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Arts & Entertainment

On the QT, Haefele lets go on 'Django Unchained'

Commentator Marc Haefele.
Commentator Marc Haefele.
John Rabe

Quentin Tarantino's revenge saga "Django Unchained"  kept its  No. 2 for a second straight weekend with $20.1 million, raising its reported domestic total to $106.4 million. I can certainly see why, but that still doesn't make it a great movie.
The brilliantly shot opening procession of black men in chains shuffling through an implausible sequence of landscapes (desert to snow to forest day and night) under the surveillance of three generic redneck thugs is so powerful that you can't but hope that "Django Unchained" might actually turn out to be a Great American Slavery Movie.  
Not quite, alas. The pity of it is you feel Tarantino, at the top of his form, is up to making such a movie. If only he weren't more interested in just having his own kind of fun.
Instead, what we get initially is a 1858 buddy Western teaming the brilliantly physical Jamie Fox as Django with Chris Waltz as the cerebrally Teutonic take-no-prisoners bounty hunter King Schultz.  Who frees Django, recruits him and off we go on the merry High Country adventures of an authorized killing spree. There is a little hors oeuvre of vengeance here, as Django and Schultz dispatch three fugitive former plantation overseers, but the main course is yet to come, when the two head to Mississippi to free Django's slave wife (variously Brunhilde and Broomhilda -- wasn't she the comic strip witch?) from the clutches of Leonardo di Caprio,  wonderful apart from a tepid Southron accent, who runs a plantation named, on some Tarantesque whim, after that favorite primary-school board game, "Candyland."
Things abruptly slow down here, however, and the viewer who's been enjoying the fast, smooth ride of a beautifully shot and paced film, starts noticing the stumbles.  Somehow, it's as if the 1860 and `70s were leaking into the previous decade. The baddies have got hold of Civil War Henry repeating rifles, for instance, just to up the firepower's lethality (I noted more than 50 dead guys before I lost count).  Schultz and Django are at one point invested by the Ku Klux Klan, an organization dating to well after the South lost the Civil War. There is a really lovely scene when Schultz tells Django the legend of Brunhilde's namesake, "which every German boy knows:"  How her father imprisoned her on a rock, surrounded by fire. But this, in fact, is a story that composer Richard Wagner made up for his opera "Die Walkure" in 1870. And there are some dynamiting scenes or --but dynamite was patented in 1867. "Django" is not so much historical fiction as a 19th Century party shuffle.
Tarantino has always had a way of tossing eggs, rather than darts, at historical targets. But what scuttles the film for me is a 40-minute digression derived from Richard Fleischer's 1975 grind-house classic  "Mandingo," (of which Tarantino is an admirer) and, I assume, the  eponymous 1957 dime-store gothic novel  it was based on.  Written by a white former dog-breeder named Kyle Onstott, it purports to be a tell-all novel about slave breeding.  For decades  it was a rite-of-passage read for horny teenagers who couldn't be persuaded to enjoy Jane Austin.  It's on this 650-page wad of pulp that "Django Unchained" fatally gags.
The "history" of what the movie attributively calls "Mandingo Fighting" -- slave-on-slave fighting to the death -- is mostly found in Onstott's lurid pages.  But the "Mandingo" digression fatally hogties the plot. Even a dauntingly delirious denouement that includes those anachronistic dynamite blasts plus another organ-flinging orgy of mass murder just can't put the movie on its feet again.
For over 20 years, Tarantino has been building his wildly successful super-violent creations on pulp foundations.  This sort of worked in "True Romance" and triumphed in "Pulp Fiction," which much resembled a Jim Thompson paperback with plenty of comic relief.
But black slavery is the great and dominating wrong of not just American, but all of New World history. It's simply too enormous for any valid representation of it to be built out of pulp.  In this film, Tarantino shows traces of potential cinematic greatness. But he's never going to attain it unless he tosses away the plastic pacifier of mid-century pulp pop he still, as a mature filmmaker, can't resist sucking on, and strikes out on his own.