In 1997 Tarantino released the follow up to what many still consider his greatest work, Pulp Fiction. Pulp Fiction felt like something new and original, while of course acknowledging things that came before. It is usually considered the most influential American film of the 90s.
So when Tarantino released its follow up, an Elmore Leonard novel adaptation, Jackie Brown; there was a lot of high anticipation. But anticipation for another Tarantino film. What they got instead was as un-Tarantino as any film he has made, despite the obvious Tarantino trademarks.
We got the dialogue. "My ass may be dumb. But I ain't no dumb ass."
We got the great soundtrack.
We got multiple perspectives of the same moment.
We even got a scene with a car trunk and a firearm.
What we also got is maybe the last thing people expected; or wanted. A paced (not all that violent) movie that lets us get to know two star crossed (would be) lovers. Jackie Brown actually contains a tragic, not to be love story. Something no other film of his had to that point. And its done pretty darn brilliantly.
Max Cherry (an outstanding Robert Forster) is smitten immediately by Pam Grier's, Jackie Brown.
By the end of the movie, Cherry has helped Brown procure a large sum of money and only taken 10% as his fee. Brown not only offers him more, but asks if he will come away with her. Everything to this point tells us this is exactly what Cherry wants to do. He told Brown he is going to sell his business. He is in love with her. So why doesn't he go with her?
There are two scenes that stood out the most to me, as to why Cherry stays in a job (and possibly a life) he does not enjoy, and lets Brown exit his life.
The first is when, late in the film, Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson) comes to get his money from her, and Brown kills Ordell. Now, no she never actually pulls a trigger. She lets ATF agent, Ray Nicolette do that, after yelling "he's got a gun!"
It was not pointed at Brown and by all rationale, she was not in any immediate danger.
But if Ordell lived, he would talk. And for Brown to be truly free, Ordell needed to never talk. And you see a look from Brown, as she deals in her mind the decision she just made.
Then you see a look from Cherry. And after being in the dark, the lights were literally just turned on.
Cherry is not a helpless type. He is a bail bondsman. A man who explains how he stuns people to take them in to jail. "That's the job."
But is there something else that keeps him from making that decision we want him to make?
Cherry holds his own with everyone he encounters in the film. He never really seems scared of anything. Ordell and he have various back and forths. But one line now stands out that the first time I saw it, probably seemed like a throw away. It is used as a verbal volley at Ordell, and it does connect in the moment.
"Is white guilt supposed to make me forget that I run a business?"
The fact Cherry is white and Jackie is black, seems to have no bearing on the movie. It's never mentioned. But of course its a fact.
With that line, Cherry shows he sees and acknowledges the difference in himself and almost everyone he deals with in the movie.
But is it possible this is another small reason for Cherry's decision?
The most subtle of racism on Max Cherry's part?
Tarantino might be the last person anyone would expect to make a well thought out, restrained but powerful look at race.
And definitely the last person who would get any credit for doing so.
Yes Max Cherry is a white man that helps a black woman. But they are played as equals completely in the film. Actually, Jackie Brown is intellectually superior to anyone else in the movie. The Blind Side this is not.
This is about class systems and Jackie trying to do whatever she must do.
For a man known for his brilliant use of music, Tarantino's choices here might well be his best.
In the last scene we hear Bobby Womack's, "Across 110th Street," and see Brown sum up the entire movie by her look into the camera, and singing along with the words.
"Doing whatever I had to do to survive/ I'm not saying what I did was alright/Trying to break out of the ghetto was a day to day fight."
We hear the Delfonics a few times throughout the film. Max heard them first from Jackie, and now can't seem to get enough.
It's also played for laughs during a tense moment right before a pivotal scene.
As for the supporting characters in the film.
No one has ever understood how to use Samuel L. Jackson, as effectively as Tarantino does time and again.
Deniro gives one of his most underrated performances. (Maybe the best putting down of a phone in film history) His ex-con, Louis, goes from cuddly to scary, in slow convincing ways.
Whats gets him to the breaking point is Bridget Fonda's, Melanie. (Watching this movie again made me sad that Fonda quit acting so long ago) She says his name with such drawn out contempt and mockery that well, you can nearly understand Louis's reaction. Fonda is Deniro's equal in this film.
"I gotta start all over again, but I got nothing to start over with. I'll be stuck with whatever I can get." -Jackie
If this film was released today, this line, and even the casting of Grier, might be called "meta," a la Michael Keaton in Birdman.
Grier did not have too much of a career any more, when Quentin gave her this lead role without even asking her to audition.
Robert Forster was in even more dire straits. He says in an interview that he had previously auditioned for Reservoir Dogs, felt he nailed the audition, but did not get a part. He was sitting in a little cafe considering quitting acting, and trying to decide what else he could do for a living when Tarantino walked in and Forster invited him over. Soon after he had a part in a movie that would keep him a working actor for as long as he wanted.
One wonders if also the line above did not refer to Tarantino himself. Once you are the toast of Hollywood, there is only one way you can go. And its interesting that he at least seemed, for all its Tarantino-isms, to make a movie unlike the others. Was this a new direction? What might we have seen from him if it had been more of a success?
Critic Nick Votto had a similar thought.
"In his attempt to kill the creature he created, this new narrative for this Tarantino-esque film culture was dismissed and probably is the reason Quentin Tarantino fell back on the crutch of using old genres as his sole purpose for creating a film."
I am not as critical as Votto on what he would do after Jackie Brown. The Kill Bill movies are for me, about as re-watchable as anything I've ever seen. And different genres could as easily be viewed as a challenge. Jackie Brown could more easily be referred to as his "blaxploitation film," as it could a crime thriller. Outside the casting of Grier, no one seemed to realize what he was doing at the time.
But it is fair to wonder what movies Tarantino is directing somewhere in an alternate universe. One where Titanic, with its awful dialogue, did not win Best Picture that year; but Tarantino won multiple Oscars, for this wonderful and criminally underappreciated film.
Jackie Brown: "The milk went bad when I was in jail."
Max Cherry: "Black's fine"