Picked Flick #41: Jackie Brown
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 themeven 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 anda very un-Tarantino wordhow 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 melancholysince 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.