It seems that in the past year, the distance between the beginning and end of most films has lengthened drastically. In some cases, the length is justified. Some stories are too full to fit into 90 minutes. In most cases, the audience doesn’t notice the length because the film is so engrossing. However, some films, like “The Master” or “The Hobbit,” meander and at times lose the audience for the sake of the director’s vision.
Such is the case with famed director Quentin Tarantino’s latest revenge fantasy, “Django Unchained.” While entertaining, towards the end I was left wondering why it was still going and how much longer I had to wait until the obvious conclusion. I looked back at Tarantino’s films and they all have about the same running time —“Django” was only around 10 minutes longer than “Pulp Fiction.” But then “Pulp Fiction” was a breakthrough film for an exciting, upcoming director. “Django Unchained,” on the other end, is a variation on a theme first introduced in “Inglourious Basterds.” As such, it seemed a bit much.
As I said, this is a revenge fantasy. “Inglourious Basterds” took on the Nazis with a gang of Allied Jewish soldiers who killed and mutilated the Third Reich with wild abandon. They even succeeded in rewriting history by successfully killing Adolf Hitler in a theater bombing. It was an homage to war films, stylistic and funny, violent and audacious, and every bit the Tarantino film fans have come to expect.
“Django” can be described in much the same way—simply replace the Nazis with slave-owners, Germany with the American South, and soldiers with bounty hunters. One might wonder if future Tarantino revenge films will be about other atrocities, maybe taking on the Soviets or exploring U.S. Native American policy. The story is about a German dentist with a distaste for slavery turned bounty hunter who buys a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) to help find a couple of lawbreakers and earn the reward for their heads. It turns out Django has a knack for killing and the pair team up to clean up the west of evildoers before heading to Mississippi to free Django’s wife from a wealthy planter. The film is filled with gunfights and racial epithets, familiar Tarantino storytelling and dialogue and a compelling musical score. I suppose this is a love note to spaghetti westerns—but there is much more spaghetti here than western, as Tarantino enjoys making sly references to cult art.
Most of the film is enjoyable. It’s not a classic, but there are moments of brilliance as usual, although they seem to be couched in jokes rather than original ideas. Take for instance the scene with the KKK night raid. It is likely the best sequence in the film, yet you can’t help but be reminded of “Blazing Saddles.” It’s a Tarantino take on Mel Brooks material. Of course it’s wonderful—but it’s not necessarily original.
Most Tarantino movies are like this—reference upon reference to films that the typical audience has never seen. This isn’t because Tarantino is a thief—he genuinely loves film and wants to inspire its love in his audience. At the same time, his films sometimes work too hard at being clever. He doesn’t need to prove his knowledge of film history in every shot. In fact, he might be better served proving his knowledge of real history. The guns in the film were very much out of touch with the time period—if repeating rifles and pistols were this accurate, reliable and widespread in the South, there might have been a different outcome to the Civil War. But then again, in his last film Tarantino changed history even more drastically, so he’s not interested in accuracy.
As much as the film felt too long, it would be hard to convince any director of Tarantino’s quality and reputation to cut it down. I’m reminded of the film “Amadeus,” when Mozart is told by the emperor that his most recent opera has too many notes, and that he should cut a few. He responds: “Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?” Were Tarantino to ask me a similar question, I’ll admit I’d be at a loss. Such is the divide between art and criticism.