Dense with allusions to other work but more fun than a barrel of monkeys (studded with nails and rolled down a hill, à la Herschell Gordon Lewis’s 2000 Maniacs), Quentin Tarantino’s movies cry out to be viewed both singly and in relation to one another — as the journey of a boy who once lived through grindhouse movies and is now permitted to dramatize (and cinematize) his fantasies on an epic scale. Few directors give you the sense that they’re getting off so much on their own work. For better, and occasionally for worse, Tarantino really digs Tarantino.
N.B.: Here and there, I’ve mined some of my past reviews (the ones I still agree with, anyway) for descriptions. It’s not just laziness. The feelings that come to you in the first flush of pleasure after seeing a Tarantino movie are difficult to recollect in tranquility.
1. Pulp Fiction (1994)
This has to sit atop the heap, though Jackie Brown is, all in all, the more masterly work. Pulp Fiction changed people’s ideas about American independent cinema — that it can be un-Hollywood-like and pointy-headed but also sexy, fetishistic, and splattery. Its strangeness posed so many challenges. Why did it sound like that? Why was it shaped like that? Why did something with so many dissimilar parts work so harmoniously and have such an emotional kick?
The hit men Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) ride in out of the French New Wave (that rode in out of American gangster and noir pictures), talking of Quarter-Pounders before assuming their coldly murderous roles. The talk owes more, I think, to the exuberantly garrulous novels of George V. Higgins than is commonly recognized, but Tarantino makes the disjunctions starker.
The movie’s mysterious structure — three stories, the last chronologically placed in the middle so that a beloved character we see die violently is brought back to life — is designed to reinforce an unusual, quasi-religious message. Jules reads the tea leaves — i.e., holes from bullets that should have struck him and Vincent — and renounces his life as a deliverer of punishment (on behalf of a gangster he no longer morally respects). Vincent, on the other hand, shrugs off any grand design and ends up in the bathroom (three times — the last with fatal consequences) when vital things go down.
The movie is where you really see how Tarantino loves actors and has a genius for resurrecting them — in the case of Travolta, both onscreen (Vincent comes back postmortem) and in their careers. A dance scene opposite a ravishing Uma Thurman (barefoot in her first appearance) brings out all his dopey sweetness and his moves.
Then there’s that distillation of Tarantino’s beloved Deliverance, transposed from backwoods America to an L.A. gun store that’s a Grand Guignol chamber of horrors — a scene that gave us the immortal, sadistic line about getting “medieval on your ass.” Christopher Walken’s incomparably straight-faced delivery of the story of a watch preserved inside two assholes (one belonging to the father who died of dysentery): There is a heaven, and it is this.
I think the final diner scene goes on too long and — Mexican standoff notwithstanding — is not as visually inventive as what precedes it. But it brings the movie to its remarkable close. Alas, there is nothing as formally daring as Pulp Fiction in the rest of Tarantino’s oeuvre. But his next film is still in a class by itself.
2. Jackie Brown (1997)
This is my personal favorite of Tarantino’s films, although I didn’t appreciate it nearly enough on first viewing. Adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel, it feels distended by all the talk, talk, talk — until you get into its rhythm and realize the distensions are thepoint. It’s Tarantino’s stoner movie, the one that makes you laugh at how long and convoluted the whole thing is — until the violence comes and the trip goes bad.
That violence: It’s almost all offscreen and very nearly blood-free. The elaborate ruse of Samuel L. Jackson’s Ordell (convinced that he’ll be ratted out following the arrest of his courier, Jackie Brown) to get a pipsqueak (Chris Tucker) he just bailed out of jail into the trunk of his car so that he can execute the poor sap seems ridiculous … except that Tarantino loves, loves, loves it when a character begins to talk and just keeps talking, savoring the words, stretching out time.
You want to laugh when Ordell finally drives in a circle, opens the trunk, and shoots the man … except the image is faraway and eerie. Not seeing the dead man makes his death more haunting. The sudden, nonsensical shooting of Ordell’s leggy stoner girlfriend, Melanie (Bridget Fonda), by an inept associate (Robert De Niro) is shocking in its swiftness — and somehow made more horrible by the fact that she falls offscreen and we never see her body. Could she really be dead?
The narrative of Jackie Brown is nowhere near as pretzeled, but a key scene — in a mall, prior to the shooting of Melanie — is replayed from different angles, probably to underscore the idea (which you really understand when stoned) that reality is a collection of differing perspectives that rarely meet.
When there is an accord — as between Jackie and bail bondsman Max Cherry — it’s a blessed thing, made more so by Tarantino’s obvious delight at resurrecting the careers of two ’70s B-movie stars, Pam Grier and Robert Forster. He puts Grier on a pedestal (a moving one, in her first shot) and brings out Forster’s gentle but capacious soul.
I’d hate to choose between two movies as superb as Out of Sight (directed by Steven Soderbergh, from a great script by Scott Frank) and Jackie Brown, but, beat by beat, Tarantino captures the appeal of Elmore Leonard’s sometimes draggy — but magically draggy — work.
3. Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)
Why would I place this ahead of Vol. 1 instead of just ranking them together? Perversity, maybe. But also to underscore the idea that they’re truly different films. The whole of Kill Bill is a pastiche, a farrago, a revenge saga spun out in many distinct exploitation-movie styles and rhythms. Vol. 2 is a slow, deliberate Western with a purposefully incongruous dash of washed-out, zoom-lensy ’70s Hong Kong Shaw Brothers. It opens in a desert with the wedding of Beatrix, a.k.a. Black Mamba, a.k.a. the Bride (Uma Thurman), which ends in carnage.
It continues in the desert with the long sequence in which Beatrix is shot by Budd (Michael Madsen) in his trailer and then buried alive. An elaborate interlude covers Beatrix’s training, first by Bill (David Carradine) and then by huffily sadistic kung fu master Pai Mei (Gordon Liu), with flyaway eyebrows and a long, white beard he whips over his shoulder like a scarf. Madsen’s Budd, a drunk who seems to have grown passive and fatalistic and to have lost his taste for killing, has some surprising moments, and Daryl Hannah’s one-eyed hellion has a comeuppance that’s worthy of her. But violence isn’t the thing here.
After killing scores of people in Vol. 1, the Bride kills but one person here, though there’s a juicy maiming that compensates for the movie’s relative lack of blood — and then some. The one is, of course, Bill, and the long one-act play — a psychodrama, a family drama, a philosophical debate — leading to the swift, bloodless climax is proof that Tarantino is twisting, maybe even writhing within the revenge-saga structure, the way Shakespeare did in Hamlet.
(First commenter to say “You’re comparing Tarantino to Shakespeare???” gets his/her head sliced off with a Hattori Hanzo sword.) The end must deliver on the title, but the death blow (it breaks Bill’s heart but lets him live for a bit, a dead man walking, for a last bit of bonding) is anything but triumphant.
That said, is there anything in Kill Bill to make us question our culture’s addiction to violent fantasies of retribution? A little, maybe. But not enough to keep Tarantino from making his last two movies pretty much straight-ahead vengeance thrillers.
4. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
This is the Japanese volume (with Sonny Chiba and some inspired anime) in which the Bride — a onetime assassin — comes out of a four-year coma and begins to hack her way to Bill. Actually, the movie begins in the middle, with her second major kill. Inadvertently, she nails Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox) in front of the woman’s very young daughter, and the moment hangs, ugly and unresolved.
The Bride tells the little girl that if she’s still feeling “raw” in a few years, she can come for her. A short time later, there’s a flashback in the style of Ghost in the Shell, in which we learn that one of the Bride’s adversaries, the yakuza boss O-Ren (Lucy Liu), became an assassin after avenging her murdered parents. So Kill Bill is like a revenger’s-tragedy hall of mirrors: The heroine of one vigilante saga becomes the villain of the next.
What distances the movie from its models is the fanboy giddiness that Tarantino brings to the party. He has never done pure action before: This time, he throws himself whole-hog into the carnage. You can almost hear him cackle, “This is so cool.”
I felt the way I sometimes do at a Mark Morris dance piece that reshuffles familiar, showbiz-y moves into something new and funny and unexpectedly lyrical. Kill Bill literally becomes a dance movie in the course of the final battle, like An American in Paris with arterial spray.
5. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Tarantino knew enough to keep his first feature — the story of a jewel heist gone garishly wrong — relatively modest. It’s essentially a chamber drama with a small, all-male cast that’s set (largely) in one place.
But you know from the way the men in black suits with skinny black ties seize the space in the first scene — and then, in a diner, argue for many minutes over the ethics of tipping — that Tarantino is announcing himself as a different kind of pulp director. The cut from low-key jauntiness and garrulousness to the post-robbery pandemonium remains shocking, what with Tim Roth’s Mr. Orange, shot in the bowels, bleeding copiously, as he will continue to bleed (and howl and beg) for the remaining hour and a half. It’s not a clean wound.
There is a quasi-hero, Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), and an obvious psychopath, Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), but morally speaking, everything is relative. There is no center of gravity. And there’s no way to end a film so agonized — the plot centers on the surviving gang members’ attempt to discover which of them is a rat (or an undercover cop) — without building to a climax that’s like a Grand Guignol opera.
But most people know Reservoir Dogs because of its setpiece, a protracted torture scene in which Mr. Blonde taunts, beats, and hideously maims a young policeman, whose pleas for his life are mocked. This scene gave birth to the idea that Tarantino is a sadist — and that’s not an idea I’m comfortable wholly dispelling. I think he is a sadist, at least when it comes to onscreen violence.
But I also think he’s a deeply conflicted one, and enough of an artist to put his relish and revulsion on the screen with little attempt (at least here) to reconcile them. The troubling thing is that he has become less ambivalent about violence as he has aged. It is now more righteous, more ejaculatory, more fun.
6. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
An epic mess, but loaded with amazing setpieces and taken over by Tarantino’s most charismatically murderous villain, Christoph Waltz as Nazi Colonel Hans Landa.
I had the rare privilege of hearing Charlie Rose read the first paragraph of myInglourious Basterds review to Tarantino on his show (after Rose first read a David Denby denunciation for the apparent amorality of Tarantino’s characters).
Rose: “The common view of Quentin Tarantino as a sicko gore freak … overlooks his real gift, which is for long and fraught and winding dialogues before the carnage erupts. Watching his World War II action thriller Inglourious Basterds, you might wish the blood would never come: The payoffs are common, but the foreplay is killer. Even more than his other genre mash-ups, this is a switchback journey through Tarantino’s twisted inner landscape, where cinema and history, misogyny and feminism, sadism and romanticism collide and split and rebond in bizarre new hybrids. The movie is an ungainly pastiche, yet on some whacked-out Jungian level, it’s all of a piece.”
Tarantino: That’s a lotta adjectives.
Fuck. Shit. Cock.
Rose: But I like that!
Tarantino: Yeah, I like that, too, actually.
Okay, maybe I didn’t need “Jungian.”
What I meant by that first paragraph was that the way Tarantino lets himself free-associate on the screen is what saves this movie from all sorts of too-easy scenes, among them the ones in which the “basterd” guerrilla squad of Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) gleefully beats in the heads of captured Nazis.
In some ways, the movie never tops its opening, in which a French farmer watches a jeep filled with Nazis travel the road to his house, close-ups of his anxious face alternating with long shots of the vehicle coming nearer and nearer, his eyes meeting those of his three terrified daughters — the sequence comparing favorably to both Leone and Hitchcock.
Then comes unnervingly polite interrogation over a kitchen table by Nazi Jew-hunter Landa, who slowly squeezes out the whereabouts of a Jewish family that the farmer has bravely hidden, each dramatic beat another turn of the screw.
The other amazing scene is a near-peripheral one: A furtive meeting between a spy (Diane Kruger) and a British agent (Michael Fassbender) in a pub cellar full of Nazis that builds and builds and builds, until your head feels about to explode. But it’s the climax that is most outlandish.
Set in a cinema hosting the premiere of a Goebbels-produced saga of a real Nazi hero, Tarantino shows a Nazi myth exploded by a subversive Jewish countermyth, contained within a Tarantino revenge myth that rewrites history in ways that make your jaw drop. Inglourious Basterds is a revenge movie in which the movie itself is the best revenge.
7. Death Proof (2007)
This relatively short thriller in the double-bill jamboree Grindhouse (expanded to no particular end into a full-length feature) might be the purest distillation of Tarantino’s ambivalence about violence towards women. He’s a predatory humanist. It’s a deeply dark, sadistic, and fetishistic movie — and one that doesn’t make a lot of sense in the context of a salute to grindhouses.
In a rowdy Austin bar, a pair of geeks (one is director Eli Roth) plot ways to get a bunch of dishy women drunk and into bed. But they’re lightweights beside the scarred macho man (Kurt Russell) at the bar who calls himself Stuntman Mike, does John Wayne imitations, and drives a black Charger he boasts is reinforced for high-speed collisions and rollovers: death-proof. Mike’s psychotic kink is driving head-on into cars full of women, killing them and giving himself extreme pain — but not death.
The violence is grotesquely ugly, particularly the murder in Mike’s car of a blonde hippie-chick played by Rose McGowan. And the accident that ends the film’s first half — preceded by the known foot-fetishist director’s lingering on the bare feet of Austin DJ Jungle Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier) — is slowed down and made hideously lyrical: limbs lopped off, faces smashed.
The second set of women show up before we’ve fully digested the fate of the first group. But these are ladies of a different stripe, fresh from a movie shoot, and led by a pair of car-loving stuntwomen (Zoe Bell and Tracie Thoms) who gush about vintage speedsters and movies like Vanishing Point and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry. It’s isn’t long before Mike realizes he has messed with the wrong girls — and he becomes a blubbery “girly-man” himself.
So Death Proof is a female-empowerment movie — in theory — but dredged up from the psyche of a movie freak who loves women onscreen almost as much as he loves to punish women onscreen.
8. Django Unchained (2012)
In one way or another, I love all the films that Tarantino has directed — except this Western starring Jamie Foxx as a gunslinging ex-slave and Christoph Waltz (wonderfully puckish) as his bounty-hunting German escort. What Nazis were inInglourious Basterds, slaveholders are here: people who are a gas to exterminate. Every bullet generates a whoopee cushion’s worth of red sauce.
The only violence that’s not a kick is done unto slaves, who are whipped, torn to pieces by dogs, and, in a particularly ugly moment, driven to slaughter one another for sport. But the helpless rage we feel in those scenes is in the service of Tarantino’s larger goal: to make the vengeance on the film’s racists all the more gleeful. Carnage rarely comes so morally uncomplicated. And however much I like violent movies, that’s not a good thing.
This is Tarantino’s most financially successful movie, and a lot of people love its rituals of injury and retribution. But for all its pleasures, I think it’s too easy, too dead-center in Tarantino’s comfort zone. After the thrilling convolutions — narrative and moral — of Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Reservoir Dogs, and even parts of Kill Bill, Tarantino has stopped challenging himself — or at least challenging himself in any way that matters to his growth as an artist. He has become his own yes man.