Yes, yes, not very topical, I know, but with time at a premium I only just got around to tackling the well nigh 3 hours of this – why the hell must everything be so ass-numblingly long these days?
I find Tarantino a rather frustrating film-maker, to say the least. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction – stunning work. The fusion of free-wheeling banality with explosive violence and narrative inventiveness made a deep impression on me when they appeared. But since then, I’ve found it hard to like what he’s produced. Inglorious Basterds seemed mostly a self-indulgent shambles, foundering under the weight of its own self-referential cleverness.
Django is way, way better, for me, though it doesn’t get near the heights of his early work. It’s over-long, to my mind, but there’s a plot, some great scenes and some strong performances. It’s an homage to the spaghetti western, I guess, with Django recast as an escaped slave searching for vengeance and his wife in the pre-civil war South. The worst excesses of crazy captions, odd sound effects and bizarre digressions have been hauled in – Tarantino still has some peculiar habits of focusing on weird details in the editing that I find distracting, but the film felt pretty much on point, one could even call it a sequence of scenes together creating a story, and for two hours it kicked along and I really enjoyed it. But then he did somewhat the same thing he’d done in Inglorious Basterds – though admittedly a lot further in – by mounting a strange, very intricate and long-winded denouement three quarters of the way through in which the most interesting characters are killed. There’s certainly a degree to which that’s a challenging, shocking, interesting, perhaps even a realistic narrative choice. But there’s a larger degree to which it leaves your film feeling a little uninteresting for the not insignificant amount of time you’ve got left.
Cristoph Waltz totally steals the show, again, as Django’s Bounty Hunting Dentist Mentor, Leonardo Di Caprio I thought was great as the sadistic plantation owner and no one does a Samuel L Jackson impression like Samuel L Jackson. Jamie Fox was given a thankless role as Django, mind you, oddly a bystander in his own film. Waltz must have had half the lines and Di Caprio half the rest with Jackson taking most of the leftovers. For a surprising amount of time, the eponymous Django was just a guy in the room. Now Clint Eastwood can boss a western from that position, but a true spaghetti western – a Sergio Leone film, say, is all about the silence, and a Tarantino film is all about the talk. Waltz did all the talking and hence made all the impact, for large stretches Fox was just a cutaway. Kerry Washington had an even more thankless task as Django’s wife. She barely registered, a plot device if ever there was one, existing in order to be hurt and humiliated and therefore demonstrate how villainous her abusers were. We were nominally watching a film about their journey to freedom but most of what we got was an amusing character study of Waltz and a fencing-match between him and DiCaprio. Little real sense emerged of either Django or his wife as characters, let alone of the relationship that was supposedly the engine of the plot, so when they were left to carry the film themselves, there wasn’t much left to carry. It felt like we were given a strong two hours, but were left in the last act with a standoff between the hero’s sidekick and the villain’s henchmen.
But, hey, I’d far rather that than watch Inglorious Basterds again…