Jackie Brown is Quentin Tarantino's third movie as writer/director, following his independent breakthrough Reservoir Dogs and his enormously successful Pulp Fiction. His first two films are most impressive - albeit none too subtle - and he certainly made sure that he got everyone's attention, firmly establishing himself as a filmmaker to be reckoned with. Pulp Fiction cost $8M to make and grossed $107M in the US alone (worldwide gross was $212M). Jackie Brown, on the other hand, was budgeted at $12M and took $39M at the US box office - about a third as much. Both movies fared similarly on their respective opening weekends, but the difference started to show when Miss Jackie dropped off 70% by its third weekend. That's a pity, because I feel that this movie is every bit as good as the last - if not better - and in many ways is a huge step forward for Quentin Tarantino's development as a creative filmmaker.
After making $212 million out of $8 million, Tarantino's options for his third film were extremely wide. He could have raised a $50 million budget without even breaking a sweat; instead, he chose a similarly modest budget and made a film which was altogether quieter, more subtle and restrained, yet every bit as deft and astute as his former efforts. This decision alone speaks volumes about the kind of filmmaker Tarantino is. How many other filmmakers, given the same options, would have chosen likewise?
Tarantino defied expectations by going in the opposite direction to his previous efforts; he opted for 'less is more' rather than simply 'more'. The first thing he did to achieve this was to change the aspect ratio to a narrower frame. Instead of using the very wide 2.35:1 Panavision ratio that was used to compose his earlier films, he opted for the more understated 1.85:1 ratio. This immediately imparts the impression of a calmer, more laid-back approach. The often frenetic pacing of previous outings has been replaced with a much more studied, mature and polished approach, and the trademark shock value that he became famous for has been largely disposed of, having been replaced with a depth and emotional resonance that is all too rare in any genre, and pretty much unheard of in the crime/thriller genre.
There are very few films that have a 44-year-old black woman as their protagonist. More specifically, at its heart is it about the budding relationship between her and a 56-year-old. She has real-world concerns as a struggling flight attendant: 'If I can't fly, I'm going to have a bitch of a time trying to find my rent'. It's dialogue like this that gives the film its urgency and places it firmly in the realm of the real world rather than the typical world of the Hollywood gangster film. Like Clint Eastwood's recent Space Cowboys, the film is thematically concerned with aging, obsolescence and redundancy. At one point, Jackie Brown confesses that she is more afraid of running out of time and becoming unemployed than she is of her enemy. As played by Pam Grier, this monologue is so convincingly delivered that the essence of the movie is laid bare in that one scene. Tarantino punctuates it by zooming in almost imperceptibly on Grier's profile. (There is a gentle irony in this, because zooming is almost never used anymore - it's considered passe. The technique of changing shot-size is usually accomplished by moving the entire camera rather than optically zooming the lens).
Tarantino is not satisfied with merely advancing the plot - he prefers to thoroughly examine his characters' thoughts and observe 'irrelevant' details, although he achieves this without sacrificing coherence or derailing the movie even for a moment. He covers all the territory required for the audience to understand how the story holds together, but wisely appreciates that the plot mechanics aren't necessarily the most engaging aspect of the movie. He enjoys presenting scenes, or aspects within scenes, that we wouldn't get to see in more conventional direction of similar stories. For example, when the arms dealer takes his new partner to bail an employee out of jail, the bondsman makes a phone call to check on some details about the employee. Most directors would make us listen to the phone conversation. This is ignored; instead, we see the dealer explain the procedure for disabling his car alarm so that his partner, who has asked to wait outside, can do so. We then follow the partner outside and see him deactivate the alarm. (Note that my description doesn't capture the humour of the scene - it will make sense when you see it). Although it can be argued that this diversion from the 'real' action serves no purpose (which is why most filmmakers wouldn't think of writing or filming it in the first place) it is precisely this kind of unusual, detailed observation that lends the movie its deadpan humour and breathes life into it. In a later scene, the arms dealer leaves the apartment for a crucial meeting with Jackie Brown. We don't follow him. Instead, Tarantino invites the audience to stay at home with the laconic partner and a surfer girl. This scene doesn't advance the story one iota, nor do the characters reveal anything about themselves of any particular significance. However, it is an inspired, hilarious touch and if you enjoy being taken in unexpected, adventurous directions then you are sure to find scenes such as these (and the movie as a whole) absolutely disarming.
The movie takes on a refreshingly calm and leisurely pace - there is enough time to become engrossed and savour each moment. There is a hint of the deadpan humour of independent US filmmaker Jim Jarmusch (Stranger Than Paradise, Ghost Dog) particularly during an early scene in the apartment in which there is protracted silence in a running gag involving the phone. The characters are given plenty of time to contemplate their actions (or lack thereof) and are never rushed for words. In most movies, the characters seem to be working from a script they've already read (funny, that!) whereas in this movie they seem more like real people, because they're given the space to be just that. There's a scene in Jackie's apartment where she puts on a record, lights a cigarette and she and the bondsman listen for several bars before he breaks the silence and says, 'It's pretty'. For contrast, the movie becomes more kinetic in the second half as it builds towards its conclusion, although it's never in too much of a rush to pause and study something in greater detail. It's almost uncanny the way so many scenes have such a loose and relaxed feel to them while the entire movie as a whole fits together so precisely with respect to pace, rhythm and timing.
Although the photography of the film is mainly covered with a motionless camera to underscore the relaxed feel, there is a superb and extensive use of the steadicam, especially in the last hour as the film's tension builds feverishly. Often, directors can overuse the steadicam and treat it as something of a crutch in order to avoid thinking about where to place the camera. Here, it provides an excellent contrast to the stasis established early in the film and lends a sense of urgency to the proceedings. The steadicam operator, Dan Kneece, has flawlessly executed some incredibly complex shots, and deserves special mention because the visual eloquence of a significant portion of the movie is due to his superlative work. In particular, watch for the shot at 1:42:50 as Jackie leaves the changing room in the department store. It's so good that it looks effortless - rest assured, it isn't. Not surprisingly, Dan Kneece is the steadicam operator of choice for the likes of David Lynch, Wes Craven, the aforementioned Jim Jarmusch (during those rare occasions that he decides to actually move the camera) and on the 'Buffy' TV series, amongst many others.
The director of photography, (Guillermo Navarro) production designer (David Wasco) and costume designer (Mary Claire Hannan) team up to provide the movie with a predominantly bright, sunny, high-key approach using a strong palette of primary colours. Even the villain's lair is a sun-drenched apartment furnished mainly in whites; he is almost always wearing yellows or whites himself. The few exceptions occur during the film's more menacing scenes which use very low-key lighting. During these scenes, the director of photography is brave enough to leave large portions of the frame unlit, providing mostly impenetrable darkness. The result is not only a good counterpoint to the high-key scenes, but is also distinguished from dark scenes in other movies in which far more fill light is used to provide shadow detail. A good example of this can be seen at the 48:00 mark, which also plays host to an excellent use of the split screen, used here to show two different places at the same moment in time. Another low-key sequence involves the movie's only crane shot (at 21:00), which is paradoxically used here as an aid to minimalism rather than merely to impress with 'production values' as cranes are so often used. I cannot describe this shot in detail because it would involve divulging a surprise that's best left undivulged, although I can tell you that any other way of directing this scene would have been categorically inferior to the way it was done here. It is an amazing choice because of the sheer economy it provides, and is a stunning example of how a potentially pedestrian scene can be transformed into an artistic expression.
The movie's final scene is so wonderful that the review wouldn't be complete without mentioning it. It is so subtle, understated and on-target that you just want to pinch yourself. In particular, there is a moment in which one of the characters walks away and thinks, and as he does so the shot goes increasingly out of focus, so you can barely make out what's on the screen. There is an absolutely magical quality to this which I can't explain. The movie is filled with such moments, and is even greater than the sum of its parts.
Jackie Brown is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. This is a remarkably clean, sharp and detailed transfer! Because of the extended range of strong colours, there was the possibility of oversaturation in several scenes. However, even when the entire screen is filled with deep red, the colour remains rock solid. Contrast and black levels are perfect, an aspect that Roadshow always seem to get right (not everyone does). Even low-level scenes reproduce with virtually no noise. Very impressive!
This is a dual layer RSDL disc, with the layer change occuring at 1:34:44, at the start of chapter 20. The place was chosen perfectly, because it occurs right after a fade-out and just prior to a title card so it cannot be seen. Furthermore, it is so swift that it is virtually undetectable. This is a textbook example of how RSDL should be done!
All in all, a great video transfer which retains the look and feel of the film.
There are two soundtracks available on this disc. The default soundtrack is an English Dolby Digital 5.1 track. The other soundtrack is identified by my player as MPEG audio, although the sound selection menu on the disc indicates that it should be 'Dolby Surround'. It is certainly not in the Dolby Digital 2.0 format, which is what one would expect. This disc was created just at the point that MPEG audio was being phased out of region 4 discs, so this may account for the discrepancy. My decoder, which doesn't handle MPEG audio decoding, incorectly identifies the track as 48kHz PCM, and produces very ordinary 2 channel sound. My recommendation is to forget this option and select the 5.1 track irrespective of the playback hardware you'll be using.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is very clear and detailed at all times, with a natural balance that is never fatiguing to listen to. The dialogue track is very clean, so you'll be able to savour every last syllable The mix contains a subtle use of the surround channels and no LFE usage whatsoever. However, the occasionally aggressive use of the rear speakers is impressive and there is some low frequency information which is reproduced via the front left and right channels, so nothing seems amiss. There is one gunshot which is so dynamically reproduced that you will be genuinely startled, even when you've seen the movie and expect it. When you get to it, you will know the one I mean. Your heart WILL skip a beat! It reminded me of the target practice scene in the excellent movie Zero Effect, which contains the most impressive single gunshots I've ever heard.
Also very dynamic is the music in the film, which is a superb selection of soul and R&B classics and a jazz/fusion score by the composer Joseph Julian Gonzalez. A lot of the music in the film comes from an onscreen source (diagetic sound), such as a record or a car stereo being played; the offscreen music and score is used very sparingly so that when it does appear it is most effective.
Make sure you carefully observe the scene in which the bondsman leaves the cinema at the end of his movie. Listen to the music, and keep it in mind when you watch the end of this movie...