Every filmmaker has their own vision when creating a piece of cinema, trying to convey their personal message with each film they make. With the film industry worth reaching well into the billions every year it would be impossible to see everything that comes out, but sometimes you’ll come out enjoying it so much, keen to see what the filmmakers do next. In this series of articles, we aim to guide you through the career of some excellent artists and their craft, highlighting the masterpieces and dissuading the lesser work.
For our next director we take a look at one of the most iconic and individualistic directors of the past twenty years, Quentin Tarantino. For most people, his absurd persona and Churchillian peace signs are definitely an acquired taste, but when it comes to his craft there’s not many people who can say they have left such a stamp on popular culture like Tarantino. His films ooze personality and style, and with his most recent project Once Upon a Time in Hollywood just hitting cinemas, it seems the perfect time to go over his filmography. Despite My Best Friend’s Birthday (1987) being his first film, both Tarantino and the world have never accepted this as a real product (in fact it’s impossible to watch anywhere), and therefore we will begin with Tarantino’s real debut – Reservoir Dogs (1992).
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
You’ll struggle to find a much more emphatic debut film than Reservoir Dogs, as Tarantino vocalised his uniqueness and panache in one swoop with a stylised presence and great use of non-linear storytelling. The story follows a group of nameless criminals and the aftermath of a heist gone bad, all looking to meet at the rendezvous point where paranoia causes the situation to escalate badly. It’s this sort of simple plot that shaped Tarantino’s early career and allowed his talents to seep through in his dialogue and character building.
Using the non-linear approach is hardly an original device, but what Reservoir Dogs does so well is balance the escalation of it’s primary story with it’s much needed backstory. Without any disjointed moments you can feel the time shifts riff with each other, and in doing so create more twists for a simple story that really hits home the talent on display both from the director and the cast. Not only that but the dialogue is beautifully written, and in very Tarantino style. He shows very early on through scenes like the dinner meet just how much you can say by not really saying anything.
This approach to dialogue is probably the single biggest draw to Tarantino’s films, and just a year after Reservoir Dogs he gave life to a script that would eventually be directed by Tony Scott – True Romance (1993). Although he didn’t direct the film it’s his words that make the film pop, making this more his film than anyone else’s. But it wasn’t until 1994 that Tarantino cemented himself as one of the unique stars of the movie industry, with his now classic Pulp Fiction.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Everything that has been said about Tarantino, his approach to dialogue, the stylistic stamp he leaves on each scene and even the power of his non-linear style – they are all on full show in Pulp Fiction. Following the stories of hitmen Jules and Vincent (Jackson & Travolta in their best roles), the low-grade boxer Butch (Bruce Willis) or the beautiful Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman), Tarantino takes what he has learnt and approaches this film with a much more character driven intentions, while upping the style factor even more.
While the direction is great, once again the writing is the real winner here, using different styles to create an ambiance of it’s own, and finding the perfect times to crack the most subtle jokes. But more importantly, it showcases the power of the monologue. Jules’ confusing and terrifying 25:17, or even Walken’s tremendous war hero story, they are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this films affinity for perfect delivery and dialogue. Despite still working 25 years later, this remains Tarantino’s Magnum Opus, rightly winning him an Oscar and the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and among all the craft on display as well, you can’t help but fall in love with everything put in front of you, something that only a small amount of films have the power to do.
Up next for Tarantino would be another writing venture in the form of Oliver Stones controversial and poignant Natural Born Killers, and despite this being a Tarantino script it feels more in the realm of an Oliver Stone film. And despite directing a one off episode of ER, it wouldn’t be until 1995 when Tarantino would once again sit in the directors chair, for his segmented collaborative effort with Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell and Robert Rodriguez, who all put their own stories into one film, for Four Rooms.
Four Rooms – “The Man From Hollywood” Segment (1995)
This is the only real short film that Tarantino has been apart of, using his lengthy dialogue to add his own voice to a film so diverse in vision. Starring Tim Roth (the only character to be in every segment), as hyper-active Ted, a distracted bell boy who tends to the specific needs of his guests. When Ted is called to his final segment in the Penthouse, he is greeted by a wealthy film director (played by Tarantino himself) and his friends as their big party nears an end. The night begins to take a riskier turn when the Director proposes a game – if his lighter is lit 10 times consecutively, the winner will get a new car. If not however, they must cut off their pinky finger.
Unlike the other segments Taratino’s is a wordy piece of film, using his forte to dissect the situation with the use of pungent monologuing. While the story is fitting for the 20 minute segment, harbouring little stakes for it’s time frame and coming to a climax with precision, it’s actually not the best segment of the night. For the first time in his career Robert Rodriguez holds the win over his long time friend, elevating his segment to the preposterous and making it all the more fun. Another problem is something that’s plagued all of Tarantino’s work, the casting of himself in a very talkative role. While it should never diminish his talents as a writer/director, it is difficult to see past his delivery as an actor.
After Four Rooms Tarantino would also collaborate with Robert Rodriguez to write the vampire cult-classic From Dusk Till Dawn (1996). Despite once again being cast, Tarantino quickly leaves the scene as allows veterans like George Clooney and Harvey Keitel to speak his untouchable words for him, and with Rodriguez directing it shows just how fun the collaboration can be.
Jackie Brown (1997)
This is Tarantino’s third official feature film (something he likes to keeps tabs on his entire career), an ode to the blaxsploitation films of the 70s and 80s. It’s casts blaxsploitation icon Pam Grier as it’s title character, a middle aged flight attendant who smuggles money for the arms dealer Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson). As Jackie gets into trouble for her smuggling, what follows is a plan that will either make or break Jackie’s life. With another heavy cast of greats including: Robert De Niro, Robert Forster, Michael Keaton, Chris Tucker and Bridgette Fonda, this had the line-up to become another classic both cult and acclaimed, just like Tarantino’s prior two features.
In some respects it does reach the heights of the other two, Tarantino’s style is completely on show once again, with flamboyant characters and rich dialogue in abundance. It may just boil down to the fact that, despite being such a great ode to it’s chosen devotee, it doesn’t quite hit the mark as perfectly. Having said that Grier’s performance is a highlight of her career, and it’s one of the most overlooked Tarantino/Jackson collaborations by far. And if you add the in the pitch black humour, amazing soundtrack and occasional bit of genius, this has become one of the most underrated Tarantino films of his entire career.
Kill Bill Vol. 1 & Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2003/2004)
In 2011 a new release of these films came as one, 4 hour saga that proved that Tarantino himself has a preference towards this film’s distribution, and that it should be seen as one story with two halves. For that reason it feels appropriate to talk about them as the same entity, as both volumes follow The Bride (Uma Thurman), an ex-assassin who was left for dead by her former group, as she seeks revenge one-by-one until she reaches her leader, the title character Bill (David Carradine). It’s very clear from the get-go who Tarantino is paying homage too, the Japanese Samurai films made famous by Kurosawa and those that followed (more specifically Lady Snowblood ) along with the Chinese Martial films of the 1970s. There’s so many clear representations within the film from the masterful Crazy 88 fight, the anime flashback of O-Ren (along with the wonderful fight itself) and also the patient and intense hospital scenes. These all culminate into a 4 hour journey that’s one hell of an experience.
In many respects this is the first film to really shape Tarantino’s trajectory over the course of the next 13 years. He takes a wonderful sub-genre or collection of films that shape his love of cinema and uses his own ultra-violent and stylised motifs to bring them to be, not just an homage, but a quintessential piece of the genre. This is very much an episodic film but for good reason, the fights between The Bride and O-Ren, Vernita, Elle Driver and eventually Bill are all expressions of vengeance in a sadistic ‘to-kill’ list. It’s an essential part of Tarantino’s storytelling, and the vignetting of each story feels essential in shaping The Bride’s journey. This is truly some of Tarantino’s finest work, that despite maybe lacking the ultimate ending you’d wish for, is still so deep-rooted in the style of those it’s paying homage too.
After Kill Bill Tarantino would take a much more feature approach to his work, using his time to calculate his next film wisely. Despite getting a credit on Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City (2005) and directing the two-part episode CSI: Grave Danger (2005), he wouldn’t release his next film until 2007, with his most experimental film in many ways, Death Proof.
Death Proof (2007)
The reason for it’s experimentation is because of the Grindhouse aspect, another cult division of film that’s been adopted by the likes of Robert Rodriguez, Rob Zombie and his other long-time friend Eli Roth. If you’re looking for a basis of this type of film, Death Proof is great example, along with a film that was released in the same year and fashion, Planet Terror (2007). The film follows two separate groups of women, which include the likes of Rosario Dawson, Rose McGowan, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Kill Bill stunt worker Zoe Bell, as they come into contact with Kurt Russell’s scar-faced antagonist, who used a ‘Death Proof’ stunt car to kill his victims.
For his whole career Tarantino has walked a fine line between B-Movie (or Grindhouse) and filmmaking craftsmanship, but with Death Proof he finds himself leaning more and more to the Grindhouse style and leaving his own craft behind. There are still parts that make this Tarantino though, the structural differences, the long takes allowing his words to be delivered with concise precision and also a cast that can really handle the dialogue. But in retrospect this film is Tarantino’s experimental attempt to be a part of the Grindhouse style which is such an acquired taste in the first place, which leaves the film lacking the accessibility that his other films find with ease.
Inglorious Basterds (2009)
With no small projects in between Tarantino jumped right into his sixth feature film, paying homage to the War genre, with the spectacularly gruesome Inglorious Basterds. Although sometimes mistaken as a remake of the 1978 machismo film The Inglorious Bastards, this films one of a kind approach, and alternate history, shares no similarities to the original. With Brad Pitt in the semi-leading role, it follow him as Lt. Aldo Raine, who leads a group of individualistic soldiers through enemy lines, under the nose of Hitler, to kill as many Nazi’s as physically possible. Also in the fray however is the famed and sadistic Col. Hans Landa (or the ‘Jew Hunter’), played by Christoph Waltz in one of the greatest performances of this century.
It’s fitting that a director of such individualism like Tarantino would turn the historic richness of World War II into his own alternate history, one that can only be considered as gloriously brutal and stylish. As you would once again expect by now, this film is rich with character and flavour, but one of the biggest changes we see from Tarantino is in his direction. While his magic is never lost in any of his films, with Inglorious Basterds he redefines what it means to write tension, both with the use of words and in his directing. The two scenes in particular, the first being the crucially gripping opener involving Christoph Waltz using his unsettling politeness to catch Jewish people hiding beneath the floorboards, and the second is in the beautifully written bar scene that in classic Tarantino fashion ends in the most violent of ways. These uses of tension and everything else about the film show Tarantino’s true grasp on the craft, while never losing his style but utilising it even more in the process.
Django Unchained (2012)
Three years after Inglorious Basterds Tarantino would dusts off his military boots for a new venture, his homage and take on the Spaghetti Westerns of the mid-20th Century. Starring Jamie Foxx as the title character, it follows Django’s rise from slave to free man as Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) grants him his freedom in order to help him with a bounty. Once the two begin to form a bond Dr. King Schultz agrees to help Django save his wife from the infamous Candyland, a plantation run by the eccentric and evil Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Once again Tarantino doesn’t just pay homage, he’s using his own style to fit into any genre and in doing so gives most films from the Western golden-age a run for their money. With majority of the cast casually flinging the N-word’s around, Tarantino’s words can sometimes feel uncomfortable, but despite all Tarantino’s dialogue having a stylised nature, there is an authenticity to their awfulness, and out of the awfulness you feel a reflection of the time it’s set in. However, the reason for this film not quite reaching the heights of his other work is because of little moments that jolt the story and pacing, with Tarantino’s casting of himself and that entire scene feeling drawn out, to the mysterious figure that is introduced then never to be seen again.
These feel easy to give a pass because they are Tarantino, but in retrospect they don’t give anything extra to the story and leave the narrative at times, shaky. But these moments are few and far between, and this film still boasts so many positives, with a brilliant mash-up of modern rap and the legendary touch of Ennio Morricone, probably one of the best performances you’ll ever see Leo give, and the undeniable footprint that Django has left on popular culture over the past 6 years. In fact, Tarantino must have enjoyed the process so much that his most recent feature, just three years after, would also take on the Western motif.
The Hateful Eight (2015)
After a lengthy start we finally get to see the sizeable cast this film bolsters, using the likes of Samuel L. Jackson, Tim Roth, Bruce Dern, Michael Madsen, Zoe Bell, Walton Goggins and Kurt Russell, all who have graced Tarantino’s films before. This cast (which has a lot more names included) are set with the challenge of bringing to life a confined ‘whodunnit’ story, something that is reminiscent of Tarantino’s first film – Reservoir Dogs. As bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Sam Jackson) and John Ruth (Kurt Russell) get caught up in a blizzard with a wanted criminal (Jennifer Jason Leigh), they find themselves held up in a small cabin with a number of mysterious characters.
Truthfully The Hateful Eight is an example of a director who’s own reputation can in fact be a films downfall, and while Tarantino’s style is still on full show, there is still some unnecessary quirks that don’t add to the films panache but rather drown it with unnecessary length. Going slightly overboard with his ‘Tarantinoisms’ and taking a long time to really reach the heights of it’s own story, you could argue this is probably Tarantino’s worst effort. But arguably the biggest reason this film gets it’s critics is because its just not Tarantino working at his best, but in spite of that it’s still got some fantastic monologuing, solid performing from the likes of Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jackson and Russell, and also a familiar collaboration between the director and Ennio Morricone that beautifully scores this entire escalation of the narrative.
For his ninth feature film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino is heading to 1960s Hollywood, following the escapades of two industry workers (one actor and his stunt man), in a story that’s set at the same time as the Manson murders – boasting a cast of Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie and Al Pacino. With it’s release either upon us it’s safe to say that critics reaction is positive and then some.
Tarantino has always been pretty clear about his path as a filmmaker, letting the world know that once his tenth feature is over he may retire to what we can only assume is a cushy existence watching B-Movies. It seems that the rumour that holds the most likelihood is his Untitled Star Trek Project, something that has been promised to be an R-Rated version of the beloved franchise.
However, there are also rumoured films of his involvement, with Kill Bill Vol. 3 announced, and a crossover that will see Django and Zorro clash heads, it’s difficult to say what direction he will go. It’s safe to say, as you can already tell from his entire filmography and personality, Quentin Tarantino’s unpredictability knows no bounds.