Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Line that stays with me: “I didn't know you liked The Delfonics?”
Essay Warning: There are no spoilers or story details. I want to offer the emotion that a film can access within us. Plus I think the best way to watch a film is by not knowing anything about it. Just Go In…So if you haven’t watched this film yet please don’t read this essay. Read it afterwards so we can enjoy the “feeling” together.
Quentin Tarantino has a great name. It sounds very special; it is as if he has lived up to the destiny set before him in life. Tarantino, the writer-director who made audiences all over the world once again care about great original work from writer-directors. At the time Hollywood desperately needed a facelift, Quentin Tarantino was the only man viewing past the horizon. He brought with him, interweaving story lines (now overdone and over cooked in so many movies), and a love for genre films unlike any director before him except maybe Howard Hawks. But more than anything, he single handily made movies cool again. Quentin Tarantino, will go down as the coolest motherfucking director in the world and, his films will always prove this no matter how much time passes. His desire to bring so many great essences of cool, exciting cinema that he treasures to the big screen his way is beyond inspiring. By now you’ve heard or read of his classic rags to riches story that inspired millions of video clerks/writer-directors to take a Hollywood dive. That was so long ago, it is hard to explain how he completely blew film lovers out of their minds. The window flew open and there it was fresh air. First, Reservoir Dogs, the tease, that always feels grander than it actually is. What struck me was the writing, the language, the conversations that could shift from “funny as hell” to -” damn that’s some good dialog”, it just sounds right and cool. Pulp Fiction, blew the house down and gave Tarantino the keys to the city. People didn’t know how the hell he was going to top that classic. Quentin Tarantino, being the genius that he is, didn’t even try. That sort of magic only works once and he knew the only thing you can really do in that situation is keep growing. You have to follow your artistic instincts, trust them and believe wherever it leads you; it will surely be the most honest personal expression. “Jackie Brown” feels like that to me, a director expanding his skills. He is not trying to outdo himself, he wants to showcase cinematic ideas he loves, and show the world how special a film like “Jackie Brown” can be. I mean come on a $25 million genre mixing film cocktail of Crime drama, Blaxploitation (Only a hint really), and film noir starting Pam Grier, Robert Forester, and Robert DeNiro and Michael Keaton? It is a kid in a candy store creation and one of the greatest feelings one can experience watching films, it is catching the energy of watching someone’s dreams come true.
I remember the hype for “Jackie Brown” was insane. Very similar to Nirvana releasing “In Utero”, it was a major artistic moment to witness. Is this indie poster boy 100 million dollars grossing director going to strike gold again or strike out? When I first saw it, I wanted it to do well in a major way especially for Robert Foster but I knew in my gut that this is not the film “Pulp Fanatics” wanted, at least not yet. “Jackie Brown” is a very slow paced film, it has a trance quality. Quentin Tarantino, set it up this way in order to create an amazing tempo. The very first shot of the film is a long shot, and the first scene of the movie is like ten minutes of people watching TV. Knowing how to set a tempo is beyond important for filmmakers, it is a make or break quality. Tarantino set a perfect nice and slow tempo; a movie filled with so many conversations, pot smoking, and characters enjoying “Screwdrivers” requires the tempo Tarantino chose in order for the film to work. Tarantino, loves making interesting characters come to life, I think he is obsessed by it. With “Jackie Brown” he got to really make these characters live and breathe like very few films have. So many long takes in this film, various scenes that are long in length, but burst with sincere human observation and subtle tenderness. People did not go crazy for his new film in 1997, many critics were disappointed and audiences did not come out in droves. Now, “Jackie Brown” is the film that holds Tarantino’s beautiful filmography together. You can point to it and say yes he is that good, in a class of his own.
I can understand how after watching every frame of “Pulp Fiction” and always being left wanting more, how “Jackie Brown” could disappoint upon first viewing. “Jackie Brown” isn’t giving us any sermons, it wants you to hangout. The film wants you to take it easy, relax, smoke one or drink something and enjoy listening to these interesting people speak. There are not many bursts of gunfire and when something electrifying happens it’s usually attributed to an actor’s facial expression. Tarantino fell in love with these characters from Elermore Leonard’s book and every scene is a celebration of like some long overdue wedding. He believes the characters will make the film work and he was right. It is very similar to the approach Howard Hawks had with the classic John Wayne western “Rio Bravo”. Howard Hawks wanted to make “Rio Bravo” feel like a Television show, where you fall in love with the characters, and can’t wait to see what happens the following week. From the very first scene we are forced to relax and hang back. Samuel L. Jackson and Robert DeNiro watching some sexy strange VHS (remember those things) called “Chicks who love guns” while Bridget Fonda’s legs toy with us. We are in that room; this isn’t a plot set-up in the classic Hollywood sense. Tarantino wants us to enjoy all the nuances, human comedy and vibrant flavors on display in that room. Simple moments that most filmmakers do not even think about, shine in “Jackie Brown”. Tarantino’s amazing gift in writing dialog creates classic moments. One of my favorite moments is Samuel L. Jackson saying “Girl, don’t make me put my foot in your ass”. The film is very funny, but it is the sort of comedy built from “You had to be there moments” which is very hard to do. This film celebrates the act of catching lightning in a bottle and the serene pleasure of great conversations.
After multiple viewings of “Jackie Brown” you begin to realize that the plot is the least interesting thing in the film. Do not get me wrong, the plot is perfect. Perfect plot in the sense that it offers its all-star cast keen moments to deliver their special brand of magic. You got Pam Grier, acting tough, sexy without ever losing her place as the heart of the film. Samuel L. Jackson doing what he does best which is delivering Tarantino dialog with effortless ease but with striking conviction. Robert Forster, in one of the few performances I will ever call perfect. Robert Forster as Max Cherry might be the best testament of Tarantino’s brilliance. Such a smooth, warm-hearted sweet performance that adds the perfect spice of romance the film needed to keep it from becoming pointless. Robert DeNiro, in a very physical performance is quiet throughout, but always bursting with intense body language. One of my favorite shots is a pan to DeNiro near the end, which seems like the most perfect way to use Robert DeNiro’s mug. Bridget Fonda, cracks me up as she claps with her legs keeping in tune to The Grass Roots song “Midnight Confessions”. Michael Keaton knows how to make a lasting impression just with his impressive array of facial impressions. Michael Bowen has the most underrated performance in this film, he kills every time he speaks, can’t think of a better actor when it comes to “Asshole roles”. The acting alone is worth every viewing. Is there more to “Jackie Brown”? Maybe not, but who cares when the films intentions come across strongly confident and the performances are perfect.
Yes, that’s why no Tarantino film has ever won Best Picture. Tarantino is not focused on giving us life lessons of any sort; at least not in some Clint Eastwood directed film type of way. He seems more interested in his cinematic obsessions and the diverseness of life in general. Thank God for that. We do not need more filmmakers giving us weak attempts of life advice in an entertainment format. Yet, I can write a whole essay alone on the interesting wisdom on display in “Jackie Brown”. From dealing with disappointment brought upon by a life sprinkled with very few rewards to falling in love. I think given Tarantino’s background he can relate with a story of a woman fighting to reach a hard to obtain goal, a new place that once seemed very unattainable. The scene with Pam Grier discussing how a life filled with no chance of better days is scarier than any gun Ordell Robbie can point at her face. The fact that you are free but you cannot live the life you desire. Which makes me wonder, if Hollywood didn’t give him a chance where would Quentin Tarantino be right now? He fought so hard for his moment of glory, and with this film I think some of that knowledge about failure truly helped in making you feel for Jackie Brown. You want her to escape, it might not be the right thing to do but you want her to get away. That final shot of the film, Pam Grier’s face of fear and excitement brought upon by her new life gets me every time. We are watching a woman driving towards a whole new life after waiting decades for the chance. Imagine you woke up tomorrow with all the money you need to not work anymore and time available to discover, to live new experiences that were once denied to you. In that final scene I know she’s happy but she looks so afraid, like she doesn’t know what to do with herself, it is a beautiful moment. I know maybe she doesn’t deserve that money (when you think about it she really doesn’t, it is kind of messed up what she did) but it is always great to watch a character who’s gotten the worst end of the stick finally get some retribution. So in that sense “Jackie Brown” is a revenge movie like “Kill Bill” except it is a revenge movie on the unfairness of life.
“Jackie Brown” showcases a very mature Quentin Tarantino before the world asked for one. There were no special tricks or special effects, but a writer/director who knows how to write a script better than anyone else. He sat us down, put on a record, gave us a cup of coffee, and spoke to us about life. Often making the audience laugh in a very oblique way, which can only be attributed to the dark humor life can’t help but throw our way. More than anything I think Tarantino brought back the lost art of conversation to the movies. Dialog was something Hollywood was great at. Watch TCM once in a while and you will hear what I mean. After movies like “Jaws” and “Star Wars” Hollywood’s focus shifted from great storytelling to trying to wow people with special effects and making as much money as possible. Their foolproof plan worked for a good while but by the early 90’s the so called “Blockbusters” were getting stale. Along comes a man with a plan. A director who wanted to change how films are experienced and by borrowing from the best elements of great novels and trusting his cinematic taste, he did just that. He made films that can go anywhere and even used time to offer different perspective of characters we love a la Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon”. He arrived with the knowledge that you can only receive by studying, reading, learning, and appreciating everything life throws your way for you know it might lead to an experience that will only make your lifelong work stronger. The art of conversation is beyond important, and it is not something every director can do. Make you sit and listen to people doing nothing but talking. That is a rare gift and in “Jackie Brown” Quentin Tarantino achieves this at a grand level with tremendous dexterity. He spoke about life, love, desperation, underhandedness and the strange comedy of cruelness all within the cool confines of a heist movie/crime drama. “Jackie Brown” doesn’t appear to be “deep” (Whatever the hell that means!), but that’s because its writer/director understands failure. He too found himself in a hole and decided like Jackie Brown to keep digging in order to get to the other side. Is that deep enough for ya?
ABOUT RCM: RUTZ Classic Movies is dedicated on writing film essays for films that in Rutz's opinion, have not gotten the credit they deserve. Next Essay: Russell Mulcahy's "Highlander"