An unabashed and unique talent with pen and camera, Quentin Tarantino has written and directed innovative modern classics like Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained.
If one letter defines QT it’s V for vengeance. Blood runs thick through every scene of his fast-talking full-throttle epics, accompanied by a hail of F-bombs, N-bombs and taboo tableaus of buggery, rape and slaughter. With so much violent and profane content packed into his films, his prolonged mainstream success is proof of his raw talent, resonating more strongly than any temporary tabloid controversy.
Adding another chapter to the eternal myth of the successful underachiever, Tarantino dropped out of school at the age of 15 and was soon working as an usher at the Pussycat Theatre, an adult movie theatre in California. He spent his spare time devouring hundreds of films and before long he found himself a more natural home at the Manhattan Beach Video Archives. He worked there for most of his twenties, writing screenplays with friend and colleague Roger Avary, planning how to become a successful director and continuing his journey into full-blown cinephilia. When Reservoir Dogs swaggered into sight at Sundance in 1992, the preceding decade of hard work was instantly rewarded with critical acclaim and what Tarantino recently called “the complete utter payoff of perseverance”.
After brief diversions writing True Romance (1993) and Natural Born Killers (1994), Tarantino introduced some of his most infamous techniques and proved he was a name to remember with Pulp Fiction (1994). The audacious ensemble piece won him the Palme d’Or at Cannes and his first Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, establishing him as an indie auteur capable of impressing cult and mainstream audiences alike.
The underappreciated and deceptively complex Jackie Brown arrived in 1997, followed by a return to Tarantino’s muse, Uma Thurman, for Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2 (2003&2004). Although the quality occasionally flags across the latter two films, the return to a more audience-friendly plot and tone earned Tarantino box office success after the relatively low takings of Jackie Brown.
Continuing his series of revenge epics with renewed star power in Brad Pitt and a new muse in Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds (2009) marked the start of a new era for Tarantino. Followed in 2013 by Django Unchained, both films retrospectively right the wrongs of World War II and American slavery respectively, with a grander scale and more gore than ever before. It’s a recipe that audiences adore, with Basterds’ $120 million and Django’s $162 million making the highest box office of Tarantino’s career.
One of the most popular and decorated auteurs of modern cinema, Tarantino’s stunning writing has won him two Oscars for Best Original Screenplay, an achievement bettered only by Woody Allen. His straightforward plots are often complicated by chronological jumps and marked by a juxtaposition of comedic, conversational dialogue and bursts of extreme violence. This is most evident in Pulp Fiction, with its intricate, novelistic structure that rewards repeat viewings.
Despite his screenplay success, Tarantino has received far less critical acclaim for his direction, with only two Oscar nominations and zero wins. Although notorious for techniques like the crash zoom and extreme close up borrowed from his beloved Westerns, Tarantino is a more versatile and well-rounded director than many give him credit for. His use of well-staged fixed long takes has increased noticeably as his career has progressed and Django also revealed a sometimes rare eye for visual beauty. Perhaps the Academy view his frenetic and stylised visuals as too immature for their tastes, or perhaps he is sometimes guilty of a lack of subtlety. If you were to suggest either reason to the bullish Tarantino, I doubt he’d care much.
Either way, he deserves more acclaim, if only for the masterful control he displays with his casts. Equally comfortable resurrecting the careers of forgotten stars like Pam Grier as he is with handling world-beaters like Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, Tarantino casts his films with zero regard for public opinion and he’s very rarely wrong. Think about it: when was the last time you saw a bad performance in a Tarantino film from anyone other than the man himself?
As always with Tarantino the last word must be on his violence. As much as he’d like to shut down the butt of every critic who dares ponder the consequences of his onscreen bloodbaths, questions are inevitable when his films rely so much on death and destruction. His most recent stance has been to deny any link between movies and real life, a baffling stance for someone so well-versed in the power of cinema. Instead, he’d do well to point out that if you watch with a discerning eye, then a lot of the violence in his films follows a simple rule of moral justice. Characters that deserve a brutal and horrific death tend to find exactly that waiting for them by the time the credits roll.
Despite recent criticisms on this front, you can rest assured that Tarantino is unlikely to be changing his style any time soon. Whatever comes next it will be violent, witty and full of memorable characters you can’t help but love.
Top 5 Quentin Tarantino Films:
Inglourious Basterds (2009) – Pitt and Waltz clash as Paris burns and Nazis are slaughtered in this WWII epic with a romantic side. A masterpiece of tension with brilliant acting that demands your attention.
Pulp Fiction (1994) – Interconnected short films that perfectly display the thin line between success and failure. Tarantino’s finest script and some of his most memorable characters in Vince, Jules and Mia.
Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004) – Thurman’s hunt for revenge concludes with more slayings and a heart-breaking final encounter with Bill. Visceral scenes like the showdown with Elle Driver and The Bride being buried alive elevate it above the more cartoonish violence of its predecessor.
Jackie Brown (1997) – Pam Grier’s eponymous flight attendant fights a battle of wits with both sides of the law with help from a love-struck Robert Forster. The deceptively complex plot is grounded by the most human and tender relationship in any of Tarantino’s films between Grier and Forster.
Django Unchained (2013) – Foxx and Waltz team up to defeat the deliciously wicked duo of DiCaprio and Jackson in a Western that tackles the horrors of slavery in Tarantino’s unique way. Foxx struggles in the early stages, but the film is saved by a thrilling final 90 minutes, tenser than anything else in Tarantino’s filmography.
Are Tarantino’s films too violent for you? Do you think he’s overrated? What would your top five films be? Let us know below.