Quentin Tarantino is a brave man. His Jackie Brown (adapted from Elmore Leonard's novel Rum Punch) eschews most of the clever devices and sensational hooks associated with his name after Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994).
Gone are the ceaselessly jokey references to pop culture, the sadistic preying on the audience's nerves, the bloody paroxysms of gunfire and the radical restructurings of generic plots.
Those Tarantino fans unwilling to embrace his new direction will soon be gone as well. Jackie Brown is a laid back, low-key, almost non-violent character study. It is in many respects a melancholic film, concerned with everyday problems like growing old, eking out a living and figuring out who your friends really are. Despite prevalent hype, Jackie Brown has precious little in common with the merrily garish blaxploitation movies of the '70s.
Of course, it has exciting and virtuosic elements – such as an intricate money exchange in a shopping mall, shown from three consecutive viewpoints. And it has many outrageously tasteless lines and bits of business. But these attractions take a back seat to the brooding, low-life characters and their small moves in a fairly bleak world.
The story takes its sweet time bringing its spread of main players together into the one mysterious, interlocking plot. Jackie (Pam Grier), an airline worker, brings illegal money into the country for Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson), a creepy criminal ready to kill any member of his ad hoc team if necessary. When Jackie is arrested by Ray (Michael Keaton), she puts into place an elaborate scam that promises to satisfy everyone's needs.
But everyone in this plot has their own agenda – and different ways of bringing it to fruition. Ordell's right-hand man Louis (Robert De Niro, in a beautifully droll characterisation) is tempted to misbehave by the blissfully stoned Melanie (Bridget Fonda). The local bail bondsman, Max (Robert Forster), finds himself becoming a confidant and co-conspirator for Jackie after he dutifully springs her from jail. As for Ordell, he is always full of surprises.
In his previous films, Tarantino tended to cover his rather elementary grasp of staging scenes with show-off narrative structures and bravura passages of dialogue. In Jackie Brown he slows down the pace, adopts a largely linear plot line, and attempts to master a more classical approach to filming actors and their interactions. His patience and humility on this plane pay off handsomely – particularly in the superb, deeply touching performances he elicits from Grier and Forster.
As its constantly varied imagery of walking suggests, Jackie Brown is about the gradual infringement of territorial borders. Through the joint forces of circumstance, desire and sudden opportunity, Tarantino's characters find themselves crossing over into spaces and places they have not previously inhabited. This constant sense of entering and operating on dangerous ground is what gives Jackie Brown its unique, finely attenuated suspense.
In particular, the border-crossing at the heart of the film relates to the constantly shifting, ever fraught relationship between black and white culture in America today – a difference that is explored at every level, from tastes in music to codes of honour. Even the classic '70s song that Tarantino here appropriates as his theme tune, Bobby Womack's "Across 110th Street", helps express this tight knot of inter-racial tensions and dependencies.
Although the outward signs of these racial styles are up-front in the movie, Tarantino's true dramatic exploration of his theme is understated. The secret centre of the film is, ultimately, the strange, percolating emotional bond between Jackie and Max – with its subtle, keen, largely unspoken rhythms of mutual attraction and withdrawal.
I never imagined a Quentin Tarantino movie could bring a tear to my eye – but, in its depiction of this growing, enigmatic relationship between a scheming survivalist and her somewhat reluctant partner in crime, Jackie Brown turns a very special and richly unexpected trick.
© Adrian Martin March 1998