Welcome to Directed Viewing, the weekly series where I take a look at a director’s filmography—one movie at a time. If you haven’t been following along so far, you can find a big explanation of the whys and wherefores on the handy table of contents I built just for that purpose, including links to all the prior seasons.
We’ve been taking a look at the films of Quentin Tarantino, pop culture alchemist extraordinaire, and today we dive deep into the last of his ‘early period’ films. Following the success of Pulp Fiction, Tarantino would have undoubtedly had carte blanch to make whatever he wanted. In fact, at the time he was kicking around a bunch of different ideas, including that Michael Madsen/John Travola Vega Brothers movie that never panned out (probably for the best, really). But certainly interest was at a fever pitch for whatever Tarantino would do next.
So imagine everyone’s surprise when instead of directing one of his own scripts, he instead went and adapted a book. We’ll get into it, but I feel like ultimately the muted initial reaction to Jackie Brown had a lot to do with the expectations of another movie like Pulp Fiction, and Tarantino has never really said the same thing with one of his movies twice. With a longer filmography, we can go back and see that, but as the third effort from a director who exploded out onto the scene, I can imagine that people were expecting something far different than what they got.
Of course, those people are stupid, because Jackie Brown is one of, if not the, best movie Tarantino has made to date.
Jackie Brown (1997)
Let’s talk about what Jackie Brown is up front, so we can get to the interesting things I want to talk about it. An adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch, Jackie Brown was changed at script stage to feature a black protagonist written specifically for Pam Grier. Tarantino, long-time fan of blaxploitation in general and Pam Grier’s output specifically, decided to construct this movie as not just the beach side crime drama Elmore wrote, but an homage to the genre that Tarantino grew up loving. So, not only does it have Grier, but it has a Sid Haig cameo, and a soundtrack rife with film themes and Motown classics.
But in reality, the movie isn’t that far from Pulp Fiction in terms of sensibility. It’s still a long, novel-style crime drama, with a number of characters introduced in separate storylines who drift in and out of each others lives over the course of a story involving gun running, ATF agents, a plan to steal a half million dollars, and one of the few really great middle aged romances in popular fiction. But unlike Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown plays almost entirely straight with its timeline and construction, and unlike that film, is decidedly adopting the viewpoint of Jackie Brown herself as the central focus. In many ways, this is the first movie Tarantino made that has a ‘main character’ in the way we traditionally think of them. I think it telling that most of his movies since have starred women.
But not enough can be said about his use of Pam Grier, long relegated to the dusty cult backwaters of cinematic history after her string of genre-defining black and women-in-cages movies in the 70s. Grier is a film legend in her own right, but Tarantino’s casting is better than just reminding everyone that she’s alive. Much like he did with Travolta before her (which sadly didn’t stick, but whatever) Tarantino puts Pam Grier in a role that dares to take a typecast actress seriously, giving the kinds of characters (in this case, tough street-wise black woman pulling schemes on the men who would keep her down) she became famous playing new context by removing all of the exploitation bits and focusing on mining the tropes for some real emotional content.
From the very opening, with Jackie standing on the walkway and making her way through LAX to “Across 110th Street” by Bobby Womack, the film evokes the classics of the 70s (in this case The Graduate and Across 110th Street itself) while placing them all in a new context. Here is our heroine, the rare middle aged woman so routinely ignored by Hollywood at large. Here she is, beautiful and poised, but quickly being pressured into rushing over the course of the opening theme until she’s basically sprinting across the airport. She arrives at the gate, adjusting her scarf and trying to regain her composure, and suddenly we’re given appropriate context: she’s a stewardess, and a harried one, a job that at her age undoubtedly holds zero glamour.
She’s wrapped up in the gun trade that Ordell Robbie (Samuel L Jackson) is running, using her job to smuggle funds in and out of the country for him from his Mexican bank account. Unfortunately, she’s picked up early on by ATF agent Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton, stealing scenes with his typical charm) and if she doesn’t work with them to help catch Ordell, she’s going to jail and will come out without a career. So she agrees, even though Ordell has a bad habit of killing anyone he thinks might be threat to his operation. And while she works that angle, she decides that she’s has enough of this shitty, no-money life and is going to play the ATF off of Ordell and walk away with all of Ordell’s money.
Into this comes Max Cherry (Robert Forster), the bail bondsman who Ordell hires to spring Jackie from jail. What nobody can expect is that Max ends up falling for Jackie at nearly first sight, and the two of them end up becoming thick as thieves as circumstances keep bringing them together. Eventually, Jackie ends up coming to him with her plan to steal Ordell’s money, sure that he’s enough of a third party in the whole mess that if he agrees to help her that she can trust him to act in her (and his) interests and not double cross anybody. And as the two of them concoct this plan, they grow closer in a weird, endearingly chaste sort of way.
There’s a lot of sympathy given to Jackie Brown. She’s a working woman with a record, picked up for trafficking long ago which forced her to take a shitty, poverty-line level job because it was all she could get. There’s a sort of working single woman mentality to her that seems totally honest and in keeping with Tarantino’s sympathies, the child of a single working mother himself. And she has a past, able to steal a gun and defend herself if need be, casual about the world of violence and drugs that she lives in. She’s not thrilled about it, but it’s the world she knows, and she approaches it with a forthrightness that is refreshing in its utter lack of bullshit. She can make what should be seedy seem completely glamorous, and that’s always been Grier’s strongest point as an actress. She classes films up without batting an eye, and then can shoot up a room or spit off one-liners with the best action stars.
That kind of honest is something that Max has, too. Forster is another vintage actor rescued from obscurity by Tarantino, and Max has an endearing world-weariness that appeals to both Jackie and to us as audiences. He’s a bail bondsman, so he’s on the side of the law, but he spends much of his time breaking into homes and doing low key detective work, the kind of on-the-street stuff that is only different from criminals in that he has a license and they don’t. And he’s equally up front about it, talking casually about the gun or his adventures carrying around a taser. And all of that in this old guy who is kind of a grandpa type, bustling around at his own deliberate pace, going to the movies alone, the kind of lifelong bachelorhood that comes from a man who you feel has seen a lot of shit in his day.
The relationship that springs up between them seems to surprise them both, because it comes from such a casual place. They both complain to each other about getting old and feeling only superficially worried about themselves as they age, the frankness of confiding in strangers suddenly bringing them closer. Much of the movie involves Max, on his own, drifting into a music store where he picks up a cassette of the Delfonics, proceeding to spend the rest of the movie listening to “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time?” because Jackie played it for him. It’s the little touches like that, things he does not as big gestures to woo her but because he himself is fascinated by this woman who drifted into his life, that endear him. We want these people to find some sort of passionate Hollywood happiness, even if both of them are far past the point of their life where they have passionate Hollywood anything.
And that’s one of the more interesting truths about this movie. While it becomes this crime drama/heist film, nobody seems to really care too much about the plot that’s going on. I mean, they have investments, and they’re interested in getting out alive and getting paid, but really there’s an utter lack of histrionics that flies in the face of Tarantino’s earlier work. Everyone has been doing too much for too many years to be anything other than chill now. If they weren’t chill, they wouldn’t survive. In fact, look at the characters who end up in the most trouble: the nervous Beaumont played by Chris Tucker, the volatile Melanie (Bridget Fonda), or the irrationally violent Louis (Robert De Niro, who falls outside of what I want to write about in this movie but does fantastic work playing a parody of his silent gangster types), or the square cops who are too busy being macho about their jobs to realize they’re getting played. The lesson in Jackie Brown is that detachment is cool, detachment is necessary, and emotional or inconstant characters are the ones who get themselves killed.
That said, its ultimate lesson, both for Jackie and for everyone, is not about crime but about trust. The reality is, the crime is incredibly easy. Jackie makes a plan, pulls it off, and everything goes incredibly well. It’s really easy to break the law if you’re smart about it. What’s hard is finding people to break the law with who you can trust. In fact, every problem hinges on trust. Ordell doesn’t trust anyone, Melanie doesn’t trust Ordell, Jackie doesn’t seem to trust anyone but herself. But the fact is, that once she finds the person she can invest that trust in, she walks away with the money while everyone self-destructs in her wake. Because the earnest connection is a rare thing, and while she’s embracing the power of two people who aren’t trying to backstab each other, everyone else is going out of their way to fall into the same distrusting traps.
And so all of this leads to a low key riff on Tarantino’s style, the kind of movie that’s more muted and less homage-heavy than his fans had come to expect, and still reads as his second most sedate film (the first, and also his least popular after Jackie Brown, is the also misunderstood Deathproof). Why was Jackie Brown so unpopular? Maybe it’s because it stars a middle aged black woman who doesn’t do ridiculous things, that its focus is on the personal and the slyly clever over the big and flashy. Maybe it really was an expectation thing. These days you’d be hard pressed to find a film person who doesn’t claim to love Jackie Brown, even given the weird reaction it had upon release. It’s grown to become much more than it was, a maturation of voice that would carry Tarantino on after his dark period. And, besides that, its a damn good movie.
Final note: next week we’re doing something different. There’s a big break in Tarantino’s feature directorial output after Jackie Brown, where he spun his wheels for years before finally making Kill Bill. That said, he kept writing, and he did work on things, so next week we’re going to take a look at Tarantino’s big writing credits, and a short he directed. So come back next week for thoughts on the Tarantino-ness of True Romance, Natural Born Killers, From Dusk Till Dawn, and his short sequence in the anthology film Four Rooms. It’s going to be a doozy.