Even as an English teacher, I have a hard time describing tone. Is it an attitude? Is it atmosphere? How is it different from mood? All very technical. I wouldn’t even call tone a “you-know-it-when-you-see-it” kind of a thing. In fact, I think you know it better when you don’t see it.
That said, I didn’t “see” a consistent tone in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Oh, over the course a two hours and forty-five minutes, I saw a bunch of other things—a lot of exploding blood packets, for example (hard to take, with memories of the Sandy Hill school shooting still fresh in our collective minds), and a bunch of characters, both white and black, throwing around the N-word. (Hey, I get it’s a period piece, and I accept that’s how people talked in 1858, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.)
That stuff didn’t thrill me, but after talking about it with my colleagues, I realize I mostly have a beef with the film’s muddled tone. Here’s what I mean: to me, this overly long film is really two films in one. And apparently, I’m not far off with this: according to the December 21st Entertainment Weekly, Tarantino and producer Harvey Weinstein had actually considered giving the film the Kill Bill treatment by cutting it into two.
As it stands, Django Part I is basically a pre-Civil War buddy movie, detailing the madcap adventures of Dr. King Schultz (the always mesmerizing Christopher Waltz) and Django (the capable though somewhat less mesmerizing Jamie Foxx). Dr. Schultz is a dentist-turned-bounty hunter charged with bringing in criminals “dead or alive”; despite the fact that he conveniently overlooks the “alive” part, Dr. Schultz is likeable and strangely honorable. He also hates slavery, and early in the film, Schultz frees Django and then enlists him to be his partner in the bounty hunting business.
I like Django Part I a lot. Sure, it has some dark, unsavory moments (it’s not a Pixar movie, after all), but overall, it has a certain lightness to it. There’s humor (including an amusing Jonah Hill cameo). There’s the touching friendship between Schultz and Django, which to me is the best part of the movie. Heck, there’s even Jim Croce’s “I Got a Name” on the soundtrack. You don’t get much bouncier than that!
Then comes Django Part II, which introduces us to an insane and merciless slave-owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Mr. Candie owns Django’s wife, Broomhilda, and so Schultz and Django undertake a covert mission to rescue her. A great concept , for sure, and Django Part II does have some compelling moments. (DiCiaprio particularly shines, especially when delivering a captivating speech involving a skull—a wild, profane twist on Hamlet’s “poor Yorick” meditation.)
The problem, though, has to do with the drastic shift in tone between Part I and Part II: basically, when Candie shows up, out goes Jim Croce, to be replaced with extended scenes of slaves fist-fighting to the death, extended scenes of slaves being fed to dogs, and hyper-extended of people getting shot up. These scenes were so extended, in fact, that I started to wonder if Tarantino was critiquing the violence or exploiting it.
Hey, I’m not saying that a little tonal inconsistency is a bad thing. Shakespeare has some funny moments in his tragedies and some sad undertones in his comedies. Judd Apatow can write raunchy comedic scenes with the best of ‘em, but all of his movies have a heart as well. That’s not what’s going on in Django Unchained, which abruptly changes into a completely different movie for the last hour-and-a-half.
The thing is, Tarantino is even inconsistent with his inconsistencies. Near the end (and this doesn’t spoil anything, I hope), Django shoots Candie’s sister, Lara Lee, and she literally goes flying off the screen. Obviously, this is played for laughs– which is fine, except that this came after a long, bloody, graphic, non-laughable shoot-‘em-up. I don’t know if you can have both.
Ultimately, because of the schizophrenic tone, I think there’s a “whole not as great as the sum of its parts” thing going on with Django Unchained. It’s not a bad movie; in fact, if they cut down on some of the really gruesome scenes, it’s a combination two potentially good movies. Just not one great movie. (Or should I say “djust not one great movie”?)