Nobody knows what Quentin Tarantino's next movie will be. Based on conflicting interviews he's given since the release of his Spaghetti Southern Django Unchained, it doesn't even seem like Tarantino knows. He told Total Film that he envisioned Django and Inglourious Basterds as two parts of a trilogy, and that the third installment, possibly called Killer Crow would be about African-American soldiers fighting during World War II. On the other hand, he told a French publication that his next film would be "'smaller' than Django Unchained and more in the vein of Jackie Brown." If you ask me, the latter idea is probably the best choice he could make right now.
Don't get me wrong. I really enjoyed Django Unchained. Along with Inglorious Basterds, Django displays a thrilling ability to find catharsis in unresolved historical trauma through genre tropes and slick, stylized violence. Alfred Hitchcock would have appreciated each film for being a "slice of cake rather than a slice of life." Both demonstrate a fantastical belief, however hopelessly naive, that cinema can offer resolution where real life cannot. We wish someone had been able to riddle Adolf Hitler with bullets rather than what really happened: him taking his own life on his own terms. Better yet, how great would it have been if a Jewish American soldier had done the deed? Django, likewise, taps into the idea that American slaveowners were due a greater comeuppance than they ever really got. With both of these films, Tarantino has performed a kind of pop culture exorcism.
So why, for the first time really in Tarantino's work, do we get a whiff of formula at the end of Django Unchained? Perhaps it's because, like any exorcism, pop culture or otherwise, it's a movie that depends upon shock for its effect. And up till Basterds and Django, his career had never relied as heavily on shock for shock's sake. Moments like the "adrenaline to the heart" scene from Pulp Fiction or Michael Madsen's ear-slicing set to "Stuck in the Middle With You" from Reservoir Dogs were startling jolts, yes, but integrated as natural outgrowths of the story situations and, more importantly, the characters' own personalities.
Unlike those films, shock is built in to the very concept of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. And it's hard not to think about what historical atrocity Tarantino might take on next in this style. He's already tackled the Holocaust and slavery. Why not make a blood-soaked reverse Western about Native Americans fighting against the white man? Or Chinese rebels fighting against the Japanese invasion of World War II? (Part of me secretly hopes that Tarantino will just make an outright sequel to Basterds in which Brad Pitt's Aldo Raine leads a daring mission that preemptively ends the war in the Pacific theater.) To me anyway, the fact that I've thought along those lines shows how Basterds and Django are driven as much by concept as they are by story. And that's new for Tarantino. His previous films were driven first and foremost by their characters and the situations they'd create for themselves or be thrust into as if by some divine, unseen force. You could say Basterds is Tarantino's "Holocaust movie," or Django is his "slavery movie." It's harder to sum up with one conceptual keyword what kind of movies Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and the Kill Bill duology are.
That's why I'm heartened by the idea that Tarantino may go back to the Jackie Brown well for his next movie. His 1997 blaxploitation homage is perhaps his least seen but most mature effort. If he takes the following four lessons from it, I think he'll end up with an even better movie. MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!!!
AGAIN, MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!
1. Keep It More Focused on Character…and Less on Concept
Jackie Brown is the closest thing Tarantino's ever produced to a "character study." It's about the budding relationship between a middle-aged flight attendant (Pam Grier's title character) and a tough but lonely bail bondsman (Robert Forster, never better). They're both faded individuals, left behind by life and looking for a big score to get them out of their doldrums. It's the best romance he's ever depicted, and its ending comes as a gut-punch. Contrast that with the relationship between Django (Jamie Foxx) and his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). That's just pure, unadulterated marital bliss...that happens to be marred by the fact they are slaves who are sold and separated. But if it weren't for external circumstances, they would be a truly dynamic duo, an unstoppable force. It also means there isn't much subtlety in their relationship. In Jackie Brown on the other hand, the relationship between Forster and Grier is complicated not so much by external factors as by their own inner flaws. Character drives their evolution, and the story.
2. Don’t Be Afraid to Edit.
Django Unchained is a 165-minute movie, and it feels like it. There are a couple separate moments in the last half-hour that could serve as natural endpoints. But the movie keeps going. Harvey Weinstein even considered the idea of dividing it into two movies, with the break point occurring right when Leonardo DiCaprio's Calvin Candie is introduced. At 151 minutes, Jackie Brown is also a long movie. But it earns its screentime because the film is ultimately about the slow internal transformation of its characters. It doesn't add twists for the sake of twists and tack on a couple more endings even after its primary antagonist is killed.
3. Keep the Stakes Clear.
The stakes are incredibly stark in Jackie Brown. Both Forster and Grier want to make a better life for themselves. And to do that they need money. So they go after money. And by illegal means. Django Unchained seems to have pretty clear stakes too. The title character wants to be reunited with his wife and free her from slavery. Unfortunately, there are a number of narrative tangents along the way that take Django away from that objective, tangents that feel more like delaying tactics until we get to the story proper. They don't feel truly earned. If Weinstein had split up the movie into a Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, the first installment would have concerned itself primarily with Django and King Schultz' (Christoph Waltz) search for the Brittle brothers. That's a storyline that takes up about an hour of screentime as it is and has almost nothing to do with establishing an urgency to find Django's wife. It turns the movie into a picaresque. To say nothing of Tarantino's own onscreen appearance as an unscrupulous mining boss near the end of the film, after the dispatch of its primary villain.
4. Have a strong female lead.
Tarantino's usually created incredibly strong female characters for his movies. But Washington's Broomhilda is reduced to screaming terror much of the time she's onscreen. That's a token gesture on Tarantino's part to establish the horror of slavery — he shows her punished by being trapped in an underground hotbox, brutally whipped, and ostensibly prostituted — but it clashes against the hyperbolic Spaghetti Western tone that pervades the rest of the movie. Django himself becomes a fast-drawing sharpshooter practically as soon as he's released from a chain-gang of slaves. Why couldn't Broomhilda have been shown to be as formidable? Jackie Brown is not only the title character, she's a force of nature, even if she's been beaten down by life in her own, admittedly far less horrific, way.
Do you agree that it's time for Tarantino to take his career in a different direction? And does the prospect of a movie more in the vein of Jackie Brown make you as happy as it makes me?
Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt
[Photo Credits: Miramax, John Phillips/Getty Images]