Django Unchained (USA, 2012, Tarantino)
I think you were even more right than you intended to be. That is, I figure I like this movie less than you do. You criticized the story for running out of steam by the third act. I'd need to know where exactly you think the third act kicks in, 'cause I certainly felt the story was riding on false momentum a lot sooner than the last third of the running time, which is far too long, by the way.
If I was going to be generous, I would grant that I was intrigued up until Leo's character and Waltz' character take their bullets. But in all honesty, the true energy of the emancipation-unto-revenge premise is spent well before Leo and his world even show up, the plot devise to rescue the protagonist's wife definitely notwithstanding. So I guess I am making my chop after the first act instead of the second like you.
In any case, we clearly agree that the supposedly retributive carnage after Leo and Waltz go down is not working for us. You suggested that it was not just gratuitous but an attempt to cover up a stalled narrative with spectacle. I see that chip you have laid down and raise you with another. My bet is that Tarantino's plot weakness this time out derives from his footnote-to-Pekinpah, still-male-adolescent worldview that violence is problem-solving with respect to not only social conflict in the real world but also dramatic form in story-telling. In my estimation, Django exhausts its potential the first time the protagonist kills himself a couple of white men and enables his mentor to finish off a third. Outwitting the proto-Klan mob that attempts to seek pay-back for this cake is some sweet icing on it, but after this everything is dramatically forced, especially the crimson action.
All of this structural criticism is for me secondary to the thematic failure of the film to fulfill the emancipation-unto-revenge premise. I give Quentin the benefit of the doubt ideologically. This fantasy means to be politically correct. But it is all too obvious thatDjango wasn't written by Spike Lee, eh? The problem is not that the protagonist needs to be kick-started by the benevolence of an enlightened white man. It's that the protagonist never equals the white man as a fascinating personality in his own right. The sad truth is, Django is some semi-gloss paint drying compared to the phosphorescence that splashes forth from the European. The main man never becomes for us as charismatic. Not even close. This won't do in general, but it seriously won't do in a tale intended to liberate the subaltern, facilitate his human development and celebrate his achievement of justice.
I will also throw in a feminist objection. After the central position of a strong heroine in Inglorious Basterds, the female McGuffin in Django is a significant setback for the director. Not offensively objectified sexually or a stock type conforming to a genre requirement, the woman in the story is a non-person, an emotional void, a prop. This is boring in its own right and for those of us attracted to complex characters, insulting too. What is more, or less as the case be, since she is the single thing motivating our title character, her status as a non-entity is transferred to him and makes him that much more bland.
Lastly, at what point does tongue-in-cheek silliness stop counting as novel and start smelling stale? When Tarantino first showed up 20 years ago, he was hailed as some sort of cinematic deconstructionist, a post-modern Godard, blah blah blah. I knew this was empty hype, but there was a freshness to his style and a charm to his cheekiness. Inglorious Basterds is far and away his most ambitious film and arguably his best. So, clearly I acknowledge that he recently advanced his art, playing to his irreverent strengths while generating more intellectual substance than ever before. Django, on the other hand, is not even as good as his early work. Heck, it's not as good as Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles, a film in which most definitely the sexy brother is the main course and the cute honky is a side dish.
And Dan Jardine:
There is little doubt that DU is lesser Tarantino, and is a bit of a disappointment particularly when you sidle it up to its glorious predecessor, but I did find plenty to applaud in Django, at least before the third act malaise set in.
Tarantino still commands the screen with words, images and music (has "I Got a Name" ever had such resonance?) in ways that very few directors working today could ever hope to approach. There are a number of scenes in the opening two acts that rank high on the QT fun metre, including the Mel Brook's homage found in the aforementioned pre-Klan mob scene, as well as the tremendously suspenseful bar/street scene that plays out as Waltz's Dr. King (ha!) lays out his bounty hunter scheme to Django, while simultaneously taking down a criminal miscreant while facing down an extremely hostile town. I also mostly dug the set-up as the movie moved into diCaprio's Candieland, particularly the agonizing scene where diCaprio learns of our heroes' ruse and rubs this knowledge in their faces.
That said, many of your complaints are certainly valid. The film is certainly a big step backwards when it comes to gender politics. Most of QT's films feature at least one strong female heroine, but the only woman of note in DU is a damsel in distress who has little to do other than look pretty and faint well. Furthermore, the film does not come close to matching the thematic complexities or dramatic satisfaction of the similarly revenge-motived Inglourious Basterds, largely because Django lacks the words, words, words (to borrow from Hamlet) of Dr. King. Part of this failure is on QT's shoulders, for not giving Foxx enough to work with in the script, but let's face it. Much as I like him, Foxx is simply no match for Waltz in the screen presence or movie charisma department. So, the film spends far too much time celebrating the white hero's character, while not allowing its titular character nearly enough heroic deeds or actions.
I will take you up on one aspect of your complaint that the film does not fulfil its dramatic obligation because it denies Django his emancipation revenge, only in that the man does get a measure of revenge, though his target is not who we expect. No, that goes to Waltz, who gets to take down the Candie man. Instead, Django gets his when he takes out Stephen, that most despicable of all slaves, the co-opted house slave and Uncle Tom figure. I will admit to finding it a bit jarring to see Sam Jackson in this role, but damn he played that villainous figure so beautifully and horribly convincingly that his eventual demise was cathartic and therapeutic.
But was it cathartic and therapeutic enough to rescue the final act? No. As you have noted, the film by this point had lost its way, awash in a crimson ocean of violent excess that suggest QT's struggles to find an appropriate finale for his epic "Southern." Interupting the inanity with a Tarantino cameo as an Aussie accent slave trader and capping it with Foxx on a prancing pony was so self-consciously silly that I can't imagine any but the most hard core Tarantino fan giving it a pass.
I had enough of a good time at Django to wish that it had been better. If Tarantino had found a way around the third act corner he had painted himself into without resorting to a blood dimmed tide of absurd depths, he may have had something for the ages. Instead we are left with a flawed, though entertaining film. Clearly this is one film where (a whole lot) less could have led to (plenty) more.