With 1997’s Jackie Brown, an adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel, Quentin Tarantino gives us a film that represents the road not taken.
Since his directorial debut in 1992, Quentin Tarantino has created an indelible screen persona, almost entirely from behind the camera. His enthusiasm for film has become the stuff of legend, with mythic tales of his video store clerking, where he carefully plotted his film career, soaking in films of all stripes; there’s horror schlock, samurai warrior revenge flicks, high art, teen comedies – most grace his frequently updated list of the best ten films of all time, some of which seem included just for their novelty.
For Tarantino, there is almost no distinction between high art and low art, as he clashes texts together in his own films, mixing references to things he’s seen and heard. For some, he is the ultimate postmodern filmmaker for precisely these reasons.
For this reason, his highly anticipated Kill Bill, billed in advertising and in the opening credits as ‘The Fourth Film From Quentin Tarantino,” as though it were an apocalyptic, earth-quaking event, represented the way he would define his career in the following years. One film could not contain the number of obscure references he wanted to stuff into it; thus, it became Volume 1 and Volume 2, separated by about six months of release – the fall of 2003 and the spring of 2004.
Trace the career since then, and you find films that all feel like Kill Bill, in one way or another. There’s the brutal, hyper-stylized violence that often reaches the level of cartoonish, the way the blood splatters and sprays. And then you have the extended, winding monologues delivered by characters all unified by their love of the sound of their own (author’s) voice. And, of course, the endless fascination with issues of race, which earn him both defenses and critiques.
What binds them together, beyond these easily identifiable traits, is the consistent commitment to the elevation of so-called low genre that has defined Tarantino films since they began. Kill Bill attempts to take the kung fu/samurai genre to the level of the operatic; Death Proof, which began as part two of a grindhouse double feature with Robert Rodriguez (whose Planet Terror arguably succeeds more fully at delivering on the exploitation film goods than Tarantino’s, who had the idea for the pairing in the first place), makes a car chase movie into a near stage play, with 70-percent dialogue driven by female characters; Inglourious Basterds seemingly forgets about its eponymous characters, because its writer/director has gotten much more interested the film’s other story, a revenge narrative about a woman seeking a fiendish Nazi; Django Unchained merges the sex-ploitation racial politics of Mandingo with Tarantino’s favorite pet genre, the spaghetti western; and, most recently, The Hateful Eight blended spaghetti westerns like The Great Silence with the closed-room paranoia of John Carpenter’s The Thing, with Kurt Russell on hand to lend the comparison credence.
All of this is to say this is the kind of filmmaker Tarantino has become. He’s a cinematic DJ, mixing a little bit of this, a little bit of that, into something that at its most inspired, feels original, and at other times, feels like he’s making a joke you don’t get.
But, it didn’t have to be this way. I want to spend some time with the film immediately preceding Kill Bill: 1997’s Jackie Brown, mostly to demonstrate how the film shows that he was capable of something that he never again (up to now, at least) chose to offer – the adoption of genre-based, postmodern filmmaking that had a real, emotional soul. Jackie Brown isn’t a ride at QT’s Amusement Park. He doesn’t heighten the generic elements; he pulls them down into reality.
Generally, Jackie Brown owes to two sources of inspiration. One is the source novel, Rum Punch, by crime writer extraordinaire, Elmore Leonard, whose work was brought to the screen several times for about a decade, from the mid-nineties to the mid-oughts. The other source is the blaxploitation genre, mostly as a result of his casting of genre icon Pam Grier in the lead role. In Leonard’s novel, Jackie is white, and her last name is Burke. In Tarantino’s film, she’s black, and her last name is Brown, a reference to one of Grier’s most famous blaxploitation characters, Foxy Brown.
If he had made Jackie Brown ten years later, in 2007 instead of 1997, Tarantino might have been tempted to use Grier as an avatar of the agelessness of blaxploitation; it’s not hard to imagine an even funkier soundtrack, bigger hair, more exaggerated white racist villains (corrupt cops, Italian mafia dons) who often opposed blaxploitation heroes and heroines in the 1970s.
Instead, though, Tarantino, using the source novel’s plot and Leonard’s pitch-perfect dialogue, constructs a film that is about an icon, Grier, who’s taken out of the heightened fantasy world of blaxploitation, and grounded in the real world. Jackie is a character who once had it, and doesn’t have it anymore. It’s a film about what happens to people when the funky theme music runs out, when they can’t keep up with the image of who they thought they were supposed to be anymore.
The best illustration of the theme is in its opening moments, where Tarantino lets in another reference, this time to Mike Nichols’ The Graduate. Here’s the opening of that film:
And now, the opening of Jackie Brown:
Of course, there’s the obvious parallel of the airport walkway, but here, unlike in some later Tarantino films, the reference feels purposeful. He’s engaging with The Graduate, a film about a character at a similar place in life as Jackie, where the passage of time is dictating everything. Benjamin Braddock has no agency; he drifts here, in the film’s opening moments, just like he drifts later, in the pool – you know, just…drifting.
Jackie Brown begins the sequence with the confidence of Foxy Brown. Grier floats along the walkway, ‘Across 110th Street‘ (itself a blaxploitation film theme song) dominating the soundtrack. It’s as if we’ve entered a time warp, and suddenly, it’s 1974. About halfway through the sequence, though, she has to leave the moving walkway, and her own two legs carry her. From her uniform, we discern she’s a flight attendant, and presume she’s walking through the airport on her way to work. There’s no dialogue to help us – it’s all silent.
About two and a half minutes in, something starts to change. In a close up, Grier’s profile registers concern. Then, in a wide shot, her walk is different; now, it’s hurried, a little frantic. Soon, in a medium shot, back to profile, she’s half-walking, half-running. She hits another moving walkway, but gone is the confidence with which she opened the film. Instead, there’s near panic. She’s late. Something’s wrong. There’s no control.
The long, unbroken Steadicam shot follows Jackie as she hurries to her gate. She’s almost missed the flight – all that slow walking, confident, blaxploitation femininity is out the window, because this isn’t that world. This is a world where Jackie Brown (nee Foxy), middle-aged flight attendant making $17,000 a year, plus benefits, is almost late for work.
With the opening setting the tone, the rest of the film, despite its 154-minute length, is a picture of restraint. There are no discursive, deep-dive monologues where characters eloquently extemporize about the nature of the natural order of the natural world.
Take violence, one of Tarantino’s hallmarks. Though several of Jackie Brown‘s main cast end up on the wrong end of a gun barrel, Tarantino is remarkably stingy with the effect of that violence. Years before the explosive blood geysers of Kill Bill, with Volume 1’s climactic crimson oil spill, and the near-farcical scarlet vomiting of The Hateful Eight, Tarantino knows when not showing something is the most effective move to make.
Here’s an early example. It’s a scene where the film’s villain, gun dealer Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) visits a recently paroled underling, Beaumont (Chris Tucker) at his apartment. Ordell welcomes Beaumont home, and at first, we think he might be fishing for what Beaumont told police about Ordell’s operation. However, it’s all an elaborate ruse to get Beaumont in the trunk of his car, so he can put a few bullets into him. Here’s the scene, in its entirety – it runs seven and a half minutes.
It’s worth mentioning two key elements of this extended scene to demonstrate Tarantino’s willingness to restrain himself. First is Jackson’s performance. A Tarantino mainstay, Jackson is pretty much game for anything QT asks, as his bizarre (and truly great, by the way) performance as Stephen the house slave in Django Unchained, and his fellatio-drenched monologue in The Hateful Eight (intended to dig at Bruce Dern’s Confederate general) clearly show. In this scene from Jackie Brown, Jackson is downright sociopathic, goading Beaumont into the trunk using a mixture of friendliness, guilt-tripping, and ‘who’s-your-boss’ authority.
When you know this is all heading to a murder carried out with breathtakingly ruthless efficiency, Jackson’s portrayal of Ordell from the moment he appears in the scene is terrifying. He’s all smiles, so deeply into his cover story about the (apparently fictional) prospective Korean gun-buyers he plans to sell to, for which he needs Beaumont as backup, that even he seems to believe it.
Where Jackson’s performance merges with Tarantino’s instinct to restrain the violence comes after Ordell coaxes Beaumont into the trunk. Ordell gets in the car and pulls away, the camera in front of the car as its headlights shine into it. The car turns around and heads down the street, as Ordell’s radio (“Strawberry Letter 23”) fades out. We wonder why we’re not going along for the ride, until the camera cranes up and drifts over to an empty construction site just to the left side of the frame.
He still doesn’t break the shot. We hear the music kick back in, as a car, Ordell’s, bounces slowly into the construction site. The camera is perched high above the site, wide enough still to glimpse the sidewalk adjacent to the street Ordell just turned off of.
The car parks, the music stops, and the door opens. Ordell, distant, quietly and calmly walks to the back of the car, opens the trunk, and as Beaumont, none the wiser, shouts a complaint, Ordell fires two quick shots. Beaumont shuts up. Ordell closes the trunk, gets back in the car, starts it; the music comes back, and his car bounces out of the site, just like that.
It’s a tremendous moment, and even more so when considered in light of the shifting direction of Tarantino’s career, just one film later, which sets the template for his future work.
The rest of the film works a lot like this. Ordell has an entire network of criminal associates; Louis Gara (Robert De Niro) and Melanie (Bridget Fonda) get most of the screen time. De Niro’s performance as Louis is, at least to this point, probably the last really great one he will ever give. It’s a film where De Niro’s tendency to sleep through some of his performances works for him, as Louis, fresh out of jail, spends the film getting high and feeling adrift in a criminal enterprise that he feels has little place for him. He’s like an alien from another world, De Niro selling this most fully in a moment where he tries to hang up a telephone, but moves it like it’s a foreign object.
Tarantino’s restraint is on display later in the film, during the film’s money exchange sequence, where Jackie attempts to make off with money she’s supposed to be bringing in from Mexico for Ordell, too. After walking out with what they think is the bag full of half a million dollars, Louis and Melanie get into an argument in the parking lot. She’s needling him, and he loses his mind, and shoots her twice. This, too, happens off screen, a remarkable choice for Tarantino. We don’t see Melanie, covered in blood, either on the way down or lying on the hot asphalt. He holds back.
He holds back on the film references, too. There’s the opening riff on The Graduate, of course. He also borrows from Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, a 1956 film noir about a heist at a racetrack. That film’s claim to fame is its heist sequence, which plays out three times, a trick of editing, wherein Kubrick shows the action from the different perspectives of the robbery’s perpetrators, linking them all with the racing announcer’s voice.
Tarantino does the same thing with his money exchange sequence, showing it three times – once from Jackie’s point of view, the second featuring Louis and Melanie, and the third, where the money is secured, from Max Cherry’s (Robert Forster), Jackie’s bail-bondsman, confidant, and love interest.
It is with great relish that I watch Jackie Brown these days. It is my favorite Tarantino film, by far, and I also think it’s his most accomplished. Certainly, it is his most mature, mostly because it doesn’t attempt to become a blood-drenched, Grand Guignol burlesque. What it really demonstrates, though, is what he might have been. I won’t pretend to pass judgment on his career – he can do what he wants. I don’t fault his other films for being what they are, rather than what I want them to be. That’s not my place. But, I do appreciate the way that this film, in conversation with genre as it is, uses its generic awareness as a backdrop for its larger thematic focus on the consequences of aging. In Jackie Brown, a spin of Tarantino’s genre wheel serves the story, rather than becoming the story.