True Romance turns 25 today. A quarter-century after that love letter to sex, violence, and Elvis Presley hit screens (and bombed), we have to ask ourselves: we’re all pretty much over Quentin Tarantino, right? The Hateful Eight was only okay, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood looks tasteless even by his standards. The man himself is hard to love, too – Kill Bill was great fun but it hardly justifies Tarantino nearly killing Uma Thurman. Granted, he’s been contrite about his long history with the Weinsteins at Miramax, but it does feel as though the moment has passed for Hollywood’s edgelord-in-chief.
It’s odd to think that back in the early Nineties, Tarantino was “Hollywood’s Boy Wonder”. As well as directing now-classics Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Tarantino wrote scripts for a pair of cult-favourite movies about young lovers on the wrong side of the law. 1994’s Natural Born Killers was inspired by the real-life Charles Starkweather homicides, a case that so captured America’s imagination it made it into “We Didn’t Start the Fire”. The movie courted controversy with its depictions of violence, resulting in a ban and a delayed release in Ireland and the UK respectively. If that sounds like an overreaction, remember that this was around the same time that The Simpsons was considered controversial.
“Stealing. Cheating. Killing. Who says romance is dead?”
—poster for True Romance
Tarantino wasn’t a fan of director Oliver Stone’s alterations to his script for Killers, later saying “I hate that fucking movie. If you like my stuff don’t watch that movie.” He has been kinder about his collaboration with Tony Scott the previous year: True Romance. Like Stone, Scott decided to subtract some of the signature Tarantino violence from the end product: in this case, the killing of Clarence (Christian Slater) in the climactic shootout. According to Scott, the change was not for commercial reasons, but because he wanted to give Clarence and Alabama (Patricia Arquette) a happy ending:
“Scott: I just fell in love with these two characters and didn’t want to see them die. I wanted them together.
“Tarantino: When I watched the movie, I realised that Tony was right. He always saw it as a fairy tale love story, and in that capacity it works magnificently.”
Tarantino’s “fairy tale love story” description is about right. Clarence and Alabama are as broad and shallow as fairy tale archetypes, and the True Romance of the title is an adolescent fantasy. Clarence, who Tarantino admits is “autobiographical”, is an unpleasant loner obsessed with grindhouse movies, comic books and Elvis. Alabama is a call girl hired to pretend to be interested in Clarence, who spontaneously falls for his pop-culture-saturated quirks. It’s hot nonsense, but Slater and Arquette sell the hell out of it, and the movie doesn’t exactly slow down to question itself. True Romance works by imitating exactly the kind of lurid trash Clarence loves, and having a blast doing it.
“They’re young… They’re in love… And they kill people.”
—poster for Bonnie and Clyde
A sort of cinematic grandparent to True Romance is 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty as the eponymous romantic criminals. Coming at the beginning of the post-Code era, Bonnie and Clyde kicked off the wave of blood-soaked thrillers that led, via Sam Peckinpah and friends, to Tarantino’s beloved exploitation movies. It also contains a spectacularly funny sequence featuring Gene Wilder in his best nervous-chatter mode. The combination of graphic violence and wordy farce is a hallmark of the Tarantino brand from Reservoir Dogs onwards, as well as the sub-genre of Tarantino knock-offs by Guy Ritchie et al that followed the success of Pulp Fiction.
Both True Romance and Bonnie and Clyde also kick off with a whirlwind courtship, though the earlier film is the only one that examines the lack of depth in the relationship. As a result, it’s a sadder, more meditative film, in between the gags and gunfights. As you may know, it does not have a happy ending. This difference speaks to the context both movies were made in: Bonnie and Clyde was bringing the New Wave to America, while True Romance was elevating grindhouse schlock to the mainstream.
“He was 25 years old. He combed his hair like James Dean. He was very fastidious. People who littered bothered him. She was 15. She took music lessons and could twirl a baton. She wasn’t very popular at school. For awhile they lived together in a treehouse.
“In 1959, she watched while he killed a lot of people.”
—poster for Badlands
One of the more on-the-nose references in True Romance is to Terrence Malick’s 1973 debut feature, Badlands. Not only does Hans Zimmer’s score borrow that film’s main theme, “Gassenhauer”, it is paired with a southern-accented voiceover from the female lead – Alabama in True Romance, Holly (Sissy Spacek) in Badlands. Malick’s film follows a similar Bonnie and Clyde-ish plot about a young couple on the lam, but the explicit comparison invites us to see the differences.
Badlands, like Natural Born Killers, is based on the 1958 Starkweather killings. Holly, the Caril Anne Fugate analogue and our viewpoint character, is a child and always slightly detached from the violence around her. “Gassenhauer”, a glockenspiel piece composed for children, emphasises her out-of-place innocence. Meanwhile Kit (Martin Sheen) is a violent monster with a facade of “cool”. He effectively kidnaps Holly, and kills people on a whim. The ending, where Kit plays showman with a crowd of cops en route to his trial and execution, is a caustic comment on American celebrity-worship.
“Cop: You’re quite a character, Kit.
“Kit: Do you think they’ll take that into consideration?”
Compare True Romance, which ends with Clarence and Alabama driving into the sunset in a purple Cadillac. They’ve racked up two kills apiece, but all pretty well justified. On the soundtrack are Zimmer’s variation on “Gassenhauer” and Alabama’s voiceover, telling Clarence “You’re so cool. You’re so cool.” A coda reveals them playing on a beach with their son, Elvis, named for the object of Clarence’s own celebrity-worship.
It’s a straightforward happy ending, more Blue Hawaii than Bonnie and Clyde. Clarence might even deride it as “safe, geriatric, coffee-table bullshit” if he was sweet-talking another edgy Hollywood honcho. But the tinkling score, and its memory of Badlands, brings out an ironic pang, perhaps left over from one of the drafts where Clarence – like Clyde and Kit – dies. Is he really “so cool,” or did Tarantino write his stand-in to be the butt of the joke? By resurrecting its cinematic predecessors, True Romance gains some “black fucking comedy” with which to shade in its lurid colours.