It wasn’t until recently in my film-watching life that I began to appreciate Quentin Tarantino for what he really is: a freak of nature. Film after film, the man has taken to task the most commonly underdeveloped aspect of filmmaking and emerged on top each and every time. Hell, even to say he comes out on top is an understatement. Truth is, the top relocates to wherever Tarantino sees fit to stand. At least when it comes to characters, that is.
Even the most ardent non-supporter of Tarantino’s career must concede that the man has an uncanny ability to create iconic characters. The writer/director has an almost superhuman matchmaking sense that always finds the perfect actor for the part, no matter the size of the role. He lacks the myopia most in his field seem to consistently be afflicted with as they spend all of their energy focusing on one or two lead characters whilr remaining blind to the fact that they must also complement said leads with, gasp, other interesting human beings as well. And, for my money, there are three reasons his particular brand of characters resonate with audiences the world over.
First, explicitly good or bad characters are rare in a Tarantino movie. Reflect upon his filmography and you’ll soon realize that Tarantino has never even written a villain. Bill (David Carradine) in Kill Bill, Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) in Pulp Fiction, Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) in Death Proof, Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) in Inglourious Basterds… each conflicts with the protagonist(s) of his respective film, and each is ostensibly the “bad guy” by virtue of not being the “good guys”, but none is an actual villain. The audience understands (and occasionally sympathizes with) their motives throughout, knowing full well their behavioral justification without the need for a blinking neon sign that reads “This is the person you’re supposed to despise,” or a placating, everyone-gets-what-they-deserve resolution at the end.
This would seem to fly in the face of the old adage that a movie is only as strong as its villain, but Tarantino gets away this by abstaining from overt moral condemnation in his films, opting instead to leave judgment up to the audience. Doesn’t matter if the role in question is as small as that of a pimp who slashes up the faces of his working women (Michael Parks as Esteban Vihaio in Kill Bill Vol. 2) or as large as a Nazi Colonel nicknamed the Jew Hunter; QT will always approach the character with enough spin to make you think twice about him or her. Sticking with those two examples, we know what Vihaio does for a living is despicable, but that old man is one of the most charming gents to crop up in the Tarantino pantheon.
And when it comes to the Jew Hunter/Hans Landa, it may just be the best role Tarantino has ever written. Without getting into spoilers, the revelation of Landa’s intentions in Basterds brings about a smooth whiskey blend of cold logic that one can’t help but quietly smile for, despite the fact that that smile is induced from a heartless, selfish, high-ranking, Jew-hating officer under Hitler.
The second reason his creations have such cinematic staying power is because we keep talking about them long after the credits role, thanks to outstanding bread-crumb mysteries surrounding his biggest players. Why does Marsellus Wallace have a band aid on the back of his neck? How did Aldo Raine get the scar around his neck? Will Vernita Green’s daughter seek revenge on the Bride when she is old enough? Three simple questions that could be resolved with a single, equally simplistic answer should he have wanted to, but the mere absence of any comment on the matter is more memorable than whatever answer QT keeps locked away in the back of his brain.
The third, and most influential, reason we’re all talking about the fictional stars of Tarantino’s repertoire in the first place is because they’re all cast so damned well. Even the characters he didn’t originally author himself (I speak, of course, of Jackie Brown, QT’s adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel of the same name) come across as though they were strictly written for the sole actor who could take the role up to 11. Obviously an incalculable number of movies feature a nice marriage of actor and material, but few boast the sheer volume of marriages found in a Tarantino production. If there is one actor who can bring the nuance of QT’s vision to life, you can bet the bank he’s going to find them.
Just to drive that last point home, let’s end things on an experiment.
Step 1: Think of any character in any project written and directed by Tarantino.
Step 2: Attempt to re-cast them in your brain.
Step 3: Proceed to fail as you find it impossible to picture anyone but the actor he chose.