I am a HUGE fan of Quentin Tarantino’s movies, everything from RESEVOIR DOGS to INGLORIOUS BASTERDS. When a new QT movie is released, I anticipate it for weeks or months beforehand. And Quentin rarely disappoints. Until now, I’ve always considered his 1997 film JACKIE BROWN as the “weak spot” in his filmatic career, and couldn’t understand those who insisted it was QT’s best work. As of last night…I get it.
The first time I saw JACKIE BROWN was in its first run, December of 1997. I was 28 years old and married at the time, and I saw the film with my then-wife Jenny. I was expecting something as wild and off-the-wall as QT’s first two movies, and the director was still riding high on the phenomenal success of PULP FICTION (one of my all-time-faves, naturally). Unlike his first two movies, which were conceived and written from idea to script to celluloid by Tarantino himself, JACKIE BROWN was adapted from another writer’s work, in this case Elmore Leonard’s RUM PUNCH. That accounted for a very different feel and tone…and certain stylistic differences…that make JACKIE BROWN an entirely different experience that the Tarantino movies that came before—and after—it. I remember being mildly entertained, but a bit disappointed. My former wife and I agreed (keep in mind we were both 28 at the time) that it “Just wasn’t as exciting as Quentin’s other movies.”
Yet last night I viewed JACKIE BROWN again, for the first time since ’97. I’m no longer married, and I’m 41 years old. Let me tell you, my ability to identify with the two main characters here—world-weary bail bondsman Max Cherry and beleagured flight attendant Jackie Brown—is WAY more powerful at this age. Looking back, I don’t think I was in a place where I could connect with the chief theme of JACKIE BROWN…which is basically the idea of growing old and being stuck in a less-than-ideal existence. Max is tired of his con-chasing, bail-paying life, and Jackie knows her days being a “foxy mama” are numbered. These are two characters who come together because they share a concern for finding a path toward a better future. In the end, Jackie finds her way out (with Max’s help), but Max is ultimately too set in his ways to start a new life and run away with her.
The 28-year-old me left the theatre mildly entertained. The 41-year-old me could barely keep from weeping. The sheer artistry that Tarantino displays on this movie is stunning. It’s not a breakneck race to impress and shock…it’s a leisurely stroll through a cinematic world of desperate criminals. In fact, many of the characters, chiefly Jackie herself, spend scene after scene actually walking (usually with 70s soul music evoking the pathos and funky melancholy of the best blaxploitation movies).
Samuel L. Jackson is chillingly vicious as arms dealer Ordell Robbie, and Robert Forster is a rock, an American noir icon, as Max Cherry. The thing that impressed me the most as I reconsidered the film was the sheer versimilitude of the characters. These people seem REAL. Jackie, Max, Ordell, and even Robert Deniro’s ne’er-do-well thug Louis Gara and Bridget Fonda’s inspired portrayal of a SoCal pothead surfer-bitch Melanie Ralston, they talk, move, act, and FEEL like real people. They’re believable. Tarantino is great at evoking iconic characters and larger-than-life heroes and villans—but not here. This film, as Elmore’s novel, is about creating a vision only slightly removed from our own reality, where financial security is an elusive dream, street crime is a means to an end, where cops put leverage on whomever is available in the ongoing search to snare a big fish, and where middle-aged protagonists find each other but fail to capitalize on their shared tenderness.
The last scene, where Max declines to run away to Spain with Jackie and her stolen half-million dollars, is heartbreaking. As he answers the phone to take yet another bail bond order, she walks out of his life forever. Only when he hangs up the phone does his face reveal the pain and remorse of his indecision…he knows he should have taken this chance for a one-of-a-kind love affair. But the inertia of his own lonely existence kept him right where he is. Meanwhile, Jackie’s driving away with tears in her eyes, halfheartedly singing along to one of the most heart-rending soul songs imaginable, Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street.” The film opened with that same song, and now it has a new relevance for Jackie as she’s finally found a way out of the “ghetto.” She has a half-million dollars and will be set for life. But she’s alone.
Tarantino’s restraint throughout the entire film is what I didn’t quite understand the first time I saw JACKIE BROWN. Where were the wild action shots and the ultraviolence? They weren’t here, nor were they needed. QT was trying to create a glimpse into the “real” lives of “real” people struggling to make a dollar and find their own slice of the American Dream. Of course, as I’m many years older in 2011, I’m also moving a bit slower, so the speed of the movie was a lot easier to take. Overall, I’d say the 29-year-old me simply wasn’t “ready” to appreciate JACKIE BROWN.
I get it now. And I find myself hoping that Tarantino will take this type of measured, character-driven approach in his next movie—whatever it happens to be.
“I’m not saying what I did was alright,
Trying to break out of the ghetto was a day to day fight.
Been down so long, getting up didn’t cross my mind,
I knew there was a better way of life that I was just trying to find.
You don’t know what you’ll do until you’re put under pressure”
–Bobby Womack, Across 110th Street