In October 1992, Quentin Tarantino’s directorial debut Reservoir Dogs was released to widespread acclaim and controversy; just over 20 years later, Tarantino’s eighth film, Django Unchained, became his biggest box office success so far.
Watching them back-to-back now, there is surprisingly little to indicate they were made by the same person, so remarkable has Tarantino’s career evolution been. Over two decades, Hollywood’s enfant terrible has deconstructed and reconstructed genres, revitalised failing careers and rewritten the rule book on mainstream adult-orientated film making. Most importantly, he directed some of the finest films of his era (and had a creative hand in a few more besides) and firmly cemented himself as the most beloved filmmaker of a generation.
The most important and influential of his works, Reservoir Dogs, which injected Hong Kong stylistics into the crime caper genre, sent ripples throughout the movie industry; the pop culture referencing dialogue and non-linear narrative were endlessly recycled by a slew of imitators. Its tale of swaggering criminals whose tough-guy facades disintegrate in the aftermath of a heist gone wrong had a grim, borderline nihilistic tone and graphic, realistic treatment of violence but combined with the cool aesthetics, including the 70s pop soundtrack and shades, suits and twin pistols look (which owed a debt to John Woo), made it both shock and delight in equal measure upon its release. But viewed now it doesn’t stand up as well against later works; it feels like a cleverly thought-out movie pitch in search of a fully fleshed out script.
This is most evident in its characters; despite an opening scene in a café which sets up their roles in the group dynamic beautifully, Tarantino doesn’t seem interested in their emotional lives and as a consequence, neither are we. By the time the infamous Mexican standoff comes around, the realisation hits that you don’t care who lives or dies.
Mr White (Harvey Keitel) and Mr Orange (Tim Roth) seemed to have a closeness that extended beyond a shared crisis, but Tarantino does not take the opportunity to explore it, and it leaves the final scene feeling flat. There is a cynical sense that he may be holding the best of himself back, in the hope that bigger budget opportunities would follow.
Thankfully they did, resulting in his 1994 follow up Pulp Fiction, a hyper-stylised and violent homage to film noir. Displaying his ability for moral and emotional complexity, Tarantino replaced the empty shells of Reservoir Dogs with truly compelling characters; hit-man Vincent (John Travolta) is charismatic and thoughtful but crippled by a heroin addiction that renders him careless and near-incompetent, and Butch (Bruce Willis) recalls Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, a brutal, cynical loner kept in touch with his humanity by his love for Fabienne. They, along with a variety of small-time LA crooks, find themselves in some surprising and absurd situations, many ending in physical and emotional bruising, death and even redemption. Pulp Fiction is enlivened by a rich colour palette, another awesome soundtrack and some dark, surreal touches (Jack Rabbit Slims, Captain Coons ‘Gold Watch’ monologue).
The commercial success further reinvigorated the American Independent scene and turned Tarantino into its most revered figure. Now a household name thanks to the VHS success of Pulp Fiction, anticipation began to mount for what QT’s next project would be.
The world found out in 1997 with the release of Jackie Brown, Tarantino’s most assured, mature and resonant movie to date. Although vindicated by history, the early critical reception was lukewarm and to an extent it is not hard to see why; lacking the violence and non-linear plot of previous efforts, and paring back the referential banter, Jackie Brown seemed like a big departure for many.
Ostensibly a heist/con flick, the plot is engaging and features some clever twists, yet almost perfunctory; it is the emotional themes explored that make it genuinely connect with the viewer. In Jackie Brown, Tarantino created his most recognisably human character; Jackie (Pam Grier) has world-weary smarts and street toughness but she is driven by a relatable fear of reaching middle age and having to start her life over, broke and alone, and it is this which makes us care and will her to succeed.
The male leads are equally as captivating, with bail-bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) fed up after years of a thankless job, but fearing himself too old for romance, and gun-runner Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) ruthlessly, desperately determined to retire in peace from his dangerous lifestyle. For the first time so far, Tarantino allows you to connect deeply to the characters, their issues and their eventual fates. This being QT though, the ending is inevitably bittersweet but not in a way that makes you feel cheated; in fact, it feels like it comes too soon (despite the two-and-a-half hour runtime), so well realised is the world and the personal lives these people inhabit.
Possibly due the mixed reaction to Jackie Brown or maybe because he fancied something completely different, Tarantino’s next project, Kill Bill, was a massive change in direction.
Split into two films, and seemingly an attempt to put all his cinema-referencing eggs in one basket, Kill Bill feels like the summation of every obscure genre flick QT has seen, and one painted in much broader strokes; gone are the well-rounded, layered personalities of Jackie Brown, replaced with bold, comic book style archetypes and a paper-thin revenge plot to match.
Tarantino’s knowledge is undeniably impressive, but rather than let the homages enhance and complement the piece, Kill Bill is completely constructed of them, making it feel less than the sum of its parts. But some of those parts are seriously impressive, particularly in Vol.1 where the focus is on Asian cinema (anime, kung-fu and chanbara); the biggest highlight being The House of Blue Leaves sequence where Tarantino is able to fully show off his ability as an action director.
This feeds into the first hour of Western-influenced Kill Bill Vol.2 but it all falls on its arse by the end; some ill thought-out attempts to add heart and pathos don’t work and Bill’s turgid, rambling monologue feels wholly out of place. Better watched back-to-back to savour its best moments, Kill Bill is uneven but vastly enjoyable.
The same could be said of Death Proof, Tarantino’s under-appreciated half of 2007 Robert Rodriguez team-up Grindhouse. Sadly the audience didn’t warm to the duo’s tribute to low-rent double bills and Grindhouse produced unimpressive box-office returns. Planet Terror and Death Proof were re-edited and released as standalone movies in the international market, and Death Proof proved itself the stronger. It does not start promisingly; neither the personalities or the dialogue during the first 20 minutes are very engaging, but things pick up considerably with the arrival of Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) and things play out as a tribute to grungy 80s slasher films.
An abrupt shift of tone later and the second half becomes a Russ Meyers 70’s road movie, led by the insanely likeable Zoe Bell. The final 20 minutes send adrenaline racing with an extended white-knuckle chase sequence that puts modern racing/action movies to shame. The lack of moral complexity and subtext (ok… there is vaguely feminist one) makes Death Proof a straight-forwardly enjoyable, if slightly guilty pleasure.
After the disposable fun of Death Proof, 2009’s Inglourious Basterds was a more elaborate endeavour, its moral maze of characters and stately, distant composition making it almost impossible to fully absorb in one viewing. SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) steals the show, believably erudite, charismatic, ruthless, emotionally intelligent, self-serving and sociopathic, often all in the same scene while Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) leads the almost as sociopathic and aptly named Basterds, as they rewrite history horrifically butchering Nazis and third lead, Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), is a Jewish survivor plotting to assassinate Hitler.
The supporting cast of characters is hefty, with their own interesting idiosyncrasies, yet their myriad of morally grey transgressions and an unusual level of humanity given to some of the ‘bad guys’, means you don’t end up rooting for anyone in particular, a bizarre feat in a film with Nazi villains and a plot to blow up Hitler. It’s a loving homage to films made about and during the Second World War, and while the intentionally anachronistic style offers no real commentary on the period, this makes sense when you realise that Inglourious Basterds isn’t about the Second World War or the Nazis, but is actually Tarantino’s thematic tribute to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; it is ultimately about opportunistic men during wartime driven by a strange set of ethics and their own selfish needs, be it greed, revenge or just plain psychopathy, and what lengths they will go to indulge them.
If Inglourious Basterds was Tarantino’s thematic tribute to Westerns, then Django Unchained is the literal one, in terms of visual style, structure and presentation. Django centres around Dr. King Shultz (Christoph Waltz again), a quirky German dentist-turned-bounty hunter who procures the services of slave Django (Jamie Foxx) with a hit, before befriending him and assisting on his quest to save his beloved Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). On the undisputedly evil side is Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), owner of the plantation where Broomhilda is kept, who is charming and well-mannered at face value, but dim, ignorant and sadistic underneath. Shultz and Django are forced to push their own beliefs and faith in each other to the limit by posing as slavers during their epic quest, and not everyone walks away from the outrageously bloody finale.
Tarantino attempts to inject very black humour into the violent scenes but it often only makes them more uncomfortable; thankfully the jokes work much better elsewhere, the best of them involving pointing out just how ignorant and plain dumb racism and racists are. Again like Inglourious Basterds, Django’s use of historical anachronisms show that QT is offering no subtext or commentary on slavery (other than the obvious), rather using it as a framework for a rip roaring rampage of revenge. Even with its false finish leading to a slightly self-indulgent final 20 minutes, Django Unchained is still an entertaining and intoxicating slice of cinema the likes of which don’t come around often enough.
As well as his directorial efforts, Tarantino has also lent his talents to several other projects. In 1996 he teamed up with buddy Robert Rodriguez to make vampire movie From Dusk Till Dawn, with QT on writing and acting duties while Rodriguez directed. It’s a tale of outlaw brothers on the run with a family of hostages who find themselves holed up in a titty-bar infested with vampires was largely derided by critics, but has since gained a cult following thanks to a great cast, bonkers plot and gruesome special effects. Tarantino himself delivers his best acting performance since Reservoir Dogs, and both roles showed that he can actually act, however dire the rest of his cameos are. Before his directorial debut in 1992, Tarantino also wrote and sold several scripts which themselves would become huge films in the 90s.
True Romance, which QT called his most personal work, ended up directed by the late Tony Scott, who brings Tarantino’s world and characters to life with blockbuster panache. Crammed with memorable performances and a incorrigible sense of fun, True Romance was well received by moviegoers and QT himself, who enjoyed it overall and appreciated that the changes the script (making the plot linear and the ending upbeat) suited Scott’s style more than his.
The same could not be said of Oliver Stone’s adaptation of Natural Born Killers which was released in 1994 to a shit-storm of controversy and left Tarantino feeling that Stone altered the script so much that there was nothing of his original vision in there. However, over time he has been able to detach himself from it, and now views the finished film positively.
During the last 20 years, Tarantino’s works have had a dramatic impact on film making with many of his aesthetic traits having been reused repeatedly, often to lesser effect, in the hope of replicating some of his success. Most of these imitators have missed what allows Tarantino’s oeuvre to stand the test of time though; it is his brilliant characterisation, fascination with the moral and emotional lives of people, and adoration for all things cinematic that will keep his films relevant to generation after generation.