Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown: A Retrospective
There is a lot to be said about writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s success as a filmmaker. His films have all been met with some degree of critical appreciation and have all made some decent money at the box office. What’s more, and this might be his true legacy, his projects have sparked the imaginations of fellow filmmakers and film fans the world over. Truth be told, this last aspect may not be viewed solely in positive light considering how, especially in the 1990s, a multitude of so-called imitators created their own versions of Tarantino flicks. However, few were those who captured the real spirit of cinema’s new darling. In fact, the style of the pictures is what got to people most: the clothing (which often looks great), the soundtracks (which often sound great) and the snappy dialogue (which many wish they could come up with) are what impressed most. They are, obviously, critical elements to the success of his films, including this movie fan’s personal favourite, Jackie Brown. That being said, Jackie Brown feels like the film for which the character development is the most sophisticated and most important for the evolution of the story. That is not a pejorative backhanded comment about the character development in Tarantino’s other stories, only that in Jackie Brown the evolution of the protagonists and antagonists is exceptionally well-realized and follows the flow of the story perfectly. Let us take a closer look at what Tarantino does with the characters created by Elmore Leonard.
It should be stated, for clarity’s sake, that it specifically is the characters in the film, their behavioural patterns and interactions with the world around them that shall be looked at rather than the performances. This being a favourite film, it should seem obvious the acting earns top marks. Each performer either plays to his or her strengths and, in the case of Robert De Niro, goes against the grain in a wonderfully understated performance. The acting earns an A +, just to make that clear for the readers. However, some comments on the casting choices may be shared.
Naturally, it all starts with the character at the center of all the attention, Jackie Brown herself, here played by the iconic Pam Grier. On the surface level, hers is the story of a woman who outmaneuvers a dangerous man, Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) who wants to ‘take her out’ out of fear that she may reveal to the authorities the details of his many illegal activities. That much is true, but it does not tell the entire story. Some of the elements are based in the text of the screenplay, others are of Tarantino’s doing outside the confines of just the script. For one, straight from the opening few scenes, it is made clear as daylight that Jackie Brown’s life has taken a considerable downturn in recent years. Her job as an air hostess may take her around the world but the pay is minimal. Her previous husband found himself legal troubles, which consequently almost saw Jackie herself face the long arm of the law in the worst way. The result of all this is a difficult, tiring job for a low-level airline. As she says to Max Cherry (Robert Forster), she cannot afford to start over at her age. She must either keep this pathetic job or somehow rid herself from Ordell’s slimy clutches.
Part of what makes this so fascinating is the casting of Pam Grier, who made a name for herself by playing supremely strong lead female characters in blaxploitation films in the 1970s. Afterwards and for several years she more or less disappeared from the film scene, only to suddenly return in Tarantino’s 1997 film, this time as a desperate, down to her luck and wits woman stuck in an uncomfortably precarious situation. The second, more important element is how she goes about saving her own behind, more particularly the duplicitous odds she faces. Here is a woman who, due to her history and current socio-economic status, does not seem like a plausible candidate to emerge the victor. After all, she is caught for smuggling money and drugs rather sloppily at the start of the picture by two officers at the airport (Michael Keaton and Michael Bowen). As they say, looks can be deceiving, and never has it been more the case than here in Jackie Brown. After years of struggle and strife, some of which had to do with a lousy job, some of which was the result of pressure from Ordell, some of which was the result of poor decision making, Jackie concocts a plan to escape scot-free, with Ordell’s money if she can help it. What transpires during the remainder of the film is the demonstration of Jackie’s intelligence, her capacity to be as strategic as possible, to think quickly on her feet and to hold her own against people who at one point in time might have intimidated her, like the authorities and Ordell. In essence, the film is not strictly about a tough cookie winning her bet against a villain, although that is one way to see, it is about a really smart, ultimately decent person finally smashing through the walls that figuratively imprisoned her for years. It is Jackie Brown’s breaking out party. She has the potential to be great, to find her own path in life and now she finally shows it off in her own, modest way. She paves her own road to freedom and those standing in her way won’t see what hit them.
Her partner, so to speak, is Max Cherry, the bail bondsman who quickly takes an interest in Jackie Brown. His arc is not quite as complex as Jackie’s, but it is no less emotionally rich or rewarding. While it takes time to understand how decent Jackie is (the fact that she is assisting a smuggler at the start of the picture is enough to plant the seeds of doubt in the minds of the viewers), there is essentially no mistaking that Max is an okay fellow. His affable demeanour, the manner in which he approaches situations, his quiet confidence, all these help set him up as a character a viewer can easily and comfortably side with. However, there are hints that he is bored with his lot in life. The film reveals close to nothing about his past, but one gets the sense that his story is not the brightest. He himself admits to having reached the point of boredom with the bail bondsman business, dreaming about something new in life. In essence, he is stuck in a very specifically mundane spot in life. There is no change, only the endurance against stagnation. His chance encounter with Ordell leads to his discovery of Jackie Brown, whose predicament he finds fascinating, although not as fascinating as Jackie!
Both Jackie and her dilemma provide a release from the daily mundane. It is only one adventure, one that will come to an end at some point, either positively or negatively, yet it serves as a thrill of sorts for Max, who in his own special way preserves his cool throughout. Jackie Brown is reason enough to take a chance, to risk the odds against Ordell and do something that actually holds meaning, both to him and to Jackie. By fighting for a cause, he is therefore also breaking out of a figurative prison, this one being boredom. His personality does not indicate that he might be someone who really goes after big things in life to shake things up, however, Jackie (her strength of character, her beauty and, it cannot be avoided, her different cultural background) convince him to go on this unexpected adventure. Max, therefore, does experience as great a change as Jackie Brown. Nevertheless, his much more muted, subdued traits make for an incredibly compelling presence precisely because he has opted to go along for the ride in helping Jackie out. Max might not change very much from the start of the picture to the end, but the viewer as a much greater appreciation of who he is when the story concludes.
Then there is Ordell and his two closest associates, Lewis and Melanie (Bridget Fonda). Each, in their way, is painted in certain light at the beginning of the movie, only for the many twists and turns to reveal a bit more about all three, and not always in the most glorious ways. Take Ordell, whom the viewer first meets in his beach house with the two aforementioned partners. He and Lewis are watching some cheesy video on the television, a promotional film depicting voluptuous, big breasted and scantily dressed woman firing off heavy weapons, from semi-automatics to AK-47s. The footage may be informative to a minimal degree, yet it is over the top, preposterous, pathetic even. Despite this, Ordell apparently accumulates as much information as he can from such videos for his gun smuggling business. He takes tremendous pride and pleasure in sharing his knowledge of firearms with Lewis as each subsequent babe in the video appears to show off her…assets. It sounds ridiculous, funny even, yet Ordell reportedly makes significant dividends off of his sales. However, he does not hide the fact that those to whom he sells are lowlife scum, lower than himself even. He might garner education from over-sexed obnoxious promotional videos, those with whom he does business are apparently a whole lot dumber. He often has something snappy to say, presents himself in a ‘too cool for school’ way which is hard to resist. He is a bad guy, but he is a very charismatic bad guy, no question about it. He looks to be in control of everything.
There is a very pertinent exchange later on between Lewis and Melanie when the two are smoking a bong during Ordell’s absence wherein the young blonde claims that while Ordell has indeed made some interesting gains, he really is not as smart, sharp or educated as advertises himself to be. Of course, this comes from the constantly ‘high as a kite’, visibly lazy Melanie, so why put so much stock into what she claims? Well, recall what has already been established regarding the film’s hero, Jackie Brown. She, for far too long, has lived under the strain of unfairness and circumstances that beat down on her. Now she is taking charge and showing that she can be smarter than just about anybody in the room. The viewer has the pleasure of witnessing her outplay not only the authorities, but Ordell as well. Granted, it is only by the end of the picture when Jackie successfully wins the day that the viewer can be sure that she was in fact ahead of everyone else, yet that is the benefice of hindsight. She was better than Ordell all along. He had nothing on her when it came to strategically overcome the opposition. Ordell preyed on the fearful and the weak (another example being the poor southern black girl, Sheronda, he sucks into his web. In contrast, the much livelier, brighter Simone quits midway through the picture). When up against foe previously believed to be subservient, Jackie Brown, he gets blown out of the water.
Another one of Ordell’s weaknesses is his trust in the Lewis-Melanie duo. Lewis is quite the fascinating specimen. It is somewhat difficult to discern what exactly the viewer should make of him at the start of the picture. Robert De Niro looks both frightening and, in an odd way, harmless. He has just left prison, his arms are graced with tattoos, he looks tough, yet his quiet, almost nervous disposition hints that he might not be so intimidating after all. There is, of course, the fact that he is an ally of Ordell, and, as previously established, at the start of the picture the viewer is led to believe that Ordell knows what he is doing, so if he believes in Lewis, then the latter must have some formidable qualities. On the flip side, Melanie comes off as lazy, uncooperative and obnoxious. Her attitude is deplorable for the most part, and apart from a nice screw, one wonders what purpose she serves. And yet, then comes that aforementioned exchange when she tells Lewis that he should not be so impressed with Ordell’s so-called accomplishments. Suddenly, Melanie might not be so dumb after all. She can discern a weakness in others, indicating that she is more perceptive and analytical than originally established. Eventually, the two are paired up to perform the critical package exchange with Jackie at the clothing store in the mall. It is at this point when their true colours are revealed: Melanie, annoying perhaps, is quicker witted and efficient than Lewis. She immediately recognizes that Lewis is a sweaty, nervous wreck and makes a swift and correct judgement call to head into the ladies dressing room and exchange parcels with Jackie when the clerk is distracted by a phone call. Lewis, on the other hand, is atrociously uncomfortable in his current position, cannot remember where they parked the darn vehicle and, lastly, rather than keeping his cool against Melanie taunts, shoots her twice no less. Outside. In broad daylight. Without verifying if she really is dead or not before leaving. Basically, Lewis is none too bright, nor a very composed fellow and thus not the best right-hand man for operations of this nature. Melanie, for all her faults, was unexpectedly competent, but because Lewis was not, she paid the price. Their collective ineptitude makes Ordell seem all the more incompetent for having out his faith in them in the first place.
Jackie Brown represents arguably some of the best character development to be found in a Tarantino film. There are wonderful exchanges and memorable individuals in each of his pictures, yet the people viewers discover in Jackie Brown feel all the more complete and three dimensional. There are different aspects to each and depending on the scene at hand these characters can show very different sides of themselves. Most importantly, they feel refreshingly real.