If Quentin Tarantino had come out with either Inglourious Basterds or Django Unchained in the early 1990s, rather than Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, he’d have been chased out of Hollywood. Yeah, he would have gotten other opportunities, but his work would not have reached the point where his name alone would draw crowds to the box office. Don’t get me wrong: Basterds and Django are both great films, but you need unquestioned and near unconditional support to pull them off; their premise alone would scare people off. The Tarantino name draws you in, and his established style keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Tarantino’s first three screenplays would all be produced as Natural Born Killers, True Romance, and Reservoir Dogs. Natural Born Killers was sold and rewritten by Oliver Stone and his team, and although it deviates from the original premise, the basic idea (two young people madly in love going on a killing spree) is vintage Tarantino. NBK proved that his ideas could work, and coming from an accomplished writer/director like Oliver Stone allowed it to thrive despite the controversy about its violent nature. True Romance was penned by Tarantino, but directed by the late-great Tony Scott; their collaboration works greatly too, with the Tarantino elements (great dialogue, quirky characters, carefully constructed violence) being more presented than forced on screen, likely due to the direction of Tony Scott. Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino’s breakout film, works because of its dialogue and characters; like Pulp Fiction two years later, it isn’t a violent movie; the violence is handled with care, and it pops, giving it a taller shadow on the wall than it actually is.
Pulp Fiction, well, if you don’t know Pulp Fiction, then I pity you. Seriously. Arguably the most quotable film since Casablanca in 1942, Pulp Fiction is not so much a film with characters as it is a populated universe full of good, but flawed, human beings, each of whom has a secret, and in one way or another, is both good and evil, and the dialogue is reflective on that. You nearly forget that nearly every character in the film is either a criminal, or knowingly associates with criminals, and you feel for them, a testament to Tarantino’s storytelling ability.
Pulp Fiction led to Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, and Death Proof, each one of which has its own style and its own world. Jackie Brown is an homage to blaxploitation films, and is largely the forgotten Tarantino film; I still haven’t seen it completely. Kill Bill, later divided into two parts, with still a third planned, is a classic revenge action-thriller, in the style of many Asian genre films; the two parts make up one whole story, yet are amazingly different, with Part One emphasizing Tarantino’s stylized and carefully executed (no pun intended) violence, and the second part emphasizing emotion and character. Death Proof is the Tarantino version of a slasher film, complete with a long introduction, and wild action sequences; one half of his Grindhouse project with Robert Rodriguez.
Tarantino seems to have spared his audience the pain of filmmakers’ adolescence; you know, that stretch after they hit it big, where they make a few bad and/or financially unsuccessful films as they try to find their stride. It’s his willingness to go out on a limb, experiment, merge and create genres, and make sure the audience is having fun while he’s at it. I mean, seriously, by the time he finally got to make Inglourious Basterds, a project he’d been working on for fifteen years, his name was a brand unto itself, something propelled forward by the huge success of the Kill Bill films. To make it better, Basterds didn’t disappoint either, mixing rip-roaring action with character, humor, and moments that make you scream in revelry (even if only in your own head). Basterds also worked because Tarantino incorporated things he knew worked well, something he brought into Django Unchained; his evolution is learning what the audience likes, and incorporating it into his films without actively pandering.
Tarantino’s, shall we call it, unorthodox humor is a great example. He makes jokes in the middle and at the end of his films that wouldn’t work at the beginning; he draws you into his world, and that’s his greatest gift, what he does best; and once more, he realizes that: the liberal use of the n-word in Django Unchained really doesn’t start until the film is in full swing and the audience has been transported to the Old South.
Of course, one thing Tarantino is best known for is his dialogue. However, I offer up Christoph Waltz’s performances in Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained as evidence of how well he works with actors; I’m not cherry picking the best one either; Uma Thurman in Kill Bill; pretty much actor in Pulp Fiction; Tim Roth in Reservoir Dogs; any role Samuel L. Jackson has played in a Quentin Tarantino film. A lot of roles he writes are impossible without the right actor, and the right direction; seriously, when you put most of Tarantino’s characters in perspective, why should we care if they live or die? We do because the writing, acting, and direction make them human; they are not an archetype, they are living, breathing, and in some bazaar cases, even lovable. It’s one area where Tarantino is quietly establishing himself as a master.
Tarantino’s love of old films and his job working at a video store lead him to become a filmmaker. His experience has shaped his style, and led it to evolve. My greatest hope is that he continues to stay one step ahead, because even if he’s off, it’ll still be worth watching.