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20 years of Jackie Brown: how the worst 'Tarantino' film is also his masterpiece

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Far from being his most popular or even well-known work, Jackie Brown is easily Quentin Tarantino’s best film. Yet simultaneously, his third film after Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction made him a household name, is also the worst ‘Tarantino’ film. All will become clear.

Vast majorities of casual moviegoers and die-hard Tarantino fans unfortunately consider Jackie Brown to be his worse work. On both IMBD and Metacritic, excluding his Grindhouse double-feature from 2007, it is the lowest-rated of his filmography. It’s a tragedy for such a film that nears absolute perfection not to be as well received as Tarantino’s other works, ones that rely far more on cinematic style and gory violence, that care more about being ‘cool’ than about telling human stories and building relatable characters. Where his other works are an exercise in style, Jackie Brown stands proudly as an artful and incredibly mature depiction of human life.

When people talk of Quentin Tarantino, they speak about what sets him apart from the norm, about the features of his work that set him apart and secure him a place in cinematographic history. One could argue that Tarantino stands apart in his dismission of convention, and that Jackie Brown skips such obvious ‘Tarantino’ hallmarks as his lengthy dialogues, his glorification of violence, atypical use of soundtrack, his manipulation of chronology, the way he melds subgenres, his cocky and in-your-face style.

These trademarks exist within Jackie Brown, but are pared back, utilised with subtlety and restraint that make them all the more effective, rather than cartoonish and dare I say, egotistical, like many aspects of his other works. In short, Jackie Brown is not the film one would direct a Tarantino newcomer to, for it is the least ‘Tarantino’ of his works. However, it is his work that best demonstrates his directive mastery, and thus is Quentin Tarantino’s best film.

The set-up to Jackie Brown is fairly straightforward: Pam Grier, the blaxploitation legend, plays the eponymous character, a middle-aged air hostess who supplements her low income by transporting cash across between Mexico and Los Angeles for Ordell, a gun runner played by Samuel L. Jackson. When she is caught by ATF agents with a large sum of illegally transported cash and cocaine she didn’t know she had. Rather than face returning to jail however, she makes a deal with the agents to bring Ordell down. Whilst working undercover for the government agents however, she also creates plans with bail bondsman Max Cherry, played by Robert Forster, to give up Ordell but keep his $550,000 fortune.

Jackie Brown is the only one of Tarantino’s films that isn’t an original work, but an unguided adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch. The most obvious changes from the original tale are the name change of the protagonist, and that her race is changed from white to black. This fed into Tarantino’s want to pay tribute to the blaxploitation movement, and thus casting Grier in place of a blonde, white woman was an homage to this.

The source material and Tarantino’s flair combine beautifully. Leonard’s thoughtful, concise writing from which much of the dialogue is directly lifted perfectly counterbalances and tames Tarantino’s pushy, forcibly flashy and indulgent style, lending the story an organic flow his other works lack. Both voices shine through, and combine their styles to create an absolute masterpiece, one so sensationally, slow burn brilliant that, whilst perhaps harder to enjoy than Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction, is the director’s prime accomplishment.

The best aspect of Jackie Brown is the characterisation; the characters are far more human, with fully-developed backgrounds, their emotions are more complex and relatable than Tarantino’s habitually are. Women here are actually women, rather than men in women’s clothing, an aspect of characterisation that is unfortunately also a standout amongst Tarantino’s portfolio.

Jackie is no objectified, one-note male fantasy, but a strong, morally complex woman that is still allowed to be vulnerable, to have doubts and problems, but which she has the capability to deal with herself, without men. Equally refreshing is the romantic relationship between Max and Jackie, one that that explores a mature kind of love in which they are confidantes rather than lovers, and which avoids the Tarantino tropes of romantic relationships being centred either on a revenge narrative or on a damsel in distress.

Jackie Brown’s focus on the hardships of being a middle-aged black woman in America is another feature that also makes this film uncharacteristically mature. This social commentary is far more nuanced and subtle than Tarantino’s usual bluntness of ex-slaves killing white masters, and of Jews killing Nazis. This underlies a melancholic tone throughout the film, as the characters of Jackie, Max, and Louis are all in their fifties, and live with the intrinsic knowledge that more of their lives have passed them by than what there is to look forward to. It explores truly humane fears and regrets, and does so with incredible honesty, gives audiences characters that, unlike professional assassins, covert agents and other fantastical roles given to individuals in Tarantino’s other works, function in the real world.

Jackie Brown is Tarantino’s most mature and sophisticated film even to this day, driven by personal relationships and character development with the plot and action serving as backdrop. The film is his most genuine and heartfelt, assembled with great mastery, brilliant acting, and hits a perfect stride between measured and slow. It’s likely one of the closest examples of a perfect film.

Jackie Brown celebrates the 20th anniversary of its UK release on 25th December 2017.

 

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