From now until the Friday before the Oscars we'll be running daily pieces about why a film does or does not deserve Best Picture. Yesterday Katey spoke up for Michael Haneke's Amour. Today Mack wants to speak out against Django Unchained. To read Eric's defense of Django, read here.
Like most of Hollywood’s best directors, Quentin Tarantino is an obsessive, uncompromising eccentric. He goes about his business with the type of zealous swagger normally reserved for great hockey goalies and Russian chess masters. He’ll work on an individual scene for months or even years to coax out every single laugh and every droplet of bloody potential because he genuinely cares about making his movies as good as they can possibly be. Unfortunately, that obsession with adding layers and habitually maximizing the material is the very reason why Django Unchained is a goddamn afterthought in this Oscar race. His dedication is why Beasts Of The Southern Wild will probably get more support for Best Picture, and with all due respect to Benh Zeitlin’s (likeable) hot mess, that never should have happened.
Somewhere inside Django Unchained is the best movie of the year. Part meticulously researched homage and part aggressive, pulsating thump of originality, this re-cut would bleed with furious and vengeful momentum, swagger with the confidence of a gaudy suit and pause just long enough to offer whimsical and brilliant asides about fucking up the eye hole construction in white supremacy hoods. At an hour and forty-five minutes, it would feel like a sniper shot from the bushes with about a half dozen wonderful but unnecessary scenes chopped and the entire second half of the third act abridged or sawed off entirely, thus paving the way for a monster two hour and forty-five minute unrated director’s cut for the Blu-ray.
Sadly, we didn’t get that streamlined version. Audiences showed up to the theater and got what should have been the director’s cut instead. We got a movie so interested in showing the world it created from every angle and so interested in giving us maximum backstory and maximum exposure to every character that it meanders rather than gallops. We got a film so blinded by its own tunnel vision that it sets up a very satisfying conclusion and winds up using it as a conduit to shoehorn in way more runtime. Eyed in a vacuum, no single scene is the problem and no single moment is less than very good, but altogether, they combine to clog Django’s arteries like delicious, yet woefully unnecessary calories.
Before people even saw Django, critics and observers were taking about Tarantino’s history of writing dialogue that contained n-bombs and whether or not this new film would be racist or an insult to the millions of men and women who lived and died as slaves. Quentin is far too good of a director to treat such subject matter with indifference. That never should have been a concern. What people should have spent their energies worrying about, given what we’ve seen from the writer-director in the past, was whether or not he could edit himself and remove the superfluous pieces to create a product with real pace. Well, the footage is in and the answer is no—by about an hour.
Just because a scene is funny or action-packed or even brilliant doesn’t mean it actually benefits the larger movie, and in the case of Django Unchained all that baggage turns arguably the single greatest film of the year into just one of many very good ones.