Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, January 17, 2014

Director Report Card: Quentin Tarantino (1997)

4. Jackie Brown

“Pulp Fiction” defined a generation. Or, at least, a generation of filmmakers and film fans. Considering his previous film’s status, it isn’t surprising that “Jackie Brown” was met with disappointment. Oh, critics liked it and the movie more then made back its modest 12 million dollar budget. Yet, within Tarantino’s career, the film is frequently overlooked, gathering only a single Oscar nomination and not connecting with audiences. Maybe it was the marketing’s fault. The gun-shot-filled trailers suggested a fast-and-loose crime flick, an extended homage to seventies blaxploition cinema. The movie audiences got was instead a leisurely paced, perhaps overly long character study, mostly composed of people sitting around in rooms and talking. Viewers should have seen it coming and history has proven it to be the norm but a relatively quiet, dialogue-driven film probably seemed like something of a departure for the director at the time.

 “Jackie Brown” is a departure in a few ways. It is the first of Tarantino’s films to star a woman, to be about a woman. “Reservoir Dogs” featured zero female characters. “Pulp Fiction’s” female cast members were mostly confined to supporting roles. Her earliest scenes establish Jackie Brown as a woman who has lived her whole life under the thumb of various men: The gun dealer she smuggles money for, the ATF agents bossing her around, the judge who sentences her to prison. The plot concerns Jackie turning the tables on her male masters, manipulating them into freeing her, giving her the life she’s dreamed of. Unlike other Tarantino heroines, Jackie goes about her goals with only her cunning and intelligence. By shifting his focus to the other gender, the director created a strong feminist message of what a woman endures to survive in a man’s world.

It’s different from previous Tarantino films in another important way. “Jackie Brown” is, thus far, the only time the writer/director has adapted someone else’s work to the screen. The film is an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel “Rum Punch.” It’s unsurprising that Tarantino would be interested in Leonard’s work. The writer’s lean prose, naturalistic language, intricate plotting, and pulp settings were doubtlessly an influence on the filmmaker. The director is well-suited to the material, his trademark dialogue finding a fine home among Leonard’s tense plotting and memorable characters. The film is a direct adaptation; scenes coming straight from the page. The biggest difference, changing the title character’s age and race from young and white to middle-age and black, was made to suit Pam Grier to a part she was otherwise perfect for. I don’t expect the director to ever adapt literature again. And why should he, when so few authorial voices are as well-suited to his style as Elmore Leonard?

Quentin Tarantino was 35 when “Jackie Brown” was released, not quite middle-age himself. The film concerns aging as its primary theme. Jackie is old enough now that she no longer wants to live under other’s whims. Robert Forster’s Max Cherry says he isn’t concerned about getting older but his words can’t disguise his fears. He debates with himself over the run time whether or not its too late to start over, to change the direction of his life. The theme is perhaps most evident in Ordell and Louis’ storyline, two criminals who are over the hill now, uncertain if they have anymore jobs in them. Contrasted to the headier themes of “Pulp Fiction” and “Reservoir Dogs,” “Jackie Brown” shows the director’s concerns coming down to Earth. Getting older is a common theme but the director attached his own style to the idea.

I mentioned earlier that, despite being steeped in the style of blaxploitation flicks, “Jackie Brown” is a slow-paced study mostly concerned with dialogue and character interaction. This contributes a relaxed, conversational tone to the film that plays to the filmmaker’s strengths. Which scene of people sitting around and talking is my favorite? The first interaction between Jackie and Ordell proves to be one of the most memorable moment in the film. Steeped mostly in darkness, there’s a quiet tension. The audience knows what Ordell is capable of and we’re already invested in Jackie as a character. The scene plays out humorously, establishing the heroine’s strength. Other notable moments involve Jackie and Max’s conversations. A talk in her living room shows two actors quietly bouncing off each other, strongly conveying who each person is. A little discussion in a mall court shows their romantic chemistry stronger. “Jackie Brown” approaches romance from a mature perspective. Jackie and Max clearly show an interest in each other without any grand, melodramatic romantic gestures. While the film’s relaxed pacing occasionally causes the audience to feel the 154 minute run time, it makes a likable viewing experience. You feel like you’re hanging out with a group of familiar, chatty friends.

At least until the last act. After two laid-back hours, “Jackie Brown” gets a serious shot in the arm. Most of the film is free of the director’s trademark non-linear storytelling, as a straight-forward screenplay sets the pieces in place for the final portion. That final third tells the same scenario from three different perspectives. Each retelling builds on the situation as we know it. The tension and suspense is ramped up, each character showing an intense level of nerves and anxiety. While always lively, the film becomes truly exciting during that extended, triple sequence. The fallout that follows remains involving and satisfying. However, the movie never matches the tension it generates during the mall set-up.

By this point in his career, Tarantino had made a reputation for making faded stars relevant again. “Reservoir Dogs” brought Harvey Kietel back into the public eye in a big way while “Pulp Fiction” completely revived Jon Travolta’s career. With “Jackie Brown,” the director decided on a truly deserved career resurgence. Pam Grier had been a star in the seventies, becoming an icon of blaxploitation cinema with brassy turns in gritty flicks like “Coffy,” “Foxy Brown,” “Sheba, Baby,” “Friday Foster,” and countless others. With the end of that decade, Grier’s career practically ended. I guess the lily-white Regan-era couldn’t handle a girl as big, bad, and back as Pam Grier… Though she had carved out a decent living as a character actress, “Jackie Brown” was Grier’s first leading role in twenty years. She truly makes up for lost time. Pam is as fiery as ever, possessing a unique, truly watchable screen presence. Jackie is vulnerable without compromising her strength as a character. The final shot is a testament to Grier’s underrated strength as an actress, as she says so much with just a look. It’s a great performance. Disappointingly, Grier’s career fell into much the same rut it was in after “Jackie Brown,” the wonderful actress confined to small supporting roles in films frequently beneath her talent.

Robert Forster had been having a similar career slump. The star of scrappy indie classics like “Medium Cool,” “The Don is Dead” and “Alligator” had been relegated to stuff like “Scanner Cop II” and “Body Chemistry III.” Bails bondman Max Cherry easily plays to Forster’s strength, his relaxed sense of cool and down-to-earth charm. Forster’s best moment is a monologue about his career as a bondsman. He shrugs off the danger of the job without a hint of self-consciousness. It’s just what he does. The two leads have a realistic chemistry together, two people thrown together late in life. The final scene has the audience wondering where Max will go next, what his course of action will be. Like Grier, Forster sells a little with a lot. Forster’s post-Tarantino career has fared a little better, getting to work with notable filmmakers like Gus van Sant, David Lynch, Michel Gondry, and Alexander Payne. Even if it meant appearing in stuff like “Dragon Wars” and “Charlie Angels: Full Throttle.”

After a hit like “Pulp Fiction,” Tarantiono was probably allowed to pick his cast. Inviting Samuel L. Jackson back was a no-brainer. Ordell Robbie is the villain of the piece, coldly violent and quietly threatening. However, Ordell isn’t a 2-D bad guy. He has a sense of humor and more then hints at an inner insecurity. Though well within Jackson’s wheelhouse, it’s a good performance, showing Jackson’s strength as an actor. The biggest name in the film had to be Robert DeNiro. While well known for reaching-for-the-rafters intensity, DeNiro is amazingly low-key here. Louis is laconic, shrugging through most of his scenes. It’s a brilliant bit of casting-against-type, DeNiro bringing honest weariness to a tired character. As the situation becomes more intense in the last act, a nervous, sweaty rage boils out of Louis. His violence is squarely framed as the result of a frustrated male ego, feeding into the film’s feminist themes. The performance marks one of the last times DeNiro actually tried.

Tarantino’s direction is softly subtle. His most noticeable stylistic decision are slow, fade-out transitions between scenes. This carries the movie’s relaxed tone along, occasionally creating a sharp image, like a transition to a blood-red wall. A brief split-screen moment seems unnecessary at the time but reveals its purpose later on. Besides from that, the director’s presentation is mostly limited to slow pans and zooms.

The film’s soundtrack is hugely important, made up mostly of classic seventies R&B and soul. The Delfonics are actually something of a plot point. The film’s conversational tone is carried along by the soulful music. At its best, the images on-screen line up perfectly with the music on the soundtrack. Setting the opening credits to the theme from “Across 110th Street” isn’t just a reference to an older film. Instead, it informs the character’s struggle, setting up the story to come. My favorite moment is when Jackie and Max meet for the first time. Pam Grier walks towards Forster, and the viewer, in a long shot. Bloodstone’s dreamy “Natural High” plays on the soundtrack, illustrating the effect Jackie’s appearance has on the character and, by extension, the audience.

Aside from a television channel always showing classic grindhouse flicks, a Sid Haig cameo, and a few choice shots, “Jackie Brown” is relatively short on the pop culture allusions Tarantino is famous for. Instead, it’s a strangely personal film, showing the director at his most romantic and emotional. It’s not as flashy as his other films but still strangely seductive, causing me to return to it repeatedly over the years. Jackie Brown, the character and the film, is alluring and lovable. [Grade: B+]

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