django Unchained, and was greatly entertained. Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio were excellent, and Samuel L. Jackson and Christoph Waltz were revelatory. The pacing was brisk for a nearly three hour epic, and the cinematography was grand. Lastly the dialogue was everything Tarantino does well, both stylized and completely natural.
But here’s where my confustication arises. The story is a simple one: a slave (Foxx) in pre-Civil War America is purchased by a bounty hunter (Waltz) to track down outlaws. He is given his freedom for helping find three very bad men, and by that time has developed a friendship with the bounty hunter. These friends now travel to the plantation where the former slave Django’s wife ( the luminous Kerry Washington) is suffering beneath a horrid owner (DiCaprio) and his loathsome house-slave (Jackson). A rescue scheme leads to bloodshed, then revenge through even more bloodshed. Django, like Inglourious Basterds before it, is Tarantino giving a wronged people the taste of revenge actual history denied them. Evil men are made to pay for their wrongs, and are shown no mercy. Each cruel plantation hand and owner gets their comeuppance in fountains of blood, and Jaime Foxx looks cool dispatching them. Waltz lends humor and pathos as a man much more dangerous than his gentility would lead you to believe, and delivers some of the best speeches Tarantino’s ever written. And while DiCaprio’s terrorizing but ultimately stupid plantation owner is electrifying on screen, Samuel L. Jackson steals every scene they share from right under him as Stephen, who is infinitely crueler than his master could ever hope to be.
There are excellent scenes throughout, which is where the problem (if it truly is a problem) might lie. Even though the film is straight narrative, with very little of the timeline out of joint, it coheres strangely. That’s the best I can do to describe what made this an entertaining movie, but fall short of his best work. For, as much as the scenes fall chronologically in order, and as great as those scenes are, they never seem to coalesce into one solid narrative. It’s a bit like reading a novel broken into short stories. Each story stands both dependent and independent of the ones that come before and after. Each works, and together they tell one narrative, but ultimately they feel disjointed. Further adding to the sense of disjointed-ness is the now common revelation of some of the pieces left out of the movie. Hearing all the rumors of secondary characters, backstory, and unfilmed scenes makes me actually hope Tarantino does retire from movies, as he’s threatened, and jump to cable. Perhaps with three or four seasons of a television show to work with he can put everything in his freakishly creative imagination on screen. And yet, I think of Django as a terrific film, and I certainly recommend it, even if I can’t explain it. If you’ve enjoyed Tarantino as a director, writer or both, there’s a lot in this movie to admire. It probably won’t be one I re-watch with the regularity I revisit some of Tarantino’s other films, but I can’t deny I was thoroughly entertained, and I’m certain if you like his work, you’ll be as well.