This film shares three things with Les Miserables. The first is that it’s set in the 19th century; the second is that at 165 minutes, it’s way too long; the third is that intelligent film critics have been bamboozled into declaring it a wonderful and entertaining film. It’s not. True, it is not as dire as Les Mis, but it is bloated, self-regarding and silly.
Before I analyse the self-delusions of Quentin Tarantino, let me just give you a hand with the pantomime of a plot. Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) is a bounty hunter pretending to be a dentist. He stops an improbable chain gang of slaves in a wood in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere in Texas. There’s a slave called Django (Jamie Foxx), who knows three brothers that Schulz is hunting for, so he acquires him from the slave traders, despite their reluctance to sell, by shooting them. Though he still insists on paying. Subsequently, Schultz and Django team up, since Django happens to be a deadeyed shot, and is thus useful in the bounty hunting trade.
But what he really wants is to find and rescue his wife, the improbably named Brunhilde (Kerry Washington) who has fallen into the hands of Calvin Candie (Leonardo diCaprio) a cunning and wicked slave owner. Therefore the two bounty hunters have to come up with a scheme to save Brunhilde without letting on that she is who they are really after (Shultz, so we are told, helps out because Brunhilde is a mythic German heroine). But their scheme is threatened by the evil house slave Stephen (Samuel L Jackson), who is both servant and alter ego to Candie.
And now to dissect what is wrong with this film, and by extension, Senor Tarantino. For a film to be this long, it needs to have a lot going on, which is of interest, as well as characters who we care about, and a satisfying conclusion. This film has none of those things. It has pantomime heroes, and pantomime villains. It has a lot of set pieces in which the tension is ratcheted up before there is a catharsis of violence. In fact, if you substitute sex for violence, there is a lot of foreplay, and a lot of orgasms, but no lovemaking. In the same way, though QT loves to tell people about how excited he is by violence, what he really likes is the appearance of violence, and the more over the top the better. The climax of the film (pun intended) is a case in point, suffering from all the faults that were one of the reasons why Inglourious Basterds ended so annoyingly.
He shows us: a man being torn apart by dogs; a whipping that is voyeuristic; and the shootings require copious amounts of blood to explode from every body part as the bullets enter the torso. If you want to make a film that deals with violence, you have to take your film and the subject seriously. The only thing Quentin takes seriously is his own (imagined) genius. How else to explain a cameo appearance that is cringe making? Could someone not have whispered words of advice to desist in his ear? But no, he is in thrall to the legend of his bad boy talent, despite the fact that he is about to be 50.
He is also addicted to dialogue-heavy scenes, protracted jokes (the Klu Klax Klan and their inability to see through their hoods), and a plot that borders on parody. Now I’m sure if he took the trouble to answer these challenges, he would say that the film is a homage to bad westerns (a series of Django films, in particular), and slavery films like Mandingo. But he also wants to be treated as a major director, in which he is abetted by film critics who should know better, but seem to get their own puerile thrills vicariously.
The good points? Christoph Waltz is a compelling actor and keeps us amused, while Leo is an unexpectedly appealing villain. The dialogue can be enthralling, and some of the set pieces do generate tension. But again and again, the film’s potential is undermined by Tarantino’s insistence on drawing attention to his directing, and his own cleverness. Not to mention his endless use of the word ‘nigger’ (which newspapers insist on referring to as the ‘n’ word). It’s like a three year old who’s discovered the shock value of saying poo, pee, willy, or whatever, and can’t stop saying it over and over.
In a week when there is a serious film about slavery (Lincoln), do not be deluded into thinking that this has anything interesting to say on the subject. If you want to see a black guy shooting white people, it’s all yours. Otherwise, let it ride on by.