Quentin Tarantino’s arrival in 1992 with his debut film as actor/writer/director with Reservoir Dogs was a turning point for cinema. Financed on a minuscule budget and propped up by producer and cast member Harvey Keitel, Reservoir Dogs was a landmark film. It influenced a generation of filmmakers who would attempt to emulate the particular Tarantino cinematic cocktail of riveting dialogue, interspersed with shocking and often unexpected violence; couched in the musical embrace of an eclectic soundtrack. All filmed in the fluent cinematic vernacular of a video store nerd who has watched everything in stock, both good, bad, foreign and ugly, then re-watched them all again and again for good measure.
Tarantino had arrived. Being a small independent film, Reservoir Dogs did not become a box office hit at the time, but it did prove to be something of a slow burner and found its audience on video. It was famously banned in the Republic of Ireland by our then censor. True Romance, From Dusk ‘Til Dawn and Natural Born Killers were also banned in the Republic. This near sighted move was to have the opposite effect. It created an interest in the unknown Tarantino, making his work forbidden fruit. Like everything else that is prohibited, it created a need to covet that which one cannot have. It was a rather redundant move on the censor’s behalf as banning Tarantino’s films in the Republic did not account for his oeuvre being broadcast on Sky television, which was being beamed all over Ireland and thus blatantly flouting the ban!
Reservoir Dogs did have something else going for it that helped its popularity gradually soar: a killer soundtrack. This was also one of the first soundtracks to feature dialogue from a feature. This reeled potential audiences in with the dynamite dialogue that only Tarantino could conjure. By resurrecting arcane musical choices like Stuck In The Middle With You by Steelers Wheel and Coconut by Harry Nilsson, Tarantino married this music to memorable scenes like Mr. Blond torturing Marvin the cop. Everyone who saw the film, remembers that scene for its sadistic brutality, meted out by a never better Michael Madsen. The ear removal scene was not even shown on screen; the camera panning away to the radio blaring out K-Billy super sounds of the seventies.
Although his films show many moments of excessive and gratuitous violence, this moment was more powerful for not showing the gruesome act. The audience is left to imagine how this action is unfolding in their minds eye. This device is far more powerful as merely watching it unfold like a voyeur. It is a shame that Mr. Tarantino could not employ such subtle devices in later features like Inglourious Basterds (sic). I for one could definitely have done without watching a dead Nazi’s scalp being peeled back with a bayonet, or another being brutally clubbed to death with a baseball bat by Eli Roth’s character.
Reservoir Dogs generated a lot of traction for Tarantino’s writing and directing career. Studios were clambering to get their greasy paws on his writing back catalogue of True Romance, Natural Born Killers and From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, which they paid handsomely for.
It was not until his second feature in 1994 as actor/writer/director in Pulp Fiction, that he truly cemented his reputation as an auteur. Pulp Fiction employed a non-linear narrative structure that caught mainstream audiences off guard. Tarantino poured much of the influences that he had absorbed from his video store days. He borrowed ideas from the French new wave, to 70’s genre cinema and layered them into a film that is highly original, absorbing and endlessly re-watchable.
Who could forget the chemistry between Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules and John Travolta’s greasy maned Vincent Vega, waxing lyrical about drinking beer at McDonalds or what the Dutch put on fries instead of ketchup. Pulp Fiction’s intertwining stories incorporating the seedy low level criminals of Los Angeles, married to probably the best soundtrack of all time and populated with enough fabulously off-beat actors to bring the unmistakeable dialogue to thrilling life. It helped resurrect John Travolta’s flagging career (a trend he would repeat with, Pam Grier, Robert Forster and to a lesser extent, David Carradine) and made a star of Samuel L. Jackson. Tarantino may well have reached his zenith with Pulp Fiction.
His subsequent features have demonstrated numerous bad habits that have continued to metastasize with each offering. Jackie Brown was well written and acted, but it was far too long. Scenes went on and on like a Eugene O’Neill play. It had many memorable moments, but it smacked of a director who was beginning to believe his own press and becoming more self-indulgent as a result. It is a shame that Tarantino does not have a producer who is willing to insist upon his films being edited more ruthlessly. It is probably a case of excessive ego massage that has gone unchecked. After all, Harvey Weinstein has often said that Miramax films was ‘the house that Quentin built’.
Kill Bill arrived in 2003 and blended Tarantino’s love of Kung Fu movies with a desire to portray a wronged woman’s ‘roaring rampage of revenge’. Producer Harvey Weinstein, or Harvey ‘Scissorhands’ as he is known for his ruthlessness in the editing suite, made the decision to split this bloated film into two. Kill Bill parts 1 and 2 are rather different in tone. The first is more entertaining and keenly paced. The second is much slower and more pensive, with more of a western vibe. The decision to split the film into two may have been a damaging decision, creatively. The two halves would have made one perfectly good film instead of one and a half mediocre ones.
From Dusk ‘Til Dawn was an entertaining mish-mash of crime caper and vampire feature that failed to get the balance right. The first half is far more interesting than the second. Tarantino’s relationship with Robert Rodriguez, which began with the dull portmanteau feature Four Rooms (of which both directors contributed a segment), evolved with Tarantino’s memorable cameo in the lively Desperado (1995). Rodriguez directed Tarantino in From Dusk ‘Til Dawn (1996) and it is a mirror of the biggest calamity of both their careers: Grindhouse.
Their mutual love of cheap and nasty 70’s Grindhouse films manifested itself in their homage to such, with the double bill of Rodriguez’ Planet Terror and Tarantino’s Death Proof. The feature was released as a double bill in 2007. They succeeded in making two deliberately bad films. Their mistake here was underestimating their audience. Mass audiences are not predisposed to watching obscure films from the 70’s and genre trash that Tarantino consumes voraciously. Audiences failed to turn up for Death Proof, which lacked the signature dialogue and energy that had been the hallmark of his previous work. It also proved that Tarantino could not write convincing female dialogue. Kurt Russell’s presence and a decent car chase in the third act are the only redeeming features about that failed project.
Inglourious Basterds followed in 2009. It went down a storm at the box-office, helped in no small part by the presence of Brad Pitt in the lead role. The film was a mixed bag. It displayed many of Tarantino’s excesses, like the many grizzly deaths, beatings, shootings and strangulations we are subjected to in the course of the film. The opening scene was a masterclass in tension building. Sadly, the rest of the picture could not live up to its initial promise. The real star of that show was the previously unknown Christoph Waltz, who danced away with a best supporting actor Academy award for his exceptional portrayal of Hans Landa. Think about that film without his presence and what you experience is a rather bloated film, containing many excessively long scenes that just seemed like Tarantino has lost his touch somewhat. Brad Pitt demonstrated with his intentionally slack-jawed performance that he really is a medium talented actor compared to Waltz.
Django Unchained (2013) was a drastic return to form for Tarantino. The first western he had helmed, he fashioned a Spaghetti Western, in the style of Sergio’s Leone and Corbucci. His characters are armed with some of the best dialogue Tarantino has ever conjured. We care about the majority of the characters, unlike Inglourious Basterds. He tones down the violence and uses it in a more subtle fashion, especially in the sequence where Leonarado DiCaprio’s character orders that a slave on his plantation be torn to shreds by his attack dogs. Tarantino also reinforces his love for the N word, with which he flavours too much of his dialogue. The Hateful Eight also uses this word to excess. The effect being that he not only alienates many viewers, but it becomes less effective the more it is repeated.
Tarantino may be a highly talented and influential director and writer, but has he started to disappear up his own backside? Take for example, his opening credits of The Hateful Eight, heralding it as the eighth film from Quentin Tarantino. He is setting himself apart and not in a good way. Think of his self-indulgent cameos in Death Proof and the ridiculous Australian accent he donned in Django Unchained.
It is noteworthy that the best written film of his career, Pulp Fiction was co-written by Roger Avary. It stands to reason that his future projects would benefit from another voice to help him sculpt and refine his immense talent as a writer.
The Hateful Eight, while being quite enjoyable at times, focuses too much on unnecessary character exposition. While paying homage to the history of cinema by using 70mm lenses to soak up the lavish landscape of Wyoming, he wastes this opportunity by staging the majority of the action in one room. Events unfold like an Agatha Christie whodunit. The use of an intermission is welcome, but this picture did not need to be almost three hours long. A two hour version of this story would have been so much more effective. The great Ennio Morricone’s sinister soundtrack, being the film’s saving grace.
The relatively average return at the international box-office for The Hateful Eight reflects a growing sense of apathy about Tarantino’s ability as a filmmaker. There is no reason to give up hope about his future projects just yet. Tarantino has the talent and ability to grow and improve his vast skillset as a filmmaker. He just needs to cut out his increasingly bad habits and stop believing what the yes men are preaching to him.