I plan on talking about Pulp Fiction in my very next post as I have a lot to say about that one in particular. What’s important to know for now is that I’m a huge fan and it was my introduction to Quentin Tarantino. Well, it stands to reason that I’d make a point to check out the other films which he’d made considering I loved PF so much. So these are my thoughts on his filmography, focusing on what he’s directed, not standalone writing credits. I’m going to preface this post by reminding everyone that these are just my personal opinions, and at the end of the day I love QT’s work. Despite some of my criticisms, he’s one of my favorite modern directors right now and I’m always at least entertained if not enthralled by his films. None of these are bad movies, but I can’t help but notice some significant flaws which I haven’t seen anyone else mention yet, so I feel compelled to call attention to them myself.
Now, I’ve only seen Jackie Brown once and personally it just wasn’t my cup of tea. I really don’t have much else to say about this one. It’s completely removed from QT’s usual style. That makes it a tantalizing picture of what the man is capable of, if he were someday willing to step outside his comfort zone and do a film without his signature idiosyncrasies. But that also makes it the black sheep of his filmography, and to me it almost feels like someone else directed this one.
I’ve also never seen Death Proof. The Grindhouse double-feature was actually the first QT movie to come out since I became a fan. I desperately wanted to see it at the time, but I wasn’t old enough to go to an R-rated film alone and the adults in my life refused to take me. Since then I just never got around to it, and at this point I’ve heard it’s not that great anyway. Even QT himself considers it his worst film. In any case, as good as it might be, I’ll always resent him for not making The Vega Brothers instead when he still had the chance. That could have been a great loose trilogy of experimental crime films in the vein of the Dollars Trilogy. I sincerely hope the script leaks someday, or that he makes it with recast titular brothers.
Reservoir Dogs is great, and I made a point of checking it out soon after falling in love with Fiction. In my opinion, it’s not as interesting, but still a very inventive little heist movie. You can see a lot of the seeds for PF being planted, like the title cards during the flashbacks becoming Pulp’s “chapters.” The fact that QT doesn’t show the actual robbery means we’re dependent on how the characters describe it. We have to choose who we believe, and by doing so, it forces the audience to analyze our characters and pick sides. We also have some interesting cinematography, like the rotating shot of Mr. Orange telling his story in the bathroom, and the graffiti wall he speaks in front of earlier in the same “commode story” montage. There’s a lot of thought-provoking subtext which isn’t spelled out, like how Mr. Blonde was changed by his experience in prison, or Mr. White’s paternal affection towards Mr. Orange while still being a cold-blooded criminal. Mr. Orange finally confessing the truth at the end felt earned considering he’s watched Mr. White sacrifice all his friends on a lie. It’s just a great small-scale movie; it knows what it wants to be and does it well without trying to be grander than it needs to.
Kill Bill mostly works despite its flaws. My main problems with the story are editing and pacing. It makes no sense that the Oren Ishi character gets this detailed 15 minute backstory in the middle of Volume 1 when none of the other targets, even the titular Bill himself, get that honor. Why do we need to know so much about Oren and no one else? I feel as though you could cut that whole animated sequence, and several other lesser scenes, without losing anything that’s important to the central conflict. In fact, I believe the two volumes can and should have been edited down to one roadshow length movie. A grand 3.5 hour epic rarely seen since the early 60’s, with an intermission in there somewhere would have been fantastic. If you can find them online, the Confused Matthew reviews on this film make some good points on it. (I’m not usually a fan of angry Internet reviewers anymore, but that one was surprisingly insightful.)
There’s also just a lot of little lines here and there, like “silly rabbit, Trix are for kids” or “for us to be even, like even steven…” which sound more like someone trying to write in QT’s style than QT himself. Those attempts at witty, realistic dialogue that felt so natural in PF just come off as forced winks to the audience here.
However, what rises Kill Bill up above these shortcomings is the dynamic between the Bride and Bill himself. My favorite scenes are the ones between the two, especially in the climax. Their murderous feud was born of a terrible misunderstanding, and despite everything they’d put the other through, you can still feel the chemistry. Despite the Bride killing all his past associates, including his brother, Bill calls the Bride “my favorite person” before his death. Just as the Bride cries for his death in spite of everything he’s done to her. Their final scenes are like an exaggerated stand-in for every relationship that failed and the desire for answers which usually never come–hence the “undisputed truth” interrogation scene. (Haven’t we all wanted to sit our exes down and get straight answers? At least in those breakups which occurred due to misunderstanding and/or there were still unresolved feelings?) I always got the sense that in another lifetime, if any one factor had been different leading up to their breakup, maybe none of this would have happened and they could have remained close. It was a unique interplay between a protagonist and antagonist which I haven’t seen in any other film.
Inglorious Basterds‘ problems are that it’s essentially Kill Bill set 60 years prior, and the Basterds are totally irrelevant in their own movie. If they didn’t exist, Shoshana would have handled everything just fine. To me, that just makes it a lot harder to care about the scenes with the Basterds on rewatches since nothing they did mattered in the end. While I like Shoshana well enough, and think the actress did a great job, we never get to really know her as a person either. Shoshana’s entire character is that her family was murdered and she wants revenge. That’s fine, but it’s a step down from the far more complex and interesting love-hate relationship of Bill and the Bride. Most of the other characters don’t fare much better–Hugo Stiglitz and the Bear Jew hardly have any defining characterizations or quirks besides “hates Nazis.” Aldo Raine is a walking stereotype whose sole existence is based around being a caricature of American machismo and “killing Nazis.” Whether you like Basterds or not, it’s objectively a step backwards in terms of plotting and characterization compared to what QT has done before.
In Kill Bill, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, there’s a lot of idiosyncrasies that stylistically break immersion in favor of embracing the possibilities of cinema full stop. I always found them to be a lot of fun and felt they added some distinctive charm to the movies. I’m talking about stuff like Mia saying “Don’t be a…” and then drawing a square, which appears magically on screen and fades away. Or the fight scene in Kill Bill 1 that was shot in black and white before literally blinking back into color. For some reason though, in Basterds, these devices felt wrong to me. Moments like Sam Jackson’s sporadic narration and the Hugo Stiglitz title card for example, just struck me as juvenile and trying too hard. Similar to the aforementioned dialogue in Bill, it felt like some mediocre amateur aping Tarantino’s old style without a care for whether it actually enhanced the scene or not. Maybe it’s the WWII setting and more serious tone, but those moments lessened the film for me. In PF and KB these off-the-wall choices felt natural because those films were largely tongue in cheek, fun homages to pulp magazines and old kung fu/samurai films, respectively. Basterds is mostly played straight, and even subtly criticizes viewers who’d laugh at its violence by comparing those audience members to Hitler at the climax. (Hitler bursts out laughing at the film within the film, Nation’s Pride whenever an allied soldier is killed. This is supposed to make us question our own enjoyment of seeing Germans get killed earlier in the movie we’re watching.) So, these idiosyncrasies felt like an intrusion, and they confuse the tone.
Besides the brilliant standoff in the bar basement, none of the scenes in the movie had that same Tarantino magic as far as I’m concerned. Even there, the fact that the characters argue about the definition of a Mexican standoff at the end of the basement shootout felt so stupid and anachronistic that it ruined the payoff. It’d be like doing a Civil War drama and having Lincoln and McClellan argue about what constitutes a MacGuffin or Mary Sue trope. I know the phrase was coined in the 19th Century, but is that really what Wilhelm would choose to argue about when his life is on the line? Would that term even be well-known in Germany where there are no Mexicans? I know it doesn’t really matter at the end of the day, but it felt like QT trying to make the film more “cool” and edgy doing stuff like that, rather than actually writing realistic characters or an immersive scene. It’s also disappointing that Wilhelm, who only exists in this one scene, is far more developed and sympathetic than any of the Basterds or von Hammersmark, who survive.
But, similar to Kill Bill before it, Basterds does have a saving grace and that comes in the form of Hans Landa. He’s a compelling character and Christoph Waltz steals every scene he’s in. The scene where he’s talking to von Hammersmark and several of the Basterds at the premiere is another high point in the story. It’s as though Hans joins the audience in awareness of how ridiculous these caricatured Basterds are, and like us he can’t help but laugh.
Django Unchained is an improvement over Basterds, but it’s still just the same over the top revenge fantasy we’ve now seen three times in a row. It’s as though QT is unable to conceive of any other possible motivations a character might have, or how to get the audience’s sympathy, except this one gimmick. In Kill Bill it worked because that film was an homage to the kung fu and samurai films of the 70s where such an over the top plot was common. Basterds at least mixed it up a bit by having the revenge-motivated character originally trying to move on with her life until the perfect opportunity presented itself. This feels like going backwards, and once again without that ingenious relationship between the pursuer and object of revenge which made KB great.
The biggest problem I have is how, after the first climactic shootout, there’s another 20-30 minutes where the story just refuses to end. The momentum is completely gone, the climax has long since passed. At this point you’re just waiting for Django to get right back where he’d been and presumably shoot the place up all over again… but it drags on forever. This final extended sequence brings the story to a screeching halt and leaves the audience on a sour note. There are a few stretches in the rest of the film (I recall a few mountain traveling montages) that ought to have been cut as well. To me, moments like this just show how QT has gotten too big to be challenged at this point in his career. He really needs someone around to hold him *slightly* in check so he doesn’t go too overboard, but at this point who’s going to question the great genius auteur? It’s a great example of how sometimes, limitations are better for art. Studio meddling is a huge problem in general, but sometimes just a little bit of push back can keep the final cut from getting too excessive. In other words, George Lucas syndrome. I’m aware QT’s longtime editor Sally Menke passed away before Django and her pressence is sorely missed. However the point stands; any decent new editor should have been able to see that final sequence damaged the film.
Once again, the high point is Christoph Waltz. I love his performance and his character. In particular, I thought it was interesting that he brought on the first shootout at Candyland because of his principles. He refused to shake Candie’s hand because to honor such a vile person was beneath his code of ethics. However, by holding to such a rigid standard, he got himself killed and almost doomed Django and Broomhilda to a terrible fate. It’s an interesting morally gray moment and character flaw, the kind which QT used to be great at writing.
The other high point for me is Sam Jackson’s character, Stephen. He was just so twisted in his self-deprecating devotion to his own abusive master that it was compelling to behold. Stephen was definitely one of the most emotionally charged and thought-provoking characters QT has ever written.
The Hateful Eight
The Hateful Eight is probably Quentin’s weakest film yet. I had a good experience watching it in the cinema with my friends, but the more I dissected it after coming home, (and especially after a second viewing,) the flaws became undeniable. I loved everything about the setup, but once they get into the cabin itself, nothing happens. (On that note, it’s also really weird QT was so insistent on using 70mm film if he was going to set most of the story in a cramped little cabin. Maybe that was intentional irony or subversion of expectation?) Once they get to the cabin I was expecting a Twelve Angry Men kind of story where the close quarters and strong personalities would grate on everybody, we’d see how these people play off each other, and somehow an argument would naturally break out and things would explode. That would have been a nice return to the roots of Reservoir Dogs while still utilizing the bigger budget and more complex writing QT had supposedly developed over the last two decades. Instead….nothing. And once again, we never really learn anything about these guys except the bare basics–the new sheriff’s a racist, Daisy’s a criminal (but we never learn much about her criminal career or personality), etc.
In the beginning, when the Hangman meets all the people already in the cabin, they lie about who they are, so those scenes are worthless on rewatches. Sam Jackson tells some phony ridiculous story just so he can kill the old Confederate officer, which felt like a weak, random payoff to their animosity. From then on, it’s revealed that a guy was hiding in the basement and everyone already at the cabin were in cahoots the whole time. The movie had me until all this started happening. First off all, with the guy in the basement on their side, it makes no sense the people in the cabin didn’t just overpower the Hangman and Sam Jackson from the beginning. They had them out-gunned plus the element of surprise, so why wait for hours before making a move? Were they going to wait until their targets fell asleep? If that was the case, then what about when the Hangman started collecting everyone’s guns, thus neutralizing their crucial advantage? It makes no logical sense why the conspirators acted they way they did.
I also wasn’t convinced Sam Jackson’s character determined so much information from the fact that the stew tasted the same as when Minnie made it. (I mean, cookbooks and written standardized recipes are a thing, right?) Or why he also waited so long before making a move. He could and should have communicated his suspicions to the Hangman, coach driver and Sheriff on the down low if he were so certain. His dramatic monologue revealing the reason he believes Minnie was recently killed has never sounded “right” to me. Something about the way it’s written and the lack of coherent logic to lead to this conclusion always left me feeling like this scene needed a rewrite.
The fact that this movie, which promised to be a fascinating interplay of different personalities in close quarters, instead boiled down to “everyone but the people whom we saw arrive in the carriage are bad and in cahoots” was a very disappointing payoff. That’s the kind of boring, lame “twist” I’d expect from a first time filmmaker, not a supposed expert in the craft. I liked how Sam Jackson and the racist Sheriff learned to get along in order to survive, but I wanted to see that kind of character growth and interplay with everyone. For example, imagine the Hangman having to rely on Daisy to save him from someone else in the cabin? That would have made his over the top abuse towards her actually mean something to the plot. Instead every torture he put her through was just for petty shock value the entire time. Or what about the coach driver, and how he blew up at the Hangman for making him toss the guns in the outhouse? Why didn’t that amount to anything, any climactic fight or forced reliance between the two later on? I liked the reveal that Sam Jackson’s Lincoln letter was fake, and why he made it, but I wanted those kinds of character reveals and vulnerability with everyone…or at least more of them. As is, there’s no reason that this simplistic story needed to be 3 hours long or include so many characters just to be cannon fodder.
The final scene where Sam Jackson and the Sheriff hang Daisy felt gratuitous and unnecessary. It would have been a lot more effective if the film ended with Sam Jackson’s monologue about the Hangman, the need to honor his wishes by hanging Daisy, then cutting to black. That was just a bit too much brutality–sometimes IMPLIED violence/horror is a lot more effective than actual violence/horror and QT seems to have unlearned that lesson over the years. In Reservoir Dogs, we never see Mr. Blonde actually cut Marvin Nash’s ear off. In Pulp Fiction, we never see Butch’s sword actually enter Maynard’s body. I know QT’s movies are purposefully crude and he makes no apologies for it…but truthfully, less is often more.
In general, the insane amount of abuse heaped upon Daisy made me uncomfortable by the end. She may be a criminal, but a lot of it just served no point to the story and felt like straight torture porn. I’m not opposed to violence in cinema to tell a great story, I’m opposed to cheap shocks that detract from the viewing experience while serving no purpose to the characterization or plot. No other character in all of his films has ever suffered so much ridiculous, over the top abuse, even more deserving candidates like Hans Landa. When you read about some disturbing stuff that’s gone on behind the scenes of his movies, it just makes me wonder if this isn’t something more than pure artistic intent.
At this point, I’m sure someone is going to rebut my criticism of QT’s recent works by pointing out that RD and PF didn’t exactly have the deepest characters or plots either. To this I’ll say…you’re right to an extent. But PF and RD were able to get away with it. Dogs doesn’t have a particularly original plot but it wasn’t trying to. It’s a heist that never shows the heist, forcing the focus to be on the characters and their subjective recollection of events. There’s plenty of little moments in the flashbacks and aftermath which flesh the participants out to where they’re interesting and open to interpretation. For example, you can see from the fact that he doesn’t tip, got the diamonds and runs through the events of the robbery in a methodical manner that Mr. Pink is pragmatic and self-centered. You can gleam from his flashback that Mr. White had a surrogate girlfriend of sorts as a partner during his robberies in the past. This sets up his tendency to get too emotionally involved, which explains his protective fatherly interest in Mr. Orange. The “commode story” montage extensively establishes what a great actor Mr. Orange is, so we buy that he could keep his cover even while shot. Mr. Blonde was significantly changed by his time in prison–it’s clear Joe and Nice Guy Eddie didn’t expect the kind of behavior from him which the other robbers describe, and we see firsthand through his torture of Marvin Nash.
In summation, QT really needs a co-writer and/or editor with a spine going forward (I know Sally Menke unfortunately passed away, but I believe she let him get away with too many excesses in Kill Bill and Basterds, personally. Not to speak ill of the dead.) I feel like after PF when he became a household name, QT got a big head and his editors were afraid to question the genius. His 21st century movies suffer from repeating the same overall story, just in different time periods with homages to different film genres. Not only that, his newer films bog the momentum down with unnecessary scenes or long takes. The unconventional little touches or snappy dialogue that worked so well in RD and PF suddenly felt forced and self-conscious, like trying to outdo himself.
As to this last criticism, I will state outright that I’m no prude, I’m not saying you can’t use blood or the N-word. I especially respect the use of the latter in stories like Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird where it’s done to put you in the times. But in QT’s movies, especially lately, it’s done so often and in such a self-conscious, daring-you-to-be-offended manner that it feels forced. It feels like he’s doing it just to get a rise out of people, which is what I expect from an edgy teen not a supposed genius auteur. I’m not offended from a Politically Correct standpoint, I’m offended from a lover-of-great-screenplays standpoint.
I hear the upcoming Manson Murders film is supposed to be the closest to Pulp Fiction yet. If that’s true, it’s a welcome change of direction from the period piece revenge fantasies. But I think tackling such a haunting topic is going to be tough. If he does it in his newer daring-to-be-offended style I could easily see it coming off as in bad taste. I’m all for tackling the subject, but I don’t want to see Sharon Tate’s murder done as tastelessly or with the same unnecessary brutality of Daisy from The Hateful Eight.
EDIT: Having seen it last summer, I can say that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was a fantastic return to form for QT. I still had my issues with it but I really appreciated the characterization and atmosphere a lot more than anything else he’s done since Kill Bill. I may make a separate blog post about Hollywood sometime in the future after another rewatch.