dir: Quentin Tarantino (USA, 2012)
The following piece contains spoilers about the plots of Django Unchained, Skyfall and, I suppose, even Lincoln.
After seeing many Hollywood films at the end of 2012 and in early 2013 that run between two-and-a-half hours and two hours and 45 minutes in length, I’ve concluded that movies have just grown too damn long. It’s not that I think there’s anything inherently wrong with lengthy running times: after all, I’ve gladly, in the past, sat through many movies even longer (one of my all-time favorites, Bela Tarr’s Satantango, runs seven hours, and I’d gladly watch that again right now). The problem is that the new Hollywood movie does not justify its length – there are invariably too many unnecessary characters, too many unnecessary subplots, a climax that feels too protracted, and, worst of all, too many endings (a trend that I would argue began with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, a movie I otherwise like). For me, the most egregious offender of this new crop of films is Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a movie I was prepared to like but ended up feeling sorely disappointed by. I have no problem with the “morality” of Django (e.g., I am not offended by Tarantino using the “n word” 100+ times or using the historical tragedy of slavery as a backdrop for a juvenile pop entertainment). These criticisms are really no different than the ones that were leveled against Inglourious Basterds, another film I quite like. Rather, the biggest problems with Django are with its pacing and structure, problems that seem unforgivable at a bladder-bursting two hours and 45 minutes:
1. Django and Broomhilda are, at best, the fourth and fifth most interesting characters in the film (following King Schultz, Calvin Candie and Stephen-the-House-Negro). Intellectually, I get the idea that Django is supposed to be a black version of the stoic/Clint Eastwood/”Man with No Name”-type but the Man with No Name himself was only ever upstaged by Eli Wallach’s Tuco (and, even then, only for brief stretches). Throughout their travels together, Schultz is both a much more interesting character and a more magnetic screen presence than Django. You can’t take your eyes off of Schultz, and this is a big problem when your movie is titled Django Unchained. It’s no wonder Christoph Waltz won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar last night. He’s the film’s true star (and his character has the good sense to die just before the movie takes a turn for the terrible).
2. The love story between Django and Broomhilda is ill-defined. We don’t know much about these characters, and we know even less about their relationship: How did they meet? How did they get married? Why are they even attracted to each other? I’ve heard some people say that it seems revolutionary for a Hollywood film to show a black man rescuing a black woman but, if their love is supposed to be the “engine” that’s driving the entire story, it’s by far the weakest aspect of the script. I think the love story is really just a flimsy excuse for Tarantino to indulge in the violent shoot-outs and all of the other things that he really wants to show us. I suspect one of the main reasons why so many people have found the last act of the film problematic, even if they haven’t articulated it this way, is because this is where the love story/rescue part really comes to the forefront.
3. In general, the pacing and structure of the film are awkward and bizarre (even though individual moments within it are obviously quite compelling). Because I think Schultz and Candie are the highlight of Django Unchained, it seems to me that the movie dies when they do – and everything afterwards is just tedious. I wonder why the big Candyland shootout, where both of those characters die, couldn’t be the actual climax of the film. Why does Django need to be captured, then granted a reprieve by Stephen, then sold to an evil mining company, then talk his way out of captivity, and then return to the plantation just to kill off the rest of the denizens of Candyland and rescue Broomhilda? Why couldn’t he have killed all those people in the earlier gunfight and rescued Broomhilda back then (which would’ve been around the two hour mark)? The last 45 minutes are pointless, they introduce new characters who are completely irrelevant, and they drag the film out unconscionably.
All of the above problems could have been considerably smoothed over in the script-writing stage. (I have some other problems with the actual editing of the film but that’s a whole other can of worms.) Tarantino, like Terrence Malick (albeit in a different way), has unfortunately reached that stage where no one is going to tell him no. Inglourious Basterds made so much money worldwide that he probably got the $100,000,000 budget for Django just based on its high concept alone (i.e., “Inglourious Basterds set in the antebellum South!”). As a piece of storytelling, Django is the sloppiest, laziest thing Tarantino has ever done. Because it has won multiple Oscars and is now poised to be his highest-grossing movie ever, this does not bode well for his future work.
As I indicated in my opening paragraph, Tarantino is hardly alone. Here is a brief rundown of other recent Hollywood movies that are too damn long:
The Dark Knight Rises (two hours and 45 minutes): This suffers from the typical action-franchise problem of trying to outdo all of the previous entries. Too many subplots, too many characters (two sidekicks, two love interests, two villains, etc.) and too many damn endings, especially a final copout ending that revises the daring ending that preceded it. Christopher Nolan might as well make another one and add Batgirl to the mix while he’s at it.
Lincoln (two hours and 30 minutes): I had a whole host of problems with this movie but, from a structural standpoint, the ending is particularly terrible: Lincoln leaves the White House to attend a play at Ford’s Theater. We see a shot of his iconic, stovepipe-hatted figure walking away in long shot. This is reminiscent of the ending of John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln and would’ve been a perfect place for the film to end. But no: we then have to see a scene taking place in another theater, where an announcement is made about Lincoln having been shot. Then we see a scene of Lincoln on his deathbed. Then, worst of all, we see a flashback to Lincoln, alive, giving a rousing Schindler’s List-like speech as John Williams’ treacly score swells on the soundtrack.
Skyfall (two hours and 23 minutes): I actually liked this movie on the whole but most of its best moments come in the first half. The climax is way too protracted: first, James Bond is battling the bad-guy invaders, Straw Dogs-style, from inside of a Scottish mansion, then the action moves outside where the characters continue their gunfight on a frozen lake, which, inevitably, involves them crashing through the ice, then they end up finishing the gunfight inside of a nearby church. By the time M’s big death scene finally rolls around, which has been teased since at least the courtroom-assault scene 45 minutes earlier, it’s hard to care. A perfect case of how more can be less.
The Hobbit (two hours and 49 minutes): This is arguably the most poorly structured film on the list. It has too many beginnings, including a lengthy double-prologue, before settling into a theme-park ride structure of one action set piece after another (interrupted by a bizarre and lengthy dialogue scene that feels like an excuse to shoehorn in characters from the previous franchise), and then it abruptly stops just when it starts to get interesting. I’m in full agreement with the critic who said, rather than an “extended edition,” this would benefit from a contracted version on home video.
The Hobbit Rating: 4.7