Canon Entry - Jackie Brown (1997)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
From a director known to be the epitome of cool (at least in terms of his films), Jackie Brown is a surprisingly sad film. All the characters are decidedly small-time, some because of circumstance, others because of their self-destructive tendencies. Even the character with the greatest pretensions of grandeur, Samuel L. Jackson’s Ordell Robbie, believes he’s a much bigger deal than he really is.
Jackie sees Ordell for who he really is, but her situation is extremely precarious. Having been relegated to a low-paying job as an airline stewardess at a low-rent Mexican airline, Jackie is caught smuggling in 50,000 dollars for Ordell, who sells guns to small-time criminals. Desperate to cut a deal, Jackie sees an opportunity to possibly escape from her life of miserable half-poverty when she concocts an extremely risky plot to double-cross both Ordell and the ATF agents that caught her to abscond with Ordell’s 500,000 dollars with the help of a sympathetic bail bondsman (Max Forster).
Tarantino changed the setting of Elmore Leonard’s novel from Miami to L.A. His L.A. is a depressing place with ugly urban landscapes and poverty is at least tangent to all the characters. It is the L.A. that many people saw on TV during the L.A. Riots in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating. It is portrayed as a wild frontier with a few colorful characters living lives of quiet and not-so-quiet desperation. And Tarantino takes meticulous care of his characters. Robert DeNiro originally wanted to play Max Forster’s part, but it’s difficult to imagine any other actor playing someone so hilariously pathetic yet dangerously volatile as Louis Gara. Bridget Fonda is perfectly vapid yet deceptively smart. Even in the midst of her drug-addled haze, she sees Ordell for who he really is, a petty criminal with delusions of grandeur.
Many people see this as one of the lesser Tarantino films; some see this even as the worst. It does seem to be devoid of most of the trademarks of what one might expect from a Tarantino film: a twisty plot that messes with continuity, a relative lack of that witty, hyper-articulate, and highly referential dialogue, a big set piece of violence and (more importantly) a lack of a buildup to that big set piece. The core of most people’s discontent with the film is that it does not resemble what they think a Tarantino film is supposed to be like.
And there’s the paradox. So many people love Tarantino and his films for his creativity, his humor and his joy of filmmaking. And yet everything that I mentioned above seems to be a formula that everyone believes Tarantino follows. The thing is, it’s not a formula; at least, it’s not a successful one. Consider Smokin’ Aces, which took all the superficial qualities of Tarantino and resulted in a mediocre, forgettable film. If you have ever seen Tarantino talk, especially about his movies, you realize that his films are a manifestation of his personality. He doesn’t set out to be incredibly referential; it’s practically in his DNA. That is why he is often guilty of making his characters all sound the same, because he can’t resist putting himself into everything he writes (note his often regrettable cameos).
One of the best things about Jackie Brown is that Tarantino puts his gifts to the service of the story and its characters, instead of the other way around. There are still Tarantino touches. A great scene between Ordell and one of his thugs Beaumont (Chris Tucker) is classic Tarantino when Ordell concocts an elaborate story with perfect details to convince Beaumont to get into the back of his car. We also see the classic snaking around of plot in the climactic scene at the mall, which we see from different characters’ perspectives. Probably the best Tarantino touch was when he changed the White Jackie Burke of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch into the Black Jackie Brown.
And what a fantastic choice that was, since it allowed him to cast the incomparable Pam Grier in the title role. Grier had made her name playing tough, sexy women in the Blaxploitation movies of the 70’s. She has a natural strength and charisma that comes out even when she is playing a character that life has taken a huge dump on. People who are familiar with her persona in those previous movies will feel the impact even more since it can be heartbreaking seeing someone so vibrant reduced to such a low position. Tarantino even gives us the audience surrogate in the wonderful Robert Forster, who is sweet on Jackie and clearly sees her as the fierce and beautiful woman she used to be and still believes she is.
Jackie Brown is well-aware of the image it presents, a seedy noir with questionable characters set in a landscape whose desolation borders on the existential. It both leans into this image, but distinguishes itself as well by avoiding the escapist fantasy that this film could have been. Forster’s character could easily have been a Tarantino surrogate and reached a romantic happy ending with Jackie. Instead, both characters are too old and too weary to play with illusions any more. (Young love is overexposed and overrated in films. I want to see more love between older, experienced people who have been around the block one too many times.) It is decisions like these that make Jackie Brown is Tarantino’s most mature and beautifully complex work, which is stunning since it was only this third feature length film. Nowadays, Tarantino seems content taking his genre exercises to their stylistic limit, and while those films can be brilliant, I still want to see him collaborate with someone who challenges him and gives him more structure as Elmore Leonard did with this film.