Sunday, August 20, 2006

Picked Flick #41: Jackie Brown

Reservoir Dogs wasn't my cuppa, but I can see that it has its virtues. Pulp Fiction glistens and grooves, an almost immaculate pop object, and yet I never seem to reach for it when I'm shuffling through my old favorites. The first Kill Bill boasted a beguiling structure and some whizz-bang craftsmanship, especially in the action scenes, which made it only more surprising and intriguing that Kill Bill, Vol. 2 slowed to such a relative crawl, plumbing for feeling instead of laying on the pizzazz. These movies all hold together beautifully, and yet—when you absolutely, positively got to thrill every motherfucker in the room, accept no substitutes. Jackie Brown is the AK-47 in Tarantino's arsenal, which is all the more surprising because, on the surface, the director seems to have more on his mind than blowing us away.

Jackie Brown starts hitting pitch-perfect notes in the opening credits, and it literally never stops. Pam Grier, dolled up for her job as a stewardess for Cabo Air, glides into the right edge of the frame, while Bobby Womack's creamily desperate anthem "Across 110th Street" sets a pristine, hummable stage for both the character and the movie. It's such a simple gesture, capturing Jackie so quickly at her coolest, then gradually hastening her toward the airport gate as she realizes she's running out of time. The whole movie will plot this same course, not just because Jackie stays all but invisible for the next half-hour (and therefore has to hustle a little to reclaim her own film), but because Tarantino's direction and his script are so exquisitely keyed in to Jackie's pragmatism and her panic: "I make about sixteen thousand, with retirement benefits that ain't worth a damn... If I lose my job, I gotta start all over again, but I got nothing to start over with." Jackie's basic, wholly adequate motivation for lawlessness is that from where she's standing, she can see the dying of the light. When she drags herself out of jail, she worries about how bad she looks. When she sits down with her obviously smitten bail bondsman, the first thing they discuss is how to quit smoking without gaining weight. Pam Grier is so pert, charismatic, and funny in the role that there isn't anything cloying about Jackie's anxieties, just as there is nothing overly precious about the film's presentation of them—even when Tarantino lays down a vocal track of a much younger Grier singing "Long Time Woman" as a funky and succinct counterpoint to this older, soberer, but still very funky version of herself. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Jackie Brown is how unfoolish and—a very un-Tarantino word—how wise this film looks and sounds while espousing a then-34-year-old, nonblack, male filmmaker's vision of Jackie's predicament. Though the colors and songs are all Tarantino-brite, the framings are contemplative and often very simple, even amidst key episodes in the criss-crossy plot; as the narrative accelerates and the vise of possible failure closes around Jackie and her weathered but plucky accomplice Max Cherry (an invaluable Robert Forster), the film never deviates from its carefully restrained pace and rhythms. Almost every sequence is designed such that seemingly simple actions communicate several things at once: Jackie trying on a new suit, Bridget Fonda refusing to answer a phone, Robert De Niro looking for his car in a parking lot, Lisa Gay Hamilton making nervous contact with Jackie in a food court. Every one of them is crucial to Jackie Brown's plot, but they've all been filmed with the frisky, on-the-fly texture of grace notes and improvs. The film has an exacting, exquisitely calibrated structure, loping forward and then looping backward, but the steady hand and living, breathing humanity behind every moment lend Jackie Brown a warm, plausible, and deeply enjoyable spontaneity.

Tarantino and Grier have "got" Jackie the way Mankiewicz and Bette Davis "got" Margo Channing, within a comparably ambitious script and a similar marshaling of the actress' own backstory and persona into the service of the character. Too, if Jackie is Margo, Samuel L. Jackson is the Addison DeWitt of ghetto crime. His charisma, irony, and verbal dexterity are such that the audience instantly falls for him, but then our breath really catches as the actor and the film lay bare the discomfiting essence of the character. Ordell Robbie is, obviously, an even tougher, more vicious piece of work than Addison, but he still profits mightily from Tarantino's knack for spinning wily fun out of a fundamental, uncompromised melancholy—since Ordell, no less than Jackie or Max, lives and acts from a critical juncture between his youth and his legacy. Almost any one-line sample of Jackson's dialogue and delivery is a devilish, delicious, highly profane movie unto itself: "My ass might be dumb, but I ain't no dumb ass" or "You think I'm gonna let a little cheese-eating nigga like this fuck that up?" or "Shit, Jackie, you come in this place on a Saturday night, I bet you need nigga repellent to keep motherfuckers off your ass!" Jackie's response to this last is a very modest "I do okay," but for Jackie, as for the film, that's a monumental understatement. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

Image © 1997 Miramax Films/Mighty Mighty Afrodite Productions.

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Blogger par3182 said...

i'm so with you on this one. 'jackie brown' is the only tarantino film i like, mainly because it doesn't seem to be trying so hard to be cool.

9:53 PM, August 20, 2006  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Mainly because it doesn't seem to be trying so hard to be cool... but don't you have five additional reasons? Don't hold back, now.

10:08 PM, August 20, 2006  
Blogger Vertigo's Psycho said...

Love Bridget Fonda's incredible final scene. She gives an extremely sharp performance, never forshadowing the events to come- Fonda's Melaine justs keeps needling De Niro in a flirtatious, genial manner, which is exactly what her character should be doing. How many actresses would resist the temptation of giving the audience at least a hint of what's to come for Melaine, via an apprehensive glance or a nervous gesture, even though the action would be completely false for the role?

Fonda keeps Melaine light and real, ensuring the scene's final twist is stunning to viewers (as opposed to merely surprising to them). This is definitely one of my favorite film moments, largely due to Fonda's breezy, amicable interaction with the surly, distracted De Niro; their attitudes and byplay creates one of cinema's more unforgettable studies in character contrasts, illustrating the pitfalls which opposing temperaments can sometimes bring about.

1:41 AM, August 21, 2006  
Blogger Glenn Dunks said...

god, YES!

This is my favourite Tarantino (I like KBV1 more but I like to join those two volumes together, so this my favourite ENTIRE Tarantino).

It's all so breathlessly cool and it looks stunning and what a soundtrack (the best QT soundtrack btw).

My favourite scene is the one where Jackie goes to enact her plan by changing into a new business suit and then having Melaine "steal" the bag of money, which is actually empty. And then seeing it from multiple angles.

I could watch the scene all day long it's so enthralling.

3:46 AM, August 21, 2006  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

reading this makes me wanna give this movie a second chance. i only liked it.

agreed completely on Bridget Fonda. This is the only performance she ever gave that reminded me of why I thought big things were ahead after her work in Scandal

Tarantino may have a ton of flaws but working with actors is not remotely one of them... which is strange considering that his temperament doesn't seem to be very psychological or attentive to intimate detail and he's not a good actor himself.

but it's there onscreen all the time. Actors rise up.

10:54 AM, August 21, 2006  
Blogger ANN said...

Personally, I'm most psyched about Michael Keaton's inept Ray Nicolet (hilarious in Out of Sight) making an appearance in this flick.

10:05 PM, August 28, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved this movie. So many great performances from everybody, but for me, the MVP here is De Niro. His character wants so badly to be taken seriously, but is just so inept at his craft. I think De Niro really nailed the apathetic bumbly closeted psychopath really well.

9:25 PM, June 14, 2012  

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