I was at a retreat earlier this summer at a rural compound that had just about everything you could ask for: a pool, a private movie theater, free ham sandwiches, and plenty of good company. On one particular night, I found myself in a funk and decided to hide out in the cinema. The choices were limited, but they had Django Unchained. Sitting there alone in the dark, I slowly returned to my normal self, save for the realization that this film is not a cohesive work.
Before we go into this, let's be perfectly clear: this piece is not going to be about how you're all wrong about Django Unchained. It's still fun. It's still a classic. Always will be.
That said, the later works of Quentin Tarantino have always been oblong in their story structure. Although they are ultimately entertaining, they are largely off-balance and wander into areas that either don't pay off or just breathe too much air into a given moment that serves neither characters nor plot.
Consider Inglorious Basterds. It's all over the place. We meet some group, they disappear, we meet some spies, then go back to the group, the spies, the Shoshanna revenge lady, they all get their big character moments, then there's a grand theater heist at the end. In this, Basterds plays out very much like a season of a good Netflix show with five episodes randomly taken out. The same goes for The Hateful Eight.
Tarantino himself, by eventually assuming the title of novelist, and later finding a better balance with pieces like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, has proven that some of his works are segmented operas that need proper space in which to balance themselves out.
Somewhere in the middle of this, we have Django Unchained.
Here's a little experiment: watch the first hour of the movie, when Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx are running free from Texas to Tennessee, just two fun assholes killing people for money. We see Django get familiar with his new role as emancipated-slave-turned-bounty-hunter, a man who finds bloody catharsis in his new line of work.
When they encounter the Marshall in the town of Daughtrey, or Don Johnson's lovely, rare take as a villain, they glide through these encounters because Waltz and Foxx are in full command, we're still very much in their story, and they are given proper room to breathe with their presence and performances.
Then we get to Leo. Two full hours of Leo.
Look, DiCaprio doesn't do a bad job. But when you start to pay attention to how much gravitas he is straining to bring, the bridled intensity thing just becomes a bit tiring. The grand gestures, the boisterous outbursts, the yelling. It simply doesn't allow enough space in which Waltz and Foxx can move with any fluidity. The saving grace to DiCaprio's overacting is that the last two hours of Django Unchained devolve into a spoof, more cartoonish than cunning. So it still works, in a manner of speaking.
But it's not the same movie. In terms of tone, Django Unchained is like starting with a meal with home-baked Tuscan bruschetta, lovingly slathered in white truffle lard and then following it up with a greasy bag of Mom's Spaghetti. The appetizer, in this instance, far outpaces the entree.
Look, it happens. Sometimes this level of divergence can be natural.
There was a scary stretch after I graduated from Ohio State in which I would just come home and watch the last 45 minutes of Jaws after I got off work, night after night. My feet didn't touch the sand, we're talking pure boat, nothing but Quint. I did this for about a month. It was a strange ritual, but I now realize that I was drowning for the male id inside of a killer shark movie. I just wanted the good stuff.
Whenever I put on Sin City, directed by Tarantino compatriot Robert Rodriguez, I always find myself just jumping to the Marv parts. And then I just watch the Marv stuff and be done. Mickey Rourke and Carla Gugino and Evil Frodo and Powers Boothe and Rutger Hauer are all you need.
Speaking of Robert Rodriguez: the greatest piece he ever did was just a random chunk in Four Rooms, a terrible omnibus film that Miramax pooped out in 1995. It's a short called "The Misbehavers" that channels the frenetic energy of Buster Keaton and every good cartoon that Chuck Jones ever made. It's flawless, and nobody talks about it. It should be played on TV every New Year's Eve as an American tradition alongside Anderson Cooper in Times Square.
In 2018, I happened upon a daytime Halloween marathon on TCM. They were playing Spirits of the Dead, an anthology film from '68 made up of shorts by Louis Malle, Roger Vadim, and Frederico Fellini. The first two were fine. The Fellini one, "Toby Dammit," really put the stripes in my socks. It is 45 minutes of raw, unfiltered Fellini: the tortured meta protagonist, the stark, bright colors, the Catholic sadism mixed with 20th-century perversions, all of it in one streamlined, demonic jolt that goes straight to the jugular. I will never watch the other two shorts in Spirits of the Dead again and have since found it harder to watch the director's regular films. I have been to the top of Fellini mountain and tasted the chewy nougat at the center. There's no going back. (You can watch the whole thing here, in decent-ish quality.
It's possible that I am being selfish in butchering these films, by reaching immediately to the bottom of these cereal boxes for their toys.
In terms of Django Unchained, one could also argue that the first 60 minutes is to merely set the stage for what is to be any anti-slaver's greatest challenge, a slave owner so dastardly and so heinous that only our established heroes could even dare challenge him.
And on this, I call bullshit. That's pretty much the Nuclear Man theory for Superman IV, and nobody likes Superman IV.
I'm going to catch hell for this, but somebody out there (paging Kai Patterson) should make a fan cut of Django Unchained in which the entire Candyland section is just whittled down to a 30-minute detour in the middle of the 60-minute intro. Leo still gets his uppity chunk, we still get Sam Jackson's luxurious turn as Curtis, Kerry Washington is still tossed around like a passive male fantasy object, I guess, then we just return to the normal story of King Schultz collecting his reward on the Brittle Brothers while Django enacts his revenge. You could even split the entire visit to Don Johnson's farm into two days so you could fit the hilarious Klan hood scene in between if you wanted to, minus the wagon explosion. For our climax, Django lands his "I like the way you die, boy" line, and the two of them are forced to flee the plantation. Cut to them riding away, ending with the montage of Schultz calling Django the fastest gun in the south. Roll credits.
Of course, the post-credit scene would have to be footage of Quentin Tarantino, who has spent his entire life appropriating the work of others, whining to TMZ about how you cannot mess with the work of another artist.
I mean, I'd watch it. I really would.
In the meantime, you can enjoy the first 60 minutes of Django Unchained in observance of the film's tenth anniversary on December 25th, then switch over to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, in which DiCaprio's work is fully measured and absolutely brilliant.
Lee Keeler is a writer and educator living in Northeast Los Angeles.