Django Unchained is easily the least impressive feature film yet made by director Quentin Tarantino. Nothing to do with what it does or does not say about racism in America, or the liberties it takes in turning a very tender period of history into a violent exploitation film, or any of that (though I think it says unfortunate things about where our culture finds itself in the second decade of the 21st Century that we've decided as a society to find fault with the famous black director who has serious misgivings about the project, while giving a free pass to the famous white director who made it in the first place). On the level of pure, mechanical filmmaking, this is far and away the least I've ever enjoyed watching a Tarantino film: the screenplay is astonishingly messy for a writer whose loopiest tangents still feel focused and purposeful in a way that doesn't make immediate sense, the dialogue lacks the arch, self-amused tang of Tarantino at its most bright. And considering that the most impressive parts of his last film, Inglourious Basterds, concerned lengthy dialogue-driven scenes where virtually nothing happens and it was exciting as all hell, the number of discrete points in Django Unchained that hit "oh, just get on with it already" territory was genuinely heartbreaking.
I don't want to read too much into anything, but I honestly think the film's biggest single problem is the absence of Sally Menke, the editor of every single one of Tarantino's projects from his 1992 professional debut, Reservoir Dogs, until Inglourious Basterds, his last film before her unexpected death at age 56 in 2010. That would certainly be enough to explain why the film's overall rhythm seems off, lacking the punchy, even jokey cutting that has long been, for me anyway, one of the best hallmarks of the director's films; certainly, it's the best possible explanation for why so many scenes seem to linger beyond their natural expiration point, leaking energy rather than building it as they go on. No disrespect intended to Fred Raskin, Menke's assistant on the Kill Bill movies, but while Django is more than competently cut together, it lacks the flippant spirit that was so consistently wonderful in Menke's work. And who knows? Maybe she'd have been able to talk her director down from making quite such a long movie - 165 minutes - or to keep it from running into quite so many blind alleys (a final sequence that is bizarrely redundant and padded-out, or a desperately long chat that ends in a man being ripped apart by dogs, a scene that conflicts with the tone of the rest of the movie in a very bad way).
Which isn't to say that Django Unchained is bad. It is, in fact, good, though only good; and good in a way that promises a much better movie wanted to be made. If nothing else, having seen the completed movie, I am still quite positive that Will Smith (Tarantino's original choice, who declined) would have been considerably better in the title role than Jamie Foxx. But that is really quite immaterial, since the movie we've received is the one with Jamie Foxx as the main character: a slave purchased and the freed by the delightful, friendly German-American bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) - oh, shit, Dr. King, I just got that - and having gotten it, I think I wish I hadn't - who takes the young black man as his pupil and trains him in the ways of bounty killing in the American South of 1858 and 1859. Eventually, the two of them mount a daring rescue to save Django's wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington, utterly wasted), from the notorious plantation Candieland, so named because it is owned by the grinning devil Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man with a taste for anachronistic puns.
Insofar as every Tarantino picture since Jackie Brown has been, at heart, a modern-dress version of a '70s exploitation genre, it's no surprise that Django Unchained is basically a mash-up of blaxploitation and spaghetti Westerns (the title references 1966's Django, one of the most classic of Italian-made Westerns, and as has become ubiquitous with Tarantino pictures, classic Ennio Morricone cues are omnipresent on the soundtrack), for all the good and ill that promises: ill, because despite any after-the-fact protestations to the contrary, the film really does not have anything insightful to say about America's history of racial subjugation and violence, in a way that Inglourious Basterds has many insightful things to say about the way history and pop culture regard World War II (the relative scarcity of films on slavery outside Tarantino's cherished Mandingo - which is quite an important touchstone here - perhaps explains this, for riffing on older films is the most important throughline in the director's canon).
And good, because Tarantino sure as hell knows his blaxploitaiton and spaghetti Westerns, and while Django Unchained doesn't scale the heights of his greatest films, in wit, creativity, or addictive energy, it's still crammed full of wonderful individual moments, some of which feel more like deleted scenes artlessly shoved back in: the much-discussed lynch mob arguing over their hoods is undoubtedly hilarious, but it's also disconnected from anything else happening in the movie. But those are the rarities, and much of the film ambles by with the sharply-drawn cartoon characters typical of Tarantino at his best: Waltz is nothing less than terrific, and Samuel L. Jackson gives his absolute best performance in years as a self-loathing slave who embodies the toxic spirit of antebellum racism at its most corrupted and violent (it basically plays like a parody of the "exuberant but ultimately unthreatening black man whites love" roles he played so often before his career become nothing but a string of cameos in superhero movies). The frequent bloodletting is impeccably staged, particularly the first massive violent finale; and the massive volume of blood spilled with every gunshot is reminiscent of the comic excess of Kill Bill, but grounded here in something vaguely related to humanity.
Certainly the film captures the essence of the films it's copying: not that any '70s exploitation film would be this long, or graced with such clean, self-consciously lovely cinematography, courtesy of Robert Richardson (who does get to play one great visual joke: a sequence of flashbacks is filmed on super-grainy film stock that looks like hell blown up, and brings the movie back to its grind house roots). But the cheerfully destructive attitude is exactly right, as is the unyielding love of violence, untroubled even by the standards of Tarantino's blood-soaked cinema. A lesser work it is, but it's still a lesser work by one of America's most ebullient auteurs, and some of that enthusiasm still seeps through, lowered energy level and uncertain sense of historicity and all.