Film of the Week: Jackie Brown

Nick Earl /
Dec 6, 2016 / Film & TV

Jackie Brown is a film defined by its incredible performances, phenomenal writing and an arresting visual aesthetic that is orchestrated to near perfection by Quentin Tarantino.

Released in 1997, the movie’s mesmerising counter-cultural vision and uber-confident direction has enabled it to defy the ageing process of inferior features that drown below the crashing waves of our social zeitgeist.

The film showcases Tarantino’s exceptional talent for dialogue in the most flattering of lights, whilst also suggesting a maturity to his work that defies his later back catalogue of  exploitation flicks.

Jackie Brown is the kind of movie you’d expect from a director in the twilight years of their career. Instead, this nineties Blaxploitation crime drama is Tarantino’s third feature, the follow up to his wildly successful Chinese puzzle of a movie: Pulp Fiction.

It represents something of an outlier within the auteur’s career. Its marriage of Blaxploitation to new-wave sophistication, with a screenplay adapted from the crime cache of Elmore Leonard, is enough of an artistic diversion to suggest Tarantino’s career could have taken a markedly different route at the turn of the 21st century. With perhaps less emphasis on the grindhouse and Shaw brother flourishes that now characterise his creative output.

Furthermore, it also owes a clear debt to the hangout movies of his youth such as Howard Hawk’s Rio Bravo, and has dialogue sequences that seemingly stretch into the narrative abyss and sequences so drawn out and seemingly inconsequential that even David Lynch would raise an eyebrow. Yet, they are carried off with distinction by the master-at-the helm.

The story begins by depicting the life of flight-attendant Jackie Brown, the titular character of the movie played with complete conviction by Pam Grier, an actress formerly marooned in the post-Blaxploitation age of Coffy and Foxy Brown, but brought back here to silver screen prominence. She is struggling, for a host of reasons, but rather than portraying her as a victim the film shifts from its initial character study to presenting her with an opportunity to reap the lost dollars of Samuel L Jackson’s low-level crime boss Ordell, who pays her bail after she is busted at an airport. Unfortunately for her, the cops are on the trail, while she has to think one move ahead of the ruthless Ordell in order to stay alive.

What heightens the tension, emboldens the comedy, and adds verve to the written dialogue is the performances. This is a film reliant on the characters, with details on their preferences, their mannerisms and habits evident across every frame, and with suggestions in the story that allude to a greater depth in the players involved in this dangerous game even if the narrative never requires them to be explored.

Samuel L Jackson is undoubtedly charismatic and classily smooth with his portrayal as Ordell, while betraying his obvious deficiencies and relatively low nature to the audience with the aid of tellingly delivered lines and expressions. Pam Grier never hits a wrong note, and the performances of Michael Keaton and Michael Bowen as the exasperated detectives are fittingly humorous. Robert Forster deserved his Oscar nomination for his role as Max Cherry, a contrary character that flits in and out of the story in a way that is enigmatic and satisfying, while Bridget Fonda is often unfairly forgotten in the kudos given to the more famed members of the talented cast.

The real show-stealer however, is Robert DeNiro, in a counter-intuitive portrayal of the ex-con Louis Gara. He is friends with Ordell, but is clearly diminished by his four years in prison, with every breath and flicker of movement compromised by the wearying nature of his sentence, the edges of his formerly sharp demeanour worn off through time. It is an entirely physical performance, one that reminds the viewer of the depth of DeNiro’s creativity and ability to understand a character on the page and bring him fully realised to the screen.

Yet, the film is just shy of masterpiece status.

Although the visual palette, perky soundtrack and delightfully layered dialogue drives the plot more than any action sequence or set-piece, its assured sense of sophistication does come with some drawbacks.

It is an enigma of a motion picture, which is brave in its creative choices but lacking in the rudeness and the arresting moments of his earlier works, with the move towards Blaxploitation making him weirdly restrained as a consequence. It has none of the shock value I crave for in a Tarantino work. Meanwhile, although the atmosphere is utterly authentic, the film makes no effort for me to care about the developments of the third act.

It is also too long, and the Roger Corman quote of all movies benefitting from a 20 minute cut to their running time has never seemed more pertinent. It is commendable that the story is given space to breathe without artifice and Weinstein-esque condensing, but

several scenes stretch out the point of tedium. Momentum is lost for unusual intervals of time, and this deflates some of the euphoric excellence of its first two acts.

All of this can be forgiven however, because even in the weaker moments this movie is truly distinctive, an exceptional tribute to its genre trappings and a worthy addition to cinema.

Words by Nick Earl

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