I still vividly recall seeing “Pulp Fiction” for the first time in the cinema. I was 21 years old and had walked in there with high expectations; I exited with my head spinning, thinking I’d seen one of the greatest movies of all time.
I say this as a preface to make note of the fact that I was a huge, early fan of Tarantino and as a result I have wanted to like every subsequent film of his – often to be faced with the unpleasant fact that I didn’t enjoy his latest offering. “Jackie Brown” took some getting used, such was the tonal shift from the first two films he had directed, but was clearly still great. I really didn’t like “Kill Bill, Volume One” for various reasons, but mostly I found the pastiche too grating, the story too dull, and the dialogue – for the first time – a wee bit ropey. “Kill Bill, Volume Two” was better, but the two taken together (as Tarantino originally intended) equalled a four hour film with a very, very baggy first half. The dialogue problem was still present as well in Volume Two, definitively undercutting what was thought to be a prime Tarantino strength.
The next Tarantino film I saw was “Inglorious Basterds”, which I looked forward to seeing when it came out as I recalled the 1978 original and was excited to see Quentin’s take on the same story. Only, the title was all the two films shared, as it happens. Tarantino’s “IB” starts well, with a scene that manages to use our expectations of Tarantino’s style really well – that wall to wall blood is imminent – to create a huge amount of tension. But overall, I found the film lacking. The dialogue problems got worse as for the first time he moved his principle setting from modern day Los Angeles to WWII era Europe, resulting in people that sounded half like characters spouting dialogue badly dictated from a stock WWII film, half like typical Tarantino characters.
It was also the second film of Tarantino’s in a row that dealt explicitly with revenge. With the “Kill Bill” films, I barely noticed this as a trope given revenge is a key component in most kung-fu flicks, the genre Tarantino was doing a pastiche of there. But “IB” made me think about it. Why is Tarantino so suddenly obsessed with revenge? It wasn’t present as a feature in “Dogs” or “Fiction” or “Jackie Brown”, so what gives?
I have yet to see “Django Unchained” because it sounded so much like “IB” I couldn’t face it. But I very recently saw Tarantino’s most recent film, “The Hateful Eight”, and I can tell you what I thought about that.
It is the first Tarantino film I actively despised. Other items from his filmography might have disappointed, but I had never hated one of them previously – this was a first. Mostly I hated the film because I found it incredibly boring. I know Tarantino has always been famed for long dialogue scenes, but pre-“IB” they had always taken place with characters and in a setting – modern day L.A. – that Tarantino really understands and has an ear for. It was clear to me during the first hour of “Hateful Eight” that he had spent no time whatsoever studying the way people in the American West spoke during the early 1870s and instead just tried to regurgitate dialogue from westerns that he’d seen. The Morricone score made you instantly compare the film with Leone’s work, a comparison from which the “Hateful Eight” does not emerge the better from. I couldn’t even make it out of the first half before shutting it off.
A few days later, I forced myself to watch to the end. The film’s pace picks up a little – but only a little. Tarantino wades into issues around the Reconstruction Era without real purpose or even a basic understanding of why he’s doing it. He likes westerns, so he’s trying to make one – that appears to be it. The film goes from absurd to laughably silly when the Lost Causer character allies himself with Samuel Jackson for reasons that make zero sense, particularly after Jackson’s character kills the Confederate general. It all ends in predictable but meaningless bloodshed.
Having hated “The Hateful Eight” made me perversely want to view other recent Tarantino films I had been avoiding. I figured I would dive into the deep end and watch “Deathproof” – even a lot of the Tarantino fan boy types, those who had insisted that every frame of every film was genius before that point thought “Deathproof” anywhere between could have been better and actually awful.
To my shock, I kind of liked “Deathproof”. And it’s clear to me why: Tarantino was once again swimming within a world he understood and could handle. While not set in L.A., the first act is with showbiz people in Austin who are like Los Angelenos with southern accents; the second act is set in small town Tennessee, but with people who are explicitly from L.A., there to on location to film a movie. This improves the dialogue significantly, as suddenly Tarantino is back with characters who convincingly think and talk like him. “Deathproof” is also free from having to steer around topics like post-Civil War southern reconstruction, institutional racism, the Holocaust, the list goes on – “Deathproof” is refreshingly low key as a result of not having historical or philosophical baggage to deal with. It’s about a stunt man who is like the guy from JG Ballard’s “Crash” if that guy became a serial killer. That’s it, really.
The setting allows Tarantino to play to one of his other real strengths, sadly missing of late, that of being a great curator of cool music and an ability to use it in a film effectively. In “Hateful Eight”, he found himself stuck with a Morricone score he couldn’t get his head around or use in any meaningful way. In “Deathproof” the tunes come thick and fast, helping the film’s pace along nicely.
Sure, “Deathproof” isn’t great – but it is good, at least in my opinion. I wish Tarantino could make a film about a grand topic without it being mush, but for now, that appears beyond him. He should either stick with stuff he knows like “Deathproof”, or put time and effort into crafting a story and believable dialogue and characters to go with it if he wants to do period pieces. Winging it doesn’t seem to be working.