on December 10, 2001
I waited a long time to see "Jackie Brown", because I heard it wasn't any good, and I didn't want to tarnish the memory of "Reservoir Dogs" or "Pulp Fiction". Both those films were kinetic, profane, daring, and truly visceral experiences. I loved every minute of them. "Jackie Brown" is a horse of a different colour, however. It is low-key, thoughtful, tender, and assured. And, I must say, just as good.
One of the main criticisms leveled against it, that I've heard, is that it's too long and too slow. Well, compared to "Pulp Fiction", which is about the same length, of course you'd think it was too slow. But that's the way this story needs to be told, for one simple reason. "Pulp Fiction" was about young, experienced criminals, always on the go, always in control. They could afford to move quickly. "Jackie Brown"s criminals are a touch older. Jackie Brown and Bail Bondsman Max Cherry even have a conversation about what it means for men to get older (they lose their hair) verses what it means for women to get holder (their behinds get bigger). It's actually kind of a touching, and very odd, moment to have in the middle of what should be a zippy little heist flick.
Another way it differs from "Pulp" or "Dogs" (which would lead people to believe that it's sluggish) is the lack of gunplay. Tarantino's earlier films were defined by the style and abundance of their shootouts. "Jackie Brown" has only six gunshots. And all are essentially off-camera, or off in the distance, producing little or no blood. Now I'm not offended by violence in movies. Not at all. But it is kind of refreshing to see a director, especially one who's made his name off it, not rely on the showy exploitation of shooting someone. When he does show it, however, the torment and suffering and guilt of the shooter is always apparent.
Which brings me to the most intriguing thing about this movie. Tarantino, who the rap on in recent years has been that he's tormented by his early success and hasn't the confidence to make his next picture, actually shows a very assured hand in making this movie. Besides the above conversation between two aging characters, there are other places where he shows supreme confidence in his decisions. For instance, he's cast Robert DeNiro in his movie. Okay, a no-brainer, right? Wrong. Because he's cast DeNiro in a tiny, stoical role. Simultaneously, he's cast Robert Forster (I know he got an Oscar nod, but before that wasn't everyone asking "Robert who?") in a role that's very meaty, the tortured love-interest. A less-assured director would have switched the two actors, but Tarantino knows what he wants, and boy does he get it. DeNiro doesn't do more than he has to in creating his understated character. And Forster steals the show with his laid-back, relaxed, but always conflicted Bail Bondsman.
And Forster's scenes with Jackie Brown are touching, chemistry-filled, and a joy to watch. Credit in this case should go to Pam Grier, as Jackie Brown, another Tarantino casting coup. Grier is asked to be maturely sexy, street-smart, tough, and vulnerable all at once. And she pulls it off without flaw. I suspect that Tarantino has fantasized most of his life about casting Pam Grier in a movie, and would have done so even if the role didn't suit her so. But it does. It truly does. She carries the picture as not only the title character but also its emotional centre.
The rest of the cast is good in their own rights. Sam Jackson was born to speak Tarantino's dialogue, and doesn't disappoint. He makes Ordell a genuine badass, even through his ponytail and silly little beard (and Jackson, bless his heart, even throws in a nod to my home town basketball team, the Toronto Raptors). Bridget Fonda is actually quite sexy as a layabout surfer chick, whose big mouth is bound to get her into trouble. And Michael Keaton, who I've always thought of as a very underrated and interesting actor, plays his ATF agent with just enough faux-cool and indifference that you're always wondering if he's playing Jackie or if Jackie's playing him.
While talking about character, I'd like to give kudos to Quentin for a neat little-shorthand trick he uses to define them. Each character essentially has his/her own soundtrack. A scene near the end, which cuts between several different characters driving in their cars, shows this very well. Cut from Melanie's (Bridget Fonda) van, where faux-eighties punk is blaring, to Max Cherry's (Robert Forster) car, which features the laid back grooves of the Delfonics, to other characters and their distinctive musical tastes. The music shifts so suddenly sometimes that it can be jarring, but it's an effective technique. Furthermore on the music front, Tarantino liberally uses the Meters' "Cissy Strut" near the beginning of the film, which quickly brought a smile to my face, and let me know that funky good times were ahead.
"Jackie Brown" is a fine addition to Tarantino's oeuvre. Sure, his fingerprints are all over it in some cases, such as his distinctive use of language, and his fondness for shifting time back and forth upon itself to show the same scene from several different perspectives. But it's much more of a grown up movie. True, it's a tad too long. But just a tad. I can take excessive verbosity from Tarantino easier than I can from any other writer/director, because he's always fascinating, always moving, always trying to surprise, and always trying to tell a good story. "Jackie Brown" succeeds on all counts.