what i watched last week
melky cabrera

by request: jackie brown (quentin tarantino, 1997)

Tomás requested this one. A few years ago I wondered if Jackie Brown was Tarantino’s best film to date, and reminded myself to check it out again sometime. Sometime has arrived, and I still don’t have the answer to my question. Jackie Brown is a very good movie; thus far, Tarantino’s features have all been at least very good. His usual strengths are here: dialogue that is as good as any in contemporary film, a savvy appreciation for pop culture, an excellent ear for the right music for the soundtrack, and an ability to channel a hundred years of film history into a coherent whole. He is also excessive, which at times makes even his strengths a bit tiresome, and sometimes it feels like he knows more about people in movies than he does about people in real life. All of which is one way to explain why I’ve given every Tarantino movie I’ve seen at least 8/10, but have never given one 10/10.

For the most part, Tarantino avoids the showy time-jumping dazzle of Pulp Fiction, letting the story unfold in a fairly standard way. When he finally gives us multiple versions of the climax, it is pleasing in part because it is unique in the context of the movie, not just another example of how talented the director is.

Tarantino once again provides meaty roles for a variety of solid actors, including Sam Jackson, Bridget Fonda (who in one scene is watching her dad Peter on TV in Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry), Robert DeNiro, Michael Keaton, Chris Tucker, and Sid Haig. But the heart of the film lies in the performances of two grizzled veterans, Pam Grier and Robert Forster. Forster’s subtle underplaying won him an Oscar nomination.

But Jackie Brown is Pam Grier’s movie. Occasionally a director will place their spouse or lover into a movie and try to convince the rest of us that their beloved is the center of the universe. Quentin Tarantino’s love for Pam Grier isn’t romantic in a real-world sense. Instead, he loves Pam Grier the movie star, and in Jackie Brown, he gives her the perfect role, just right for her to shine, showing her range but never asking her to step outside of that range. The way he photographs her is somehow simultaneously lustful and respectful, never exploitative, and he (and she) refreshingly never hide the fact that this woman is in her 40s. (At one point, Forster’s character, a bail bondsman, guesses that Jackie looks the same as she did when she was 29. “Well, my ass ain’t the same,” she replies. “Bigger?” he asks. She answers in the affirmative. “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that!” Forster exclaims.) Rarely has a director done such a great job of letting us understand why they love the actor.

Even with all my praise, I wouldn’t say Jackie Brown is perfect. It’s too long, and while the dialogue is Tarantinoesque, I think it misses some of the Elmore Leonard feel (not everyone agrees with me). For that, I prefer Out of Sight (and the TV series Karen Sisco) or Justified. It’s hardly a complaint, though, to say that the dialogue is Essence of Quentin.

Is this the best Tarantino movie? I’d probably still vote for Pulp Fiction. But Jackie Brown is close. 9/10.