Jackie Brown (1997, Quentin Tarantino)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Sometimes eating crow is a pleasure. No, I can no longer classify Quentin Tarantino as an empty-headed stylist who can’t develop characters or tell a story, just an overrated filmmaker who can do these things but usually chooses not to. That’s kind of a pain in the ass, but its sole benefit is the existence of the terrific and subtle neo-noir Jackie Brown; like all of the director’s films, it’s an act of cut-and-paste homage, with the crucial difference that his hip stylistic choices are only a bit of flavor for the essence of a gripping story with memorable personalities, beautifully told. Witty and resonant, the thing’s a completely unexpected delight to watch, even if defining it in one sentence — a seasoned drug runner gets fucked over by her boss and seeks a way out of a cycle of lawlessness — gives it none of the credit it deserves.

He does have plenty of help from the brilliant novelist Elmore Leonard, whose Rum Punch is the basis for the plot, but what’s telling is that the entire sumptuously restrained, properly tense film reflects the right choices being made, starting with the casting. Pam Grier’s almighty performance in the title role is the film; twenty years after her heyday as a boundary-breaking action star, she delivers with truly awe-inspiring and grounded truth here, supported by a splendidly emotional but subtle turn by Robert Forster as a bail bondsman, Robert De Niro as a wound-up and square local fuckwit. Samuel L. Jackson and perpetually stoned Bridget Fonda have less to offer except to add a general layer of out-of-time kitsch, but that seems a warranted indulgence here.

In direct contrast to busy predecessor Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown has an organic, sweeping story that toys with a slightly epic but single-minded sprawl, despite also running well in excess of two hours. Everything extrapolates from Jackie herself, a well-defined and consistent character whose determination to set her life into legitimacy and order leads to a spectacular layer of deal-making and deception with her boss, his bail bondsman and several relevant cronies — all this after we’ve already witnessed the grim ruthlessness of the criminals she’s rubbing up against. Because the film is positioned to some degree as an homage to the B-grade exploitation pictures of the ’70s (the very kind of film Grier and Forster were so often cast in back in those days), it must open with a botched illegal gun deal and some humdrum cop-heavy exposition… but it begins to work some sort of magic in a hushed, beautiful confrontation within Jackie’s apartment. It is here that Tarantino ceases showing off and begins to create cinema: the haunted exchange of characters who can’t process the extent to which they each are hunting the other.

Jackie Brown is, aside from Django Unchained, the only Tarantino picture with any kind of engrossing emotional content to speak of; there is yearning and humanity in the central heist’s deeper purpose, in the universal quest for a better life. Although Spike Lee’s widely remembered complaints about the film’s liberal overuse of racial epithets are a legitimate charge, Jackie deserves some credit for capturing something about the realities of the black experience even as late as the ’90s on down to today: the struggling underneath an economic system that is designed to undermine your dreams and your ability to lift yourself up. Conversely, this is also the only Tarantino picture with any such convincing political subtext, and features the only sequences (beyond the initial reveal of Bill in Kill Bill Vol. 2) that have the gravity he believes they do.

Pacing and rhythm are not silly little “tricks” that simple formulas can solve, not even when you have a phenomenally brilliant editor like the late Sally Menke (the person who arguably made Pulp Fiction an acknowledged classic) at your disposal, but Tarantino finds his groove here as if by magic — Jackie Brown has lulls, but much more importantly it has peaks and crescendos and moments of claw-at-the-seat, resonant tension that come about both because the story being told is so engrossing and because we genuinely come to love the central character and, at the very least, Forster’s Max Cherry. It would have been so easy to write Cherry as a ridiculous caricature whose attraction to and friendship with Jackie is a lazy and unorganic screenwriterly “tool” of sorts, would be easier yet to make his decision to stick with the business he’s passionately proud of just a punchline delivered into the face of the working class, or to make the passionate one-time kiss he shares with Jackie just an out-of-place gag for a “loser,” but all of these things are warm and tender and real. Both Jackie and Max have pulses, as though they breathe outside the confines of this picture.

No quarrel I have with Tarantino has maddened me as much as his cavalier treatment of violence, which as I grow older has come to irritate me more than his self-conscious, very generational sense of authority over what is “cool” or his penchant for lazy dramatic shortcuts. One reason Jackie Brown avoids this big pratfall is it avoids those other two smaller ones, which takes out the sting. Treating the death and torture of characters as a silly cinematic joke is harder in a movie that takes said characters as seriously as this one, even early on when a drugged Chris Tucker gets canned in a trunk. Likewise, a carefully plotted film is less likely to seem flippant or ill-spirited when it pulls a stunt like the sudden, very shocking murder of Bridget Fonda in the middle of the climax. Fonda’s exit is likely to generate nervous laughter, but in even this case, the violence is treated as disgusting rather than cathartic — De Niro’s off-the-rails impatience is a consistent character trait and his casual disdain is the source of both the humor and discomfort of the moment.

All that said, not everything works, and why should it? This is Tarantino’s The Lodger — his first serious picture after two frivolous stopgaps — and he can’t possibly have it all figured out quite yet. The dialogue is still sometimes annoyingly Tarantino-y, with most of the characters annoyingly reminiscent of the director in terms of just what it is they care about and enjoy discussing. Samuel Jackson’s ruthless dealer and cryptkeeper Ordell in particular has the disgruntled video store clerk mouthpiece vibe of every single character in Pulp Fiction. Fonda’s Melanie is written to have essentially no distinctive character traits except a very ’90s perfume commercial apathy and interdependence. Jackie and Max skirt most of these problems but they do here and there come down with a case of the cutes.

And in comparison to the deliberate structure of Pulp Fiction, this film can feel slightly flabby, though that’s a mixed blessing for someone who enjoys being in this film’s world and hated spending time in that one. Some sequences should have been trimmed; for instance, the time spent establishing Ordell’s character takes us away for too long a stretch from the film’s actual story content, even if it does help justify the chillingly tense nature of his death sequence. Moreover, a strange extrapolation involving the casual affair between De Niro and Fonda’s characters is both pointlessly lurid and oddly aimless. But there’s evidence to suggest that Tarantino meant all this to have a stroke of the mundane, of afternoons slowly passing, which is a more interesting proposition at least than his usual “I want it to look like a crappy old pan & scan VHS tape I rented once” methodology even if it’s not entirely successful.

As both a deliciously complicated heist thriller and an homage to popcorn cinema of another time, Jackie Brown is a shot of boundless pleasure, but it would be one acceptable gain for the world if it were merely good. At moments, though, it’s actually transcendent, which makes its position as an outlier all the weirder. The strokes of cinematic near-genius that aren’t related to Leonard’s plotting include the Woody Allen-like use of dark rooms in the dialogue scenes, the impressively complex time-shifting of scenes and perspectives (a small miracle of exploratory blocking and editing), the split-screen effect that delivers a story punchline with impecabble, to-the-second timing, the evolution of Tarantino’s use of music in terms not so much of the soundtrack itself but the soundtrack’s open engagement with the characters (the Delfonics exchange is one of the few natural expressions of Tarantino’s pop culture fixations and also brilliantly captures the behavioral impact of a crush, even one experienced by an adult; Max has that tape in his car soon enough)… and perhaps most of all, the stunning production design. The film is delivered through a kind of brown haziness that manages to make Los Angeles seem like the cow’s-ass suburbs of Anywhere, USA, best seen in the obliquely beautiful, flat strip-mall aesthetic of the bail bonding office.

That’s but one element of how the film cleverly sells itself as a throwback despite existing in what was then present-day. That stunt has had the effect of making this feel just sixteen years later like a much older movie than it is, which I reckon was the desired conclusion. From some distance, the lengthy sequences in malls and nondescript, lived-in places make the film seem more like a real and vital experience in retrospect. A flashback to the emptiness of the ’50s diner setting in Pulp Fiction or the cutesy Zed’s-dead subplot in the same movie reveals just how much more passion and energy are dredged up from Tarantino when he has an actually elaborate story to tell with unforced humor and, you know, suspense and all that.

But come on. Really. Why not more of this? It’s so many worlds beyond the rest of his output, I can’t fathom why he has not moved farther in the direction of such sly and intelligent adult-targeted movies. For years now I have credited the final moments of Boys Don’t Cry, wherein Chloe Sevigny drives away toward nowhere in particular looking steely-eyed toward a distant future, as one of my favorite endings in a modern film. Now I feel I must revise even this, for Tarantino got there first. Jackie drives away, fully victorious the way Sterling Hayden couldn’t be in The Killing, having wanted something so badly and gotten it… and now she heads toward a new life, staring straght ahead and quietly murmuring along to “Across 110th Street.” From a director I’ve disliked for much of my movie-watching existence, one of the most beautiful and stirring moments in the movies, which I don’t have to tell you is why I do this.

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