Outrageously talented writer-director Quentin Tarantino has made tightly constructed, polished films as well as outrageously diverging works of near-insanity.
He also is a brilliant critic, somewhat like Jean-Luc Godard, making movies about movies and deconstructing them in endlessly inventive ways.
Even Godard hit rough patches. With “Django Unchained,” opening Tuesday, Tarantino takes a small story and turns it into a big sprawl, and the fit isn’t quite right. The movie’s points are so broad — slavery is bad, movies never show it — they almost drift by unnoticed.
The title comes from a great 1966 spaghetti Western, “Django,” directed by Sergio Corbucci and starring Franco Nero, who has a nifty cameo here.
“Django Unchained” begins as a pre-Civil War-era slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), is tracked by bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who buys his freedom so Django can help him identify his next targets.
They form a partnership, which leads to an attempt to free Django’s beloved wife (Kerry Washington) from brutal plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Samuel L. Jackson is terrifying as Candie’s oldest, meanest, most loyal slave.
A good portion of the movie’s 2-hour, 45-minute running time is devoted to shockingly bloody shootouts. While Corbucci made his violence resonate, Tarantino’s simply spurts and splatters.
The best scenes feature talking and negotiating. Quiet and stoic, Django becomes the least interesting of the characters. By the time the movie gets to its final third, with Django its main focus, the energy fades.
Still, even though it’s one of Tarantino’s lesser works, “Django Unchained” is recommended viewing, with many worthy moments, such as when Schultz and Django bond over the legend of Siegfried, and the way they parley their way out of a saloon surrounded by angry gunmen.
Oddly, the balance between the great moments and flabby ones make the movie more personal and exciting — it doesn’t feel factory-made.
And it’s not stupid. Moments of discomfort also beg the question as to why they make moviegoers uncomfortable.
With “Django Unchained,” Tarantino may not be unchained as much as unraveled, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes a little unraveling propels artists to find new ways to pull their messages together again.