Unrequited emotion might not be the first motif one would associate with the violent and talky oeuvre of Quentin Tarantino. Yet each of his films is pockmarked in some way by romances and friendships gone awry, once endearing connections fated for the bloody chopping block. This trend begins with Mr. Orange’s all too successful deception of Mr. White in Reservoir Dogs and continues through Shosanna Dreyfus’s doomed affection for her film projectionist Marcel in Inglourious Basterds. Even Kill Bill, a saga about the slow, diabolical mutilation of human compassion, hinges on the past love affair between the Bride and Bill, a gutted fairy-tale romance doubling as an origin for the ultimate revenge quest.
But the luminescent tryst between Cabo Air stewardess Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) and her bail bondsmen Max Cherry (Robert Forster) in Jackie Brown remains Tarantino’s most complex and revelatory examination of unfulfilled love. The two are the ultimate odd couple, one a cool-as-ice black woman caught between her gangster boss, Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), and the ATF, the other an unassuming white man whose law enforcement professionalism and moral codes melt away when Jackie’s in danger. Most surprisingly, despite sharing many intimate moments drenched in mood, this sexy coupling sidesteps physicality until the very last moment; they grow closer through a combination of hypnotic, knowing glances and long conversations covering everything from the soulful beats of the Delfonics to elaborate, criminal double-crosses. Unlike most of Tarantino’s characters, Jackie and Max form an adult relationship by spending quality time together, a uniquely human discourse that feels more dependent on a shared gaze or touch rather than the fly words jiving back and forth.
Since all of Tarantino’s films create a rigorously defined solar system of overlapping characters and scenarios, there tends to be a sense of predetermination in his heightened genre pastiches. Except with Jackie Brown, Tarantino doesn’t solely rely on the flashier aspects of his patented postmodern style (disjointed editing, extreme violence, fetishistic images) to convey a character’s fated desires or failures. He positions individuals as pieces of a larger mosaic, one populated by burgeoning and disintegrating relationships that reach beyond the frame. This construct produces subtext-heavy conversations containing real conflict and tension at their core. The menacing verbal dance between Ordell and Jackie set in her apartment, where the former turns off each light the latter has just switched on, is a perfect example of this seemingly organic tension between conflicting characters. It’s just one of the many great moments in Jackie Brown where applied emotional pressure is a defining attribute, a telling lesson in flight or fight.
As Jackie Brown sheds its crime-film façade and turns into a masterful dissection of loyalty, the dialogue expresses the characters’ way of maneuvering around emotional responsibility, of circumventing the betrayals and mind games that are lingering in plain sight. This conflict builds for long sequences before erupting in stunning moments of physical violence. In this very banal-looking world, unfulfilled desire turns sour from all the repression and guilt. Maybe the best example of this stems from the growing contempt ex-con Louis Gara (Robert De Niro) feels for Ordell’s beach-bunny girlfriend, Melanie (Bridget Fonda). They share some kind but innocuous words early on, then a quick fuck midway through the film. But after Melanie ask Louis to betray Ordell, Tarantino focuses on De Niro’s contorting facial expressions, his character’s increasing anger that comes to a head during the film’s fragmented climax inside the Del Amo Mall. While Jackie is double-crossing both Ordell and the squadron of ATF agents breathing down her neck, the pressure between Louis and Melanie reaches a boiling point, finally exploding in the form of sudden off-screen violence.
Outlying narrative tentacles like the subplot between Louis and Melanie, or any between Ordell and the low-level characters he screws over, allow the nuanced relationship between Jackie and Max to take on ethereal qualities. While the pressure of individual emotional moments weighs heavily on others, Jackie and Max become more elementally linked. The couple’s conversations grow shorter and more kinetic, jumping past the traditional bullshit banter Tarantino usually relishes. Plot slowly slips away and we’re left with a single moment, a final kiss, and one badass exit. Jackie Brown’s heart-wrenching final scene is the director’s version of the three-hankie ending, where a good man and a loyal woman finally realize their feelings only to be ripped apart by circumstance and fate. There’s something deeply moving about the moment Max watches Jackie slowly leave his world, a sense of momentary fulfillment, then striking emptiness, washing over his wrinkled face.
Both an austere homage to blaxploitation films and an emotional love letter to Grier, an iconic figure Tarantino simultaneously respects and desires, Jackie Brown is the director’s most complex and rewarding film. The unique ways emotional expression shifts mid-moment really distinguishes it as an organic work, a morphing cinematic experience that changes with the years to fit our individual perspective of unrequited love. Unlike the showy emotional relationships in Tarantino’s other films, where romance or friendship is merely a mask for deception or guile, the connection between Jackie and Max feels bonded in actual human emotion. “I never lied to you, Max,” Jackie admits during their final moments together, and with his crinkled smile and air of sadness, we know Max genuinely believes her, and that’s all that matters. Here, inside this mundane San Fernando Valley bail bonds office, a forlorn gentleman shares a common thought with Tarantino’s slowly dissolving camera: Farewell, my lovely.
While Jackie Brown isn't Quentin Tarantino's most visually stunning work, the film looks fantastic in 1080p nonetheless. Lionsgate has given the film a stellar transfer that highlights the flashes of primary color amid the dusty, smoggy sheen of Southern California. One can really see the advantage of high-definition during Max and Jackie's first meeting inside the Cockatoo Club, where their faces are shrouded in red light. The balance of textures and colors here is really something. Even more impressive is the disc's 5.1 DTS HD-MA soundtrack, which takes the viewing experience to another level. The collection of soul music and hip-hop beats are perfectly balanced with the character's competing dialogue, one never outshining the other.
An embarrassment of riches for the Jackie Brown aficionado. "Breaking Down Jackie Brown" is a great roundtable discussion between film critics including Scott Foundas and Stephanie Zacharek and led by Elvis Mitchell. All of the panelists bring insight and perspective to Tarantino's motives and ambitions as a filmmaker. Interesting but less engaging is "Jackie Brown: How it Went Down," a dated collection of behind-the-scenes footage and video interviews with Tarantino, Lawrence Bender, and Elmore Leonard, whose book Rum Punch the film was based. "A Look Back at Jackie Brown" is a lengthy interview with Tarantino that covers many subjects including his relationship with Samuel L. Jackson, but at nearly an hour in length is incredibly tiresome. The entire segment of "Chicks With Guns," a video Tarantino specially made for Jackie Brown, is also included and plenty of talky deleted scenes show just how expansive the film could have been. It's also quite fun watching the Siskel & Ebert segment on Jackie Brown, as both critics appreciated the film upon its theatrical release. Also included: "Jackie Brown on MTV," which is a hilarious look back at a more reserved MTV channel, a marketing gallery, stills galleries, and a trivia track for the more devout Jackie Brown fans.
Jackie Brown glides into the digital age as beautiful as ever, and its Blu-ray release offers yet another reason to revisit director Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece on unrequited love.