Thursday 22 August 2019

Quentin Tarantino - a god of cinema, a pastiche spoofer, or both?

With 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' - Tarantino's ninth film - about to hit cinemas, the iconic director has hinted it may be his last.  Paul Whitington assesses his legacy

Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction
Uma Thurman as 'The Bride' in Kill Bill
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Quentin Tarantino is talking retirement. The 56-year-old writer/director's latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, was lauded at Cannes and has earned rave reviews, though with the usual frisson of controversy.

It's set in Los Angeles in 1969, as Hollywood was on the cusp of profound change, and obliquely explores the background of the Tate/LaBianca murders: Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a TV actor who lives next door to Sharon Tate, Brad Pitt is his loyal stuntman Cliff Booth, and their adventures lead them into the path of the Manson Family.

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Critics have mainly loved the film, and it's opened pretty well at the US box office - it's released here next week. If critical interest in Tarantino's films is always out of proportion with their appeal to the cinema-going public, he remains one of the very few directors who can attract money and attention to original screenplays by virtue of his name alone. But for a few years now he's been hinting that he might be about to call it a day.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is his ninth feature film, and when he began work on it, he announced that he'd retire after he'd done 10. A few weeks back, he said that if Once Upon a Time was "really well received, maybe I'll stop when I'm ahead".

Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction
Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction

If this does turn out to be his final film, devoted fans will grieve. But others will crack a wry smile and mutter good riddance, because Tarantino has always been a very divisive figure, lauded as a genius one minute, derided as an excess-addicted charlatan the next. So how does one assess him? What's with all the ultra-violence, and what about charges of misogyny? Is he a god of cinema, a pastiche spoofer, or both? Here, I take a look at all his films, to try to get a better sense of how the man will be ranked, and remembered.

1 Reservoir Dogs (1992)

The former porn cinema usher broke through in some style with this spare, neo-noir inspired by films like Stanley Kubrick's The Killing. It was a very clever bit of business, with Harvey Keitel heading up a strong cast as Mr White, the leader of a sharply dressed criminal gang who meet to apportion blame after a heist goes wrong. They talk a lot, and bicker endlessly, while deciding what to do with a hostage. Nothing good, as it turned out: torture and pop music had never been so compellingly combined.

2 Pulp Fiction (1994)

After the success of Reservoir Dogs, the pressure was on Tarantino to up the ante. He did so quite brilliantly with this episodic trawl through the underbelly of LA. Bruce Willis, Uma Thurman, Samuel L Jackson and John Travolta were among an all-star cast, but Tarantino's bristling screenplay was the real star here, and there have been few better written scenes in cinema than the moment when Travolta lectures Jackson on European burger joints.

3 Jackie Brown (1997)

Uma Thurman as 'The Bride' in Kill Bill
Uma Thurman as 'The Bride' in Kill Bill

Tarantino's brilliant adaptation of Elmore Leonard's gritty crime novel Rum Punch may just be my favourite of his films. The tones more restrained than usual, and 70s blaxploitation star Pam Grier is excellent as Jackie, an LA air hostess who's supplementing her income by smuggling in dirty money from Mexico for a criminal called Ordell Robbie (Samuel L Jackson again). She finds herself in a right old fix when the cops catch her in possession of drugs and a lot of money, and blackmail her into spying on Robbie. But Jackie has a plan.

4 Kill Bill: Volumes 1 & 2 (2003)

Quentin avidly watched martial arts films and spaghetti westerns as a kid, and they provided the inspiration for this bloody two-part revenge saga. As ever, music and violence were combined to powerful effect, with Uma Thurman playing 'The Bride', a former assassin who's about to marry her true love when her disgruntled ex, Bill, storms the chapel, kills everyone and leaves her for dead. She wakes from a coma four years later, and sets out to track Bill down. "A cocktail party in an abattoir", was how one disgruntled critic described it, but as ever, crassness was mixed with moments of brilliance.

5 Death Proof (2007)

In this thoroughly nasty faux B-picture (its budget was $30m), Tarantino paid tribute to the 'grindhouse' horror films of the 1970s. Kurt Russell was Mike McKay, a psychotic stuntman who murders women by staging exceedingly gory accidents in his 'death-proof' car. There was nothing to admire in this debased item of exploitative schlock, which seemed to revel in the unpleasantness inflicted on female victims, and Tarantino's detractors decided he'd finally lost it. But he was about to make a comeback.

6 Inglourious Basterds (2009)

A pastiche war film inspired by classic WWII dramas like The Dirty Dozen and Where Eagles Dare, Inglourious Basterds marked a glorious return to form for the director after a pretty lean decade or so. A rip-roaring historical revenge fantasy, it starred Brad Pitt as a murderous Tennessee lieutenant who leads a group of Jewish soldiers into occupied France to cause chaos behind the German lines. Clever, quick, predictably violent and very funny, Tarantino's film played fast and loose with historical fact but was great fun from start to finish.

7 Django Unchained (2012)

In Django Unchained, Tarantino brilliantly married the conventions of spaghetti westerns with the dark theme of slavery. Jamie Foxx is Django, a black slave who's being transported across Texas in the late 1850s when a German bounty hunter called Schultz (Christoph Waltz) rescues him. After he and Schultz team up as bounty killers, Django sets out to rescue his wife from the clutches of a plantation owner. It's a fantastic film for the most part, but things get extremely and needlessly violent late on, not the first time Tarantino has ruined a near-perfect film with a display of gratuitous nastiness.

8 The Hateful Eight (2015)

It could be argued that virtually all of Tarantino's films are westerns in disguise, and in Hateful Eight he set out to both embrace and deconstruct the genre's cherished tropes. A bounty hunter and Civil War veteran (Samuel L Jackson again) is transporting the bodies of his latest victims across a wintry Wyoming when he and a salty gang of guns for hire get stranded in a snowbound lodge. Hateful Eight ends in the usual tiresome Tarantino bloodbath, but not before the film has trawled the underbelly of American history, pinpointing the country's obsession with violence and race, and using the word 'nigger' at least 100 times. It's good and bad, trashy and brilliant, flimsy and substantial all at once.

9 Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)

In his latest film, Tarantino pinpoints a time and place central to his own artistic development - Hollywood in the late 1960s. He grew up watching TV shows like Bonanza and Gunsmoke, and in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Leonardo DiCaprio plays a television cowboy whose luck is running out. Some of the TV shows he worked on are lovingly pastiched before we find out that he lives next door to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. Beautifully made in parts, this film is also excessive, self-indulgent and orgiastically violent: in other words, it's typical Quentin.

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