The purposefully slight and throwaway Death Proof aside, Quentin Tarantino's most recent films, Kill Bill Vol. 2 and Inglourious Basterds, have murmured with deeper emotive qualities than some of us maybe previously thought Tarantino capable of. Or at least interested in. For all his attention-grabbing visual inventions and wry tweaking of genre forms, Tarantino's most surprising cinema moments of late have been Uma Thurman sobbing gratefully on a bathroom floor after winning back her daughter in Kill Bill and, in Basterds, Melanie Laurent's grave and tragic character, lingering around the edges of all the gore and smart talk like a watchful angel of death. Not big splattery death, but something more emotional or existential. To learn that Quentin Tarantino can be thoughtful instead of just smart is to gain a deeper understanding of an artist who can, at times, appear to be hiding behind a Formica veneer of kitschy-cool. With this new evolution in mind, I approached Django Unchained with the only slightly cautious hope that this movie, which is in large part about the horrors of slavery, might finally push him into a new plane of seriousness. Not that Tarantino couldn't still be funny and violent and pull naughty tricks, but that he might, at long last, also say something — something about more than his own references and cultural stimuli. But, alas, to my queasy-stomached dismay, this movie feels instead like a regression, or perhaps just a digression. A meandering, overindulgent tale of revenge that plays like an homage to a genre that never existed, Django Unchained ironically feels more bound-up than any Tarantino movie before it.
Well, to be fair, I'm really talking about the latter half of the film. The first portion is, for the most part, a complete delight, a niftily crafted bit of peacocking that's funny and grim the way the best Coen Brothers movies are. We meet Django (Jamie Foxx), a scarred and battered slave marching in a chain gang on the way to his new owners. He is quickly rescued by a former dentist turned bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), an eloquent gentleman with a Teutonic lilt in his voice and a mischievous but sad sparkle in his eyes. He seems kindly, but as we quickly learn, he's also efficiently violent. After gorily dispatching Django's slave drivers, Schultz tells Django that he needs his help on a job: Django has seen the three slaver brothers whom Schultz is hunting, and if Django will point them out to him, Schultz will give Django his freedom. Thus a tenuous, but ever-deepening bond is formed, and Schultz and Django set out across the West and South on various fugitive-killing missions. This is the rollicking travelogue part of the movie, with this improbable duo tracking down their targets and ruffling stuffy white people's feathers with the sight of a duded-up black man riding a horse. There's a buddy movie spirit in the air, the snowy mountain vistas are crisp and clear, and though there are light, spoof-y jokes here and there — Django, able to choose his own clothes for the first time, opts for an electric blue dandy outfit complete with ruffle kerchief — this is not yet so different from other Westerns we've seen before. Far more technically daring and perhaps bloodier, yes, but the rhythm and cadence is the same. Tarantino acquits himself comfortably here, if without too much distinction.
Then, unfortunately, we reach a turning point. Django's ultimate goal is to find his wife (Kerry Washington), the pair having been split up and sold off by their cruel former owner, and Schultz, feeling some allegiance to Django and to the wife's name, Broomhilda — straight out of German legend — agrees to help him. They quickly learn that Broomhilda, called Hildy, has been purchased by one Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the scion of a long line of slave owners and the overseer of Candyland, one of the biggest (and thus meanest) plantations in the South. As our marauding pair heads off toward Mississippi with a cover story in mind — they'll pose as two men interested in Candie's organized slave fights — we sense that they are headed into the belly of the beast, it only remains to be seen just how beastly it is. Well, it turns out, it's pretty bad. We see a slave devoured by dogs, witness a brutal slave fight accompanied by the most unforgiving of Foley work, and then there's the matter of Candie's teeth. Tarantino has created a gruesome world here, appropriately hot and mossy and grimy, but we get the sense as we delve further and further into it that he doesn't know quite what to do with it.
The automatic, innate knowledge of Django, obviously, is that slavery was terrible, and so Tarantino doesn't want to spend too much time reteaching us that broad fact. We do see brutality and we know that Candie is a rancid villain, but everything else is sort of talked around or, uncomfortably, treated as commonplace given the context. People have long criticized Tarantino for his liberal use of the n-word, but it would seem he remains undaunted. By the time we get to Candyland the word has choked up much of the air — it's not that the word in this historical context is so shocking, it's just that watching Leonardo DiCaprio and other cushy modern actors throw it around becomes ultimately distracting to the story at hand. Though, in truth, there really isn't that much to distract from. The film stalls and sputters badly when it gets to Candyland, plodding through a squirmingly long dinner scene and then giving us about three different Final Acts of Revenge that seem increasingly redundant. The bloody denouement of the film is supposed to produce giddy catharsis the same way the sight of Hitler getting machine-gunned into Nazi tartare did for Inglourious Basterds, and there is a stab or two of that bloodthirsty satisfaction here, but Tarantino has not really honed his story finely enough by this point to make his climax the true payoff he clearly intends it to be. By the end we've spent a lot of time at Candyland, and we know these are some bad dudes (including Samuel L. Jackson as a Candie-loyal house slave), but all the violence ultimately feels sloppy, arbitrary, inexact. It turns out you can't make a glancing dark comedy about slavery and then redeem your blitheness about the topic with a "See, I want to kill these monsters too!" ta-da finish. Shocking, I know.
On the plus side, Tarantino has coaxed nice work out of his performers, as he tends to. Foxx is steely when necessary but disarmingly gentle in the film's lighter stretches. It's an understated performance, perhaps partly because it's also a bit underwritten. The great Christoph Waltz is at ease in Tarantino's world of tricky verbal logistics, here doing a homier riff on Basterds's Hans Landa — he's the guy who will genteelly talk your ear off about some esoteric topic, all the while preparing to shoot you. DiCaprio is an effectively detestable brute, until he starts his boyish DiCaprio yelling anyway, and Jackson, made-up and hobbling, is clearly having fun with the crusty old codger written for him. Though there is perhaps a flicker of uncertainty about this slightly problematic role. In making one of the film's chief villains a fellow slave, Tarantino is trying to be the ain't-I-cool, equal-opportunity exploitationist that he typically is, but in this context, in this style, from this filmmaker, it doesn't sit well.
Perhaps if Tarantino had done a better job of whittling down this wildly overlong movie to its most important themes and motifs, his intentions would seem less muddled. But, as it is, the second half of Django Unchained is often over-confident and tiresomely inaccessible. There are brief moments of emotion surrounding the reunion of Django and Hildy, but Washington is quickly pushed to the background so Tarantino can get back to his blood capsules and motherf-ckers. I love all that Quentin Tarantino stuff, but when telling an ambitious story like this one, set in a delicate and treacherous place and time, I wish he would turn his coolness dial down and try to tease out more of what we saw when Beatrix Kiddo wept on the floor, or Shosanna struggled to maintain composure in the face of her most hated evil. Instead we get only funky music and bloody guts, winking cameos and tips of the hat to curios that only Tarantino remembers. The Deep South in the pre-Civil War days is not, ultimately, a place for Tarantino to only prance around, showing us how much he knows. I wish he'd stopped at least once to tell us how he felt.