JACKIE BROWN: Tarantino’s Quiet Masterpiece

Jackie Brown (1997) – Directed by Quentin Tarantino – Starring Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Michael Keaton, Bridget Fonda, Robert De Niro, and Chris Tucker.

JACKIE BROWN is cinematic bourbon, a seductively slow burn punctuated by hard shots of action. It is likely Tarantino’s least revered film (with the possible exception of DEATH PROOF), perhaps because coming off the landmark PULP FICTION and RESERVOIR DOGS (the director’s first film), JACKIE BROWN is stylized in a completely different manner. Where the first two films exuded cool because Tarantino put his cinematic style front and center, JACKIE BROWN exudes cool because of Pam Grier and Robert Forster. Unlike the new energy seen DOGS and PULP, Grier and Forster give BROWN a worn, experienced energy that stands in direct contrast to Tarantino’s earlier films; where DOGS and PULP feel new, BROWN feels comfortable.

Because of this, it is the least “Tarantino” of all Tarantino films, but it is also one of his best. In no other film does Tarantino get the subtlety of performances that he gets here from his remarkably small cast. Besides Grier and Forster, Samuel Jackson, Robert DeNiro, and Michael Keaton are all excellent, and Bridget Fonda gives one of those performances that makes you realize we’d all have been better off if she’d had Sandra Bullock’s popularity.

Think about this, too, when you’re watching JACKIE BROWN – it might very well go down as containing the last great movie performances from Grier, Forster, Keaton, Fonda, and even the once-great Robert DeNiro, who has spent most of his time since 1997 making either predictable crime movies or parodying himself in comedies.

But here, together, with the strength of a Leonard story and Tarantino script as the foundation and the direction of Tarantino putting them on the screen, all of them remind you how great they could all be when the stars aligned.

It’s shocking how much of DeNiro’s screen time is spent simply sitting there, looking slightly bored and completely unsure of himself (befitting a man just out of prison), listening to either Jackson’s Ordell or Fonda’s Melanie. While that doesn’t give DeNiro many opportunities to chew scenes, it’s a fantastic, understated performance.

Even Keaton, who plays the same role in the following year’s also-a-classic OUT OF SIGHT (1998, Steven Soderbergh) as he does here is immeasurably better in BROWN. For as much as I love Soderbergh’s Leonard adaptation, he turns Keaton’s Ray Nicolette into a chump, existing only to make us understand why Karen Sisco would risk her career by laying down with a criminal.

What’s most impressive to me about JACKIE BROWN is not only the restraint that Tarantino shows but the professionalism of understanding what it takes to get this source material onto the screen. When he changes Leonard’s novel (RUM PUNCH), it’s done to respect Leonard’s approach and feel rather than to satisfy his own ego. As he’s quoted on the alternate sub-title track, Tarantino moves the story to LA from Miami because he doesn’t know Leonard’s Miami as intimately as the novelist does, but he does know LA as well as Leonard knows Miami, and that’s the only way he can keep the feel of the film authentic.

The real strength of the film is the performances of Grier and Forster, who’s characters are old enough to have seen everything, cool enough to know how to handle themselves, and experienced enough to know when they’re up against it. Grier imbues Jackie as a woman with cracks in that veneer; it might take a lot to get that facade to crack, but it can and does. For as much as Jackie has seen and done, for as cool as that experience allows her to be, it’s all underscored with a palpable fear of having to start her already broken life all over again.

The plot exists to spin character relationships into conflicting threesomes. Characters are continuously caught between two options that have only one real outcome: Forster’s Max has Jackie’s plight and Ordell’s retribution, but you know he’s going to side with Jackie. DeNiro’s Louis has Ordell and Melanie, but you know he’s going to side with Melanie. Jackie has Nicolette and Ordell, but you know she’s going to side with Nicolette. Melanie tries to create a conflicted threesome with Louis and Ordell, but you know she’s going to self-destruct. All of this makes the film less about choice as it does consequence, but it’s not even the actual consequence that’s the focus as much as it is the focus on potential consequence.

Maybe it’s working with such strong and respected (to him) source material, but Tarantino is at his most relaxed as a director here. When Tarantino is at his comparative worst (which is still pretty good), it’s when he falls in love with his ability to be flashy and shades-wearing cool as opposed to the non-shades, Steve McQueen cool evidenced by Forster in BROWN. There are still plenty of nods to his usual bag of tricks, but those nods are largely visual instead of verbal, and even they they’re understated. On the whole, Tarantino is content to let the actors dominate this understated ride. The result is a confident, relaxed masterpiece.

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3 thoughts on “JACKIE BROWN: Tarantino’s Quiet Masterpiece

  1. Anybody who knows me knows I have nothing but love and respect for Pam Grier who I have been hopelessly in love with ever since I was knee high to a knee. Most of her movies I saw during their original theatrical run and I own most of ‘em on DVD. Makes my wife sick but hey, I indulge her worship of Denzel Washington (who she actually got to meet and take a picture with!) so we’re even!

    And yeah, I consider JACKIE BROWN his best movie and it’s a wonderful tribute and showcase for the talents of Pam Grier for a lot of the reasons you name and a few more besides. I love how Tarantino shows us a mature relationship between two middle aged adults, Jackie Brown and Max, who if they had met at another time in their lives would have been perfect for each other. I love how Robert DeNiro says more with his not saying anything than if he had monologues to work with. I love how Ordell manipulates Beumont into becoming a willing participant in his own murder. In all ways around, just a really superb movie.

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