If you had pulled me out of the theater one hour into Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, I would have raved. The first portion of the movie is utterly exuberant, full of life and the love of moviemaking. But the mid-section, with Leonardo Di Caprio as a cocky plantation owner, is so drawn-out that it drains almost all the life out of the picture before its lively, violent revenge finale. Tarantino has never been noted for self-discipline, but he seems to have fallen in love with his material and refused to hone it. It makes me wish that he and producer Harvey Weinstein had pursued their idea to split the film in two, echoing what they did with Kill Bill. A pair of Django movies might have been more palatable than this two hour and 45 minute marathon.
What makes this even more frustrating is that the film is bursting with ideas, more than enough to enthrall any movie geek, from Tarantino’s homage to spaghetti westerns (red-lettered main titles, Ennio Morricone music, a cameo for Franco Nero, who starred in the 1966 movie Django, and snap-zoom shots recalling a long-abandoned style of cinematography) to scenes filmed in the Alabama Hills outside of Lone Pine, California, site of so many vintage Westerns. Even sharp-eyed film buffs may have trouble spotting all the veteran actors who appear in fleeting cameo roles.
Christoph Waltz dominates the first part of the movie as a garrulous bounty hunter. He disarms us with his Old World charm, which is particularly incongruous in his uncivil surroundings. Jamie Foxx is also quite good as a slave freed by Waltz, but his turn to shine comes later. As his performance blossoms, the film slows to a crawl when we settle in at Di Caprio’s plantation home, where the house slave is played by Samuel L. Jackson, in an outrageous parody/homage. Kerry Washington has a thankless role as Foxx’s wife, depicted mainly as a damsel in distress.
It’s a shame, because there is so much to enjoy—even revel in—in Django Unchained. Its irreverent take on the Old South and its customs, its audacious look at slavery and even the Ku Klux Klan, will long be remembered, but the film is weakened by indulgence and overlength. These shortcomings don’t seem to bother some critics and viewers, judging by early reaction to the film. I wish they didn’t bother me as much as they do…but I can’t help thinking how much better and stronger the film could have been. (It may not help that the writer-director was finishing it right up to its release deadline, with no chance to step back and re-examine his work.) Quentin Tarantino is a uniquely talented man with a passion for movies that shines through everything he does. Django Unchained confirms all of that—along with his inability to edit himself.