The debate continues, particularly with the typically divisive Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, over whether Quentin Tarantino deserves all the attention lavished on him. Is he a true talent with a deceptive amount to say? Or a showy, shallow pretender to the auteur crown, who gets the press he does because he’s pretty much alone in an arid desert of popular original filmmaking, one where cinema is all-but suffocated by franchise overload. And a foot fetishist to boot (fine if the recipient of his attentions is a consenting adult, but if not…)
Of course, Tarantino created his cinematic universe long before the MCU. But you’d have to ask him which ones are in it (or which ones are in which of his TCUs). For the purposes of this ranking, however, one has to draw the line somewhere. So I haven’t included uncredited rewrites (Past Midnight, Crimson Tide, The Rock) or acting parts (obviously, if they counted, his turn in Little Nicky would be at No.1), or TV stints, either for directing or story (ER, CSI) or executive producer roles, or that micro bit he shot for Sin City.
From Dusk till Dawn
(1996) Tarantino at his most unrepentantly adolescent, aided and abetted by man-child Robert Rodriguez. Who cast his pal in a role Quentin insists wasn’t written for himself (but who is he trying to kid, right? He gets to suck Salma Hayek’s foot). As messy a movie as you’d expect from Rodriguez, but also one in which Tarantino, acting as writer for hire, doesn’t seem entirely engaged.
The first scene is the best of Tarantino the writer you’re going to get, as the later shift from fugitive fare to vampire gorefest isn’t nearly as promising as that sounds. Indeed, the second half of the picture is a complete bust, whereas, as queasy as the first half is for Tarantino’s character’s sick fixations – perhaps lost on Quentin, who extolled the flick as “a head-banging horror film for horror-film lovers!” Who are going to watch it ten times – it can, to a degree, boast internal tension.
To suggest Tarantino is reasonably convincing as a psycho isn’t to say he’s great as one, any more than Harvey Keitel is as a lapsed preacher, doing his darnedest to make him anything other than the corniest of disaster-movie characters. As for its lead, From Dusk till Dawn is, of course, notable for being George Clooney’s first movie role post-ER stardom, but like everything else he picked during this initial phase of his big screen career, his timing was off. Everyone wants to work with Tarantino, but maybe not in this movie.
Natural Born Killers
(1994) Quentin can happily plead not guilty on this one, since he disowned it following Oliver Stone’s extensive rewrites and pervasive overkill approach: “his obviousness cancels out his energy and his energy pumps up his obviousness”. Tarantino isn’t wrong either, as Natural Born Killers is an aggressively ugly affair, one in which Stone, casting about for material after his Nam itch has been salved, fixates on the media as the ultimate evil but is so entranced by his means of delivery – he spent eleven months in the editing room, and boy does it show, just entirely negatively – that he forgets to tell an engaging story with it.
The cast follow suit, with performances so hyper-inflated that almost all of them serve to inflame the tiresome whole; even Downey Jr, usually a dead cert, finds himself outmatched by Stone’s excess (Tommy Lee Jones is a surprising exception, given his hammy failure in Batman Forever the following year). Of course, the movie’s defenders – and there are many, including those claiming it is more prescient than ever in the age of self-styled YouTube stars – will tell you this is precisely the point, that the sensory overload and wanton carnage amount to the “deliberate chaos” Stone avers is the point of his exercise.
A recent Variety piece celebrating its quarter century referred to Natural Born Killers as “brazenly radical” and claims it has “never lost its sting of audacity”. But it’s only “dangerous, crazy-sick, luridly hypnotic, ripped from the id, and visionary” in the way someone off their face on Class As, stumbling naked around a festival is. Which isn’t very. Owen Gleiberman is probably right on the split in takes the pictures elicits, though: I’m definitely one of those thumbing their noses at the indulgence, and the crassness of suggesting something as crass as this was in anywhere predictive (Natural Born Killers makes Network look subtle).
What’s left of Tarantino amid the wreckage? Well, you can see the makings of a character he liked in Downey Jr’s shock reporter, although Stone moved him from the picture’s centre in favour of his media-star mass murderers. And the Bonnie and Clyde (homage) element is readily identifiable, just as the same was for Badlands in True Romance. Mostly though, this is Stone at his very worst, one that can be put alongside U-Turn, and to a lesser extent Savages, as evidence of his going entirely off the rails if he isn’t attaching himself to material with a real-life element to hold his worst impulses to excess in check.
(2007) Quentin learns only the wrong lessons from Kill Bill, doubling down on the exploitation cred he’s thinking he’s earned and kidding himself his audience will come along with him on a trip to a niche cinematic backwater few actually wish to explore (and even fewer replicate).
Death Proof recalls a comment made in Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures, regarding the director’s unfiltered passion for any old shit (“These were lousy made-for-TV movies, flat, one-dimensional and still his eyes would be glued to the tube all night watching movies and smoking weed”). The result is a bad movie “homaging” bad movies; knowingness about this doesn’t somehow equate to quality, nor does the endless, vacant chat of his heroines show either that he can write for women or justify the constant body (and foot) fetishism. You can’t have it both ways, but Tarantino’s clearly trying. And being trying.
When I first saw Death Proof, I was perhaps a little less kind than here, but only in that I singled out the first half as inferior, when it’s quite clearly the second. The opening section at least has more of Kurt Russell being a sicko as Stuntman Mike (not Bert), and as unpleasant and unrewarding as that is, we’re still talking Kurt Russell. And the explanation for his carefully worked-out, deadly scheme is buried in a piece of deductive exposition that’s about as close as the movie gets to genuinely evoking the slackly-scripted genre its riffing on.
In contrast, the second half is outright terrible. None of the secondary female cast is able to make Zoë Bell look other than hopelessly out of her depth, and Tarantino’s fascination with stunt work fails to translate to his audience, other than as disinterest in an interminable chase where Bell flails around on a bonnet. The only thing Tarantino really learned from Death Proof, however, was that there were limits to indulging the exploitation sinkhole. If he was going to repeat the act successfully, he had to bring along big stars and dress the picture up as something else.
My Best Friend’s Birthday
(1987) Tarantino’s incomplete and unofficial first movie is, well, very much the amateur production. Popularly claimed to have had its last reel consumed in a fire, co-writer and co-star Craig Hamman claims it was actually abandoned “due to loss of steam”; one can appreciate how that might have happened from the 36-minute patchwork that remains, concerning as it does Quentin’s (yes, in a starring role) Elvis-styled DJ acquiring a call girl for his titular pal’s titular date.
My Best Friend’s Birthday is at best a curiosity. But because there’s so little of it, it manages to pass the time without outstaying its welcome. Further, Tarantino the amateur thesp doesn’t look out of his league for a change, seeing as he’s among other amateur thesps (albeit, his acting coach Allen Garfield appears in one scene). The action, such as it is, includes K Billy Super Sounds’ Clarence Poole (Tarantino) snorting some pokey coke, negotiating (badly) with the call girl, and Mickey undergoing various trials and tribulations with various girls and call girls, their boyfriends and pimps.
There’s an amusing fight between Mickey and the aforementioned pimp (“Your ass is grass and I’m the lawnmower”), but My Best Friend’s Birthday’s mainly notable for the legacy effect on Tarantino’s subsequent career, most particularly True Romance (hiring a call girl – on her first job – for a birthday present, the conversation about the difference between a hooker and call girl, the Elvis fixation, including “I’m no fag, but Elvis is good looking… I’d fuck Elvis”).
Plus, there’s a mention of an Aldo Ray (Raine) and, of course, movie references (most notably Dressed to Kill: “They should pass a law that says Nancy Allen has to have sex with me, anytime I want”). Oh and, quelle surprise, “I have a foot fetish”. I’d say it’s for completists only, but it’s on YouTube so isn’t exactly a hard find. More exclusive is that a good few of the eighteen people who have reviewed it over on IMDB have given it 10/10.
Four Rooms – The Man from Hollywood
(1995) Tarantino’s room, the fourth and final, was one he, in his inimitably egoless way, referred to as “The one you’ve all been waiting for”. Four Rooms entered production just after Pulp Fiction’s rapturous Cannes reception, so Quentin’s was also the way Harvey Weinstein and Miramax saw it, and the mini-major proceeded to shaft Alexandre Rockwell and Allison Anders in whatever way they could, as per Down and Dirty Pictures.
But. The Man from Hollywood is easily the best of the segments here, so there is something to that ego (“His head demanded a huge set. All our rooms could have fit inside his” observed Anders). Tarantino plays a famous film director beset by shameless hangers on (Paul Calderon and Bruce Willis) as well as Jennifer Beals from Rockwell’s segment (only this time sans shoes, but of course). No autobiographical element there.
If you find Quentin as Chester Rush effortlessly entertaining, the chances are this will be a winner. It’s certainly the best structured, as its writer-director has borrowed the premise from Roald Dahl and worked his magic accordingly (I’ll wager from the Alfred Hitchcock Presents adaptation, rather than having read the original story, however). This isn’t bad, and unlike the next on the list, it doesn’t outstay its welcome, but The Man from Hollywood would definitely be a better minor footnote to his big-screen career if he hadn’t cast himself.
Kill Bill Parts I & II
(2003-4) It’s one movie, okay? Quentin’s said so. But more to the point, if I thought there was a significant difference in quality between the Kill Bills, I might have been persuaded to separate them out, for the sake of fairness. There isn’t. Kill Bill proves what its director set out to prove – that he could do action – but that’s just about its only boast.
That’s enough for many, and I was moderately more engaged by the picture when I first caught it/them. I appreciated that Tarantino did have action chops, as evidenced by the waves of unending corpses piling up in the House of the Blue Leaves sequence. Less so the thrall to trash movie geekery that would soon spawn Grindhouse (the soundtrack is surprisingly patchy too). But the biggest problem with the picture(s) isn’t the endless fight scenes, or the tastelessness of a screenwriter who is definitely playing to his From Dusk till Dawn exploitation impulse (the anime paedophilia sequence), or even that the altercations eventually start to become ever so slightly tiresome, when you should be waiting with bated breath to see what goods Quentin has come up with next.
No, the biggest problem with Kill Bill is the cast. Uma is the lead, but she was much more singular and memorable in Pulp Fiction where she wasn’t, yet rather had a playful, engaging character to inhabit. Like the next entry on this list, there isn’t quite an empty space there, but there’s a performance you aren’t really invested in. Certainly much less so than Tarantino, dressing her in a Bruce Lee tracksuit and gazing lasciviously over her feet (to be fair, he seemingly does that indiscriminately to every new female cast member – not so much a couch as casting footstool).
David Carradine, meanwhile, is merely fine, and Quentin’s argument for not getting Warren Beatty – that a big star was less important when he decided we’d see Bill before the end – is cogent, but I don’t really believe it. The picture needed someone with real oomph rather than measured malice. As it is, we have willowy, merely okay protagonist and antagonist, with only a reliable Michael Madsen injecting a kind of weary temperedness as a contrast to all the eye gouging and arm lopping. As for Quentin’s trademark dialogue? Forget about it. He was too focussed on pulling off the aforementioned eye gouging and arm lopping.
(2012) It probably isn’t a coincidence that Django Unchained, Tarantino’s most successful film, is also his least nuanced and most classical in form. It does everything you’d expect the director would do when embarking on a slavery-based revenge western. Which is to say, it’s incredibly obvious and maybe only once puts you on the back foot. Albeit, that once is the traditional Tarantino scene where he always puts you on the back foot.
This occurs during Django and Schultz’s stay at Candie’s ranch, where thanks to the nefariousness of “house nigger” Stephen, their scheme to liberate Django’s wife Broomhilda has been discovered. Rather than accepting defeat and sloping off with his tail between his legs, Schultz shoots Candie (“I couldn’t resist”), so igniting a full-on blood bath. It confirms something that has been creeping up on us but Candie exposes; that, rather like its director, Schultz is all about playing the game rather than dealing with the realities – the savaging of one of Candie’s slaves by dogs has been haunting him ever since – and that in response, he is, simply put, “a sore loser”. As such, he might be Tarantino’s most pertinent character, the one who most addresses the gulf between the way its director glibly tends to treat subject matter, pecking at it magpie-like between cool inflections and exploitation-cinema excess.
The problem is, the rest of the movie can’t equal this scene. And as good as the Schultz character is, he’s still a stir and repeat of Waltz’s offbeat charm, already put to Oscar-winning effect, but villainously so, in Inglourious Basterds. Once Schultz is dead, so is the movie, but there’s another half hour to go and it exposes that, as Will Smith opined of his reasons for not taking the role, the title character isn’t really the lead character.
That’s aside from the simple fact that the ranch bloodbath is the climax, and everything afterwards – including a preposterously awful Tarantino cameo in which he attempts to approximate an Australian accent – can only have a diminishing effect. Tarantino would be at it again, offing his most gregarious character (Kurt Russell) early in The Hateful Eight, but the effect here is more noticeable, as Jamie Foxx makes for a rather bland, merely serviceable hero. There’s not much to Django, other than glowering or responding to the white man who has enabled him (I don’t doubt Smith could have made him more memorable, but that would have been about his star power, the character still coming up short).
Elsewhere, Jackson offers a truly chilling portrait of subservient evil as Stephen, up there with Kathy Bates in Misery and far more noteworthy in retrospect than either Waltz or DiCaprio. The latter of whom is spirited but dealt a slightly underwhelming villain. It’s the combination of factors that make Django Unchained feel ever-so-slightly pedestrian, though. It entirely fails to justify its length, it fails to give its hero a striking pose, it’s often crude in its humour and violence – the Klansmen and their hoods, whiplash gunshots and exploding heads contrasting with the sensitivity in cutting away from violence against slaves – and is generally superior during the first Waltz-centric half, before a more repetitive air takes over. It’s Tarantino at his most mainstream, basically, which means it’s just okay.
The Hateful Eight
(2015) By Tarantino standards, The Hateful Eight is the model of restraint, if you can get past the indulgent juvenilia – geysers of blood, exploding heads, a protracted tall story revolving around a dingus that wouldn’t seem out of place in the director’s crudest effort, From Dusk till Dawn – and on that level, reasonably refreshing.
It does, of course, elicit demerits for being far too damn long. Indeed, pretty much everything that was positive and negative about The Hateful Eight on first viewing is reinforced by a revisit. Which includes the entirely extraneous twenty-minute flashback telling us what the Domergue Gang got up to when they arrived at Minnie’s Tavern. The conversations between parties in the coach and at the tavern are often as engrossing and engaging as anything the director has written, but his segues in staging are often, contrastingly, as creaky as hell. At least with Reservoir Dogs – to which this bears the closest resemblance, in terms of theatrical, claustrophobic and increasingly bloody setting – we didn’t need to ignore a swathe of characters entirely or have them conveniently hold their peace while in the same room and in full view so others could get on with an entertaining turn. Quentin’s opened a sweet box, but doesn’t quite know how to distribute them evenly.
There’s also the problem that Jennifer Jason Leigh’s death is clearly intended as ghoulish commentary, by way of the glee our politically and racially at odds heroes feel, united against a common enemy, but any impact is rendered curiously blunt edged. Probably because the preceding excess has been so flagrant that any attempt to make a serious, sustained point is forfeit (even given he is much more successful, via trademark irreverence, with the racism theme, thanks to a standout Samuel L Jackson and including the master-stroke scene revealing the Lincoln letter’s authenticity; still, he typically can’t resist going too far and grandstanding with his own perceived flair during the dingus tale).
But if Tim Roth’s English Pete feels like a lacklustre attempt to do a Waltz, the cast are generally top notch. Russell’s is such a great character, in all his ignorant swaggering glory, you want him to make it through to the final reel. Leigh is magnificently unbeholden, and if we have seen Walter Goggins offer a variation on this act in pretty much every role he’s played, he’s so good at it, it’s a pleasure to have him turn out to be the second lead. Previously, I was down on the appropriation of old Ennio Morricone tracks – which Quentin says was actually about time – but I had much less of a problem this time. And the door gag is a piece of sustained comic genius that just gets better each time. The Hateful Eight has significant issues, but it was something of a breath of fresh air at the point it appeared, a Tarantino film that felt very little need to draw attention to its cinematic conceits, aside from its director’s unnecessary vocal intervention at the two-hour point.
(1997) Quentin’s difficult third movie found the feted filmmaker taking his sweet time delivering a Pulp Fiction follow up – Peter Biskind suggests “his friends came to believe that he had been paralysed by the vexing question: What next?” – focussing instead on building his home theatre, acting, strutting around as the crown prince of Movie Geeks and… smoking vast amounts of weed. Biskind’s inaccurate to say Tarantino “turned Rum Punch into a homage to the blaxploitation movies of the 1970s he had grown up on”; there may be influences there, most notably casting Pam Grier in the title role, but there’s very little of the genre revels to be found in his other exploitation cinema dives. Which may be why its admirers tend to cite it as his most mature work.
But it is, and it isn’t. The low-key Jackie Brown and Max Cherry (Robert Forster) plotlines work like a dream (possibly too low key, such that the picture never quite delivers a sense that it’s shifting into gear at any point; even the bag switch plays like an unhurried riff on De Palma). In their own way, they’re just as notable choices and Bruce Willis and John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, except that there was never going to be much in the way of career resurgence as a result.
On the other hand, everything with Samuel L Jackson and Robert De Niro (and Bridget Fonda) seems like a so-so hand me down from Tarantino’s previous crime writing. Sure, Fonda’s accomplished at being annoying – and Tarantino scrupulously gives her feet due diligence – while De Niro’s a convincing scumball, but there’s nothing indelible about these characters, of the sort that suggests essential Tarantino; indeed, despite the odd scene (with Chris Tucker), Jackson’s Ordell plays closer to a devoted imitator trying to replicate a Tarantino type (just as the AK47 scene is a tired rehash of a Tarantino dialogue).
It’s the same with the soundtrack. It’s solid, decent, but aside from Across 110th Street, nothing really stands out. The picture’s no slog, but it’s slow in a take-it-or-leave it sense. You’re interested to learn what happens to these characters, but you don’t feel compelled to. And, sad as it is to agree with the producer, Bob Weinstein was right to suggest it could have done with tightening.
Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood
(2019) Quentin Tarantino’s ninth movie is a sprawling, rambling, near plotless mess, the kind of indulgence that should, by rights, have been laughed out of every studio, rather than initiated a bidding war. It’s also a lot of fun.
But in anything approaching “classic Hollywood cinema” terms, it barely even qualifies as a coherent film. Two-plus hours of doodling, as Quentin lets loose his passion for crap ’60s movies and TV (and less-crap music), with zero visible sense that he’s being in any way disciplined about it, just following wherever washed-up former Bounty Law star Ray Dalton and his stuntman will take him, with a fairly oblique crossing of paths with the Manson Family and Sharon Tate en route.
Indeed, there’s the amusement of someone suddenly waking up and deciding “I suppose I better wrap this thing up now” at the point the “six months later” title card comes up and Kurt Russell’s narration goes into overdrive, as if suddenly pace is everything and Tarantino’s accelerating at top speed to the finish line. The subsequent overkill of his “fairy tale” (once upon a time) ending for Sharon and Roman (and Ray) is absolutely in the revisionist history vein of Inglourious Basterds but manages to up the unapologetic absurdity, if that’s possible (the flame thrower).*
Many elaborate arguments have been forwarded for why Tarantino’s use (and re-use) of this device is evidence of his intelligence and genius (“to critique conventional Hollywood endings… you feel even more acutely the loss of the real Tate” – provided you know who Tate was to begin with, which I’d wager many didn’t) and I even buy into some of those, but I don’t tend to think the director is nearly as disciplined in his thinking and targets as this kind of approach suggests. Indeed, it’s a hallmark of the director that his intelligence and uncontrolled excess go hand in hand, often to his detriment, and especially so in this “complex and self-searching” movie.
So I don’t know if this languorous sprawl is a good movie in a conventional sense, but scene by scene it’s a very watchable one, as Tarantino takes a tour of his Tarantino-verse version of 1969, often with Brad Pitt as our driver. Of whom, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood boasts a pair of highly engaging performances from Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, very different in style but perfectly complementing each other. There’s far less quote-worthy Tarantino dialogue here, but somehow that doesn’t matter, as it feels like his most fully-formed world (complete with two obligatory instances of foot fetishism). It ought to, as Sony has pandered to him here beyond the call of duty.
*Addendum 28/08/22: The question would be one of how revisionist it is compared to, say, the “official” history of the Manson Family.
(1992) Tarantino reacted to the attacks on Reservoir Dogs’ violence by attacking back, boasting how he loved violent movies and “What I find offensive is that Merchant Ivory shit” (I tend sympathise with the latter viewpoint, a few notable exceptions aside). The irony is that Reservoir Dogs isn’t, relatively, that violent. The ear-slicing scene is ninety-percent anticipation, and much of the rest of the queasiness derives from Tim Roth bleeding out. The violence of Reservoir Dogs is of tone, the manner in which Quentin manages to set his characters and thus you, the viewer, on edge, summoning a claustrophobic intensity that, following the jokey intro (which is, in retrospect, a sign of indulgences to come), doesn’t let up.
Harvey Weinstein had no sooner hitched Tarantino to Miramax than he was imploring him to cut the ear-slicing (“Without this scene, you have a mainstream movie”); the director believes standing firm decided his career. And he’s probably right; you can certainly connect the dots between that decision and Death Proof, doing what he wants to do, even if it’s the (commercial) death of him. And then recanting, in the sense of being so desirous of public acceptance, he’ll draft in Brad Pitt and go for broke.
You can occasionally see the creaks in Tarantino’s set up – sustaining the theatrical one-setting dialogues (which, ironically, becomes a bigger issue twenty years of experience later in the also closeted The Hateful Eight), flashbacks that fill out the feature length rather than truly add to the mixture – but mostly, his flair and originality, in the sense of creating something distinctive, whatever cited influences on plot are, shine through.
And, casting himself notwithstanding, his use of actors is electrifying. Everyone here is great, himself notwithstanding, and everyone’s cachet was duly upped. Plus, the soundtrack is legendary. What Tarantino loses after this is leanness (although, he makes every indulgence in Pulp Fiction count, to be fair) and rawness. He’d adopt faux-rawness and affectation as his filmmaking skills developed, pampering and finessing his little Tarantino-verse. But Reservoir Dogs has immediacy to it and real impact; the pretence has a punch.
(2009) The one where Tarantino’s movie-centricity almost-kind-of works, complete with a ludicrously unapologetic revisionist history. Because it’s central to his propaganda “thesis”, if you will (which is to overstate the manner in which it’s weaved in, and the skill thereof, but it’s there).
Inglourious Basterds is a picture of surprising consistency – given how garish it is in its sensibility – in its exploration of the power of such ideas and manipulation thereof, from the disparity between the celluloid version of Daniel Brühl’s hero private and his actual, at-first-sight modest, self, to Brad Pitt’s team of violent Jewish Nazi killers, designed to strike fear in the enemy through essentially becoming Nazis. Michael Fassbender’s film-buff spy is undone, perhaps, because it would only be in the movies that no one questioned his accent, while his contact is a movie star playing at being a spy. The site of Hitler’s demise is a movie theatre owned by a Jewish protagonist, his body going up in a blaze ignited by the very celluloid he has used to create his “legend” and identity. As with his most recent project, Tarantino can play history out in the movies as he would cathartically prefer it, even if that’s invariably as bloody in its own way as it actually was.
Which is his point; he gets to revel in what, to a degree, he “critiques”. He knows this, because he knows those impulses as an audience member (which is not to say the entire audience will react in the same way; I have some sympathy with those dismissing Inglourious Basterds as yet another adolescent revenge picture, because, well, he has form). It’s no coincidence that Brad Pitt’s Aldo is an absurd caricature, and that he’s pretty inept at anything other than butchery, ready only to confirm the Hollywood version of Nazis as straightforward, undiluted evil (to which there’s little that Waltz’s sophisticate can do in response). And we as viewers applaud the destruction of a cinema full of Nazis directly after that cinema full of Nazis have been applauding the celluloid massacre by Brühl of 250 Americans.
Or maybe he just thinks it’s all cool; Jonathan Rosenbaum – whose reviews I have a lot of time for – rather melodramatically suggested the film “makes the Holocaust harder, not easier to grasp as a historical reality. Insofar as it becomes a movie convention – by which I mean a reality derived only from other movies – it loses its historical reality”. Shoah director Claude Lanzmann didn’t agree, presumably. Indeed, he’d have been more likely to lay that charge firmly at the door of Schindler’s List.
(1994) It bestowed the Palm D’Or upon Tarantino, but Forrest Gump trumped him in the Best Picture Oscar stakes. It’s the only film he’s made where he seems to have progressed artistically and creatively from the previous, truth be told, where one is left with the impression that he would only grow and develop as his career progressed. I know, others will claim Jackie Brown as his mature peak, but for me it represents something of a holding pattern. Pulp Fiction finds him utterly in his element, weaving his various tales with the supreme confidence of a filmmaker in full command of his world.
It seems difficult to conceive that this was an $8m Tristar picture they passed on, before the director reupped with Harvey Weinstein. And that he then continued with the smaller-is-better approach (no chance of that these days) by shrugging off Daniel Day Lewis for the Travolta role and Meg Ryan for the Thurman. And even persuaded Miramax to avoid eliciting audience feedback. And at preview screenings asked “How many of you like Remains of the Day?”, responding to the raised hands with “Get the fuck outta here!” (Quentin never sold out, but he did travel ever further up his own arsehole)
In some respects, I wonder how much the subsequent lack of a Roger Avary in his corner has been a detriment to his career. He famously persuaded Avary to take a story by credit, surrendering his screenplay share, after Tarantino had a hissy fit; obviously, Quentin sees it in terms of “… if I hadn’t written Pulp Fiction, he would never have won an Oscar”. This, of course, is the only time Avary’s officially credited, and as any self-respecting egoist would, Quentin is prone to downplaying his collaborator’s involvement (Tarantino’s now in possession of a solo screenwriting Oscar too, though, so his pride and credibility ought to be sufficiently secure). The playing with time frames and (sometimes obliquely) intersecting narratives might have seemed as if it would be standard operating procedure for the director from here on out, but in nothing since is it quite so pronounced, and in nothing since do the results quite have the élan and exhilaration found here.
It’s the same with the dialogue and the soundtrack choices. His ear for riffs has never been more acute (Reservoir Dogs’ opening monologue seems positively crude by comparison, because it is), nor for obscure pop songs. And it seemed like he’d relaunch every star going in the manner he does Travolta here (and gives Bruce a kick in the pants), but that wasn’t going to be the case. There’s a certain alchemy that he’d never repeat, brimming with ideas and paying all of them off. Sure, if I had my way I’d persuade him not to play Jimmie in the relatively laid-back final segment, but by that point, the Royale with Cheese that is Pulp Fiction just cannot be successfully sabotaged. It’s Tarantino’s masterpiece…
(1993) Is it a bit cheeky that the top slot goes to a movie Tarantino didn’t direct, and which he admits would have been very different if he had (including keeping his unhappy ending)? Possibly so, but it may also highlight that Tony Scott’s take on the writer-director’s material – the only director to make something really good of it, which may not be coincidental – has a whole lot of heart that Tarantino himself simply isn’t really interested in. Sure, you get moments, such as the bromance in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and the torment of the betrayal in Reservoir Dogs, but he’s more into whichever narrative or genre doodles he can sell us as something cool. In contrast to Alabama’s “You’re so cool”.
And there’s also the not inconsiderable bonus that Scott manages to elevate a movie replete with Tarantino’s very adolescent, wish-fulfilment idea of romance and manliness into something that – thanks to leads Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette – feels sincere and fairy tale in all the right ways. And supported by the likes of Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini (in a scene the US censors objected to because Arquette’s character – after being beaten to within an inch of her life – was too violent), Gary Oldman and Val Kilmer, what could possibly go wrong? Nothing does.
It wasn’t unreasonable, on that basis, for a recent Empire piece, while lauding the movie, to ask “Is True Romance a perfect film? Hell, no. The liberal use of the n-word, the over-homage to Badlands, the aesthetic which slips and slides into soft-focused and sentimental (don’t make me go into detail on Clarence and Alabama’s power ballad-soundtracked sex scene) attest to that”. But I’m not sure any of those are minuses in context (if you’re going to pick on the n-word, entirely legitimately, you going to have to pick on the entirety of Tarantino’s oeuvre). Well, excepting that the non-score soundtrack – and the Badlands homage is absolutely perfect – isn’t a patch on whatever Tarantino would have picked.
True Romance is fizzy pop confection that continually delights, wall-to-wall with great supporting performances and set pieces. I don’t think it’s Tarantino’s best screenplay, but Scott turns into the best movie made from his work, including the best scene in any movie made from his work (the Dennis Hopper-Christopher Walken Sicilian scene). It’s testament to how good True Romance is as a whole that the rest of the movie isn’t a let-down after that showstopper. And yes, it thoroughly earns the happy ending.