In his original review in 1997, the late, great Roger Ebert praised the patience and precision of Jackie Brown. The film’s ability to let a moment sit, to allow a character to reason out the story that’s playing out around them, is a talent that writer and director Quentin Tarantino has turned to plenty in the years since, but it may never have been deployed as deftly as it is in his third feature, now celebrating its 25th anniversary.
I like the moment when the veins pop out on Ordell’s forehead. It’s a quiet moment in the front seat of a van, he’s sitting there next to Louis, he’s just heard that he’s lost his retirement fund of $500,000, and he’s thinking hard. Quentin Tarantino lets him think. Just holds the shot, nothing happening. Then Ordell looks up and says, “It’s Jackie Brown.” He’s absolutely right. She’s stolen his money. In the movies people like him hardly ever need to think. The director has done all their thinking for them.
Slowly but surely building a reputation as Tarantino’s best work, Jackie Brown is a movie with a lot on its mind, not in heavy themes, but in the weight of the thought process its players are carrying around with them. Jackie and company have to keep the cogs of their brains moving more than Tarantino’s previous, more reactive characters. After Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction set the pace for Tarantino’s punchy dialogue, coked-up plotting and extreme violence, adapting Elmore Leonard’s crime novel Rum Punch left much more measured on the page. The film takes its time doling out information to the audience, the more satisfying to make it in the climax, as they see all the threads starting to come together. The characters are older and, generally, wiser.
Flight attendant Jackie Brown knows that she has to hit every point of her plan with pinpoint precision, or Ordell won’t hesitate to take her out. She has to play both him and cocky ATF Agent Ray Nicolette for the whole deal to come off. She isn’t exactly playing besotted bail bondsmen Max Cherry, her partner in this plan to make off with Ordell’s money, but he’s been too long in a shady business not to know she’ll try to keep one step ahead of him. Tarantino’s characters are usually talking their way into trouble, here we might see the most examples of them trying to talk their way out of it.
Every scene of dialogue between two characters in Jackie Brown is them sussing each other out, working the angles, seeing what the other person knows, or if they can be useful. When Jackie and Max speak, they’re two characters with a long history of not being able to trust others. Jackie’s husband landed her in jail, Max’s bread and butter is cut-and-run crooks. Their conversations though, bursting with the chemistry between Pam Grier and Robert Forster, have a very different energy. It’s more playful, and infinitely more relaxed – they get to know each other, which means they get to know what they need to know about each other. Is he on the level, does she know what she’s getting into?
Jackie teasingly asks Max if he’s worried about getting older. He’s a little insecure about his hair line but thinks there’s certainly nothing wrong with her ass getting bigger. Jackie’s worn out, she’s got a criminal charge, probation, an ex-husband and dire career prospects. She always feels like she’s starting over. And starting over, she says, scares her far more than Ordell. Max sees she knows what she’s getting into. Happily infatuated, he leaves the rest to her.
The characters in Jackie Brown have to stay smart or they’re out of this game. Melanie, Ordell’s white surfer girl, assumes he and ex-con Louis are dumb fuckups by trade, not worth taking seriously, and it leaves her dead. Louis “used to be beautiful” according to Ordell, but whatever made him a smooth criminal is long burnt out now, Robert De Niro’s gloriously no-thoughts-head-empty twist on his usual ruthless wrongdoers quickly making himself a liability. The feds are smugly oblivious, thrilled at the idea Ordell is scared of them, utterly unconcerned about the plans of a middle-aged flight attendant who “didn’t exactly set the world on fire”. Jackie outmanoeuvres them with ease.
Ordell, showy, cocky and clever “may be dumb, but (he) ain’t no dumbass”. He enters every situation exploring his options, getting the information he needs from others, especially whether he still needs to keep them alive. Watching him and Jackie pace her apartment, each switching her lights off and on and off again while he pumps her for information and prepares to pump her full of lead, he thinks he’s got her all figured out, but he can’t conceive of what Jackie later confides to Max – that she’s scared off something more than him. He’s reliant on the assumption that he’s the baddest one in the room. It lets her get the drop on him in that scene, and it will let her get the drop on him again. Despite what he thinks, he hasn’t thought of everything, like Jackie does.
And what about Max? Tired, jaded, quiet Max, what does he think about, when everyone is scheming, when he’s lazing around at the movies in the afternoon, or when his life is in danger in the dead of night? What does he think about when intricate plans are being put together, while he’s picking up Delfonics tapes? Canny, careful and calculated, Max has seen it all. So what is he thinking about when he first sees the woman of his dreams stumbling exhausted out of prison, and when he last sees her, decked to the nines, footloose and free and about to head off to Spain half a million dollars richer, each embodied by Pam Grier’s sensational, understated, lived-in cool and out of fucks performance? As she drives away, Robert Forster, eyes wide, career-long weight in his gait, walks into the background, the camera dipping out of focus, he puts his head into his hands. What does he make us believe Max will be thinking about for the rest of his life?
It’s Jackie Brown.
Jackie Brown is showing in the Light House Cinema to mark its 25th anniversary. Screenings are taking place on Fri Sep 16th – Thurs Sep 22nd. Tickets available now.