Hall Of Fame: Quentin Tarantino

Film writer Helen O'Hara talks about the remarkable career of Quentin Tarantino.

Helen O'Hara

26 Apr 19

Few film-makers have ever changed Hollywood as quickly or as profoundly as Quentin Tarantino. Within months of his directorial debut, Reservoir Dogs, every film seemed to be scrambling to copy his non-linear, ultra-violent hit. Once his second film, Pulp Fiction, won the Palme d'Or, it was all over. Every wannabe film-maker aspired to be "Tarantino-esque", but almost none had the panache or the sheer talent to follow his lead.

It's easy, now, to forget just how groundbreaking those first two films were. The time-shifting narrative, the spurting blood, the fast and profanity-punctuated speech – they swiftly became the new normal for every indie film-maker wanting to make their name. There was a brief fight for UK certification for Reservoir Dogs; now you'd see much the same thing in TV shows, so extensively did it shape what followed (Breaking Bad, anyone?). Pulp Fiction has never been matched in its indelible characters and unforgettable dialogue. It could turn on a dime, from the tragedy of Bruce Willis's boxer, Butch, to the strange and joyous dance scene between Uma Thurman's Mia Wallace and John Travolta's Vincent Vega, to the violence of drug overdose, and assassinations, and stick-up jobs. It's entered the vernacular in a thousand ways, from wannabes like Very Bad Things to references in films as unlikely as Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Jackie Brown, his third film, was initially a tougher sell, with its raft of violent, amoral and generally unlikeable characters, but its reputation has only grown, to the point where some fans now rank it ahead of Pulp Fiction in the Tarantino charts. Then he started stretching himself in new directions. Kill Bill was half kung-fu revenge thriller, half Western, with both parts bleeding into one another in an extraordinary and virtuoso blend of style and tone that even dips into animation. Death Proof was a fun side project that mushroomed into a sleek action chase, before the Second World War fantasy of Inglourious Basterds. Then came his "Southern" and "Western" one-two punch, in the exploitation saga of Django Unchained and the Grand Guignol of The Hateful Eight.

What's remarkable about Tarantino's career is how little being Tarantino-esque matters to him. There are certainly common threads running through his films, and a few actors with whom he has worked repeatedly: Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Uma Thurman. However, this is a film-maker who could have spent his life making crime thrillers, and been highly acclaimed for it, yet he keeps pushing into new genres and new formats (he's also an Emmy-nominated TV director and a sometime actor, as well as the script doctor we have to thank for Crimson Tide and The Rock).

Tarantino has always shied away from anything too real-life, and showed outright disdain for biopics, but with Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood he demonstrates that he is not afraid to tackle real events, either. We never got the Tarantino superhero movie that was mooted several times – he was in talks for an early Iron Man film, a Luke Cage project and even wrote a Silver Surfer film – nor does there seem to be much movement on the Star Trek film he had in the works. But really, we'll take what we can get, because he has never lost his capacity to surprise and delight audiences, even when he's delving into the darkest parts of human nature.    

Look out for a Tarantino retrospective as part of our Culture Shock strand. Check your local Picturehouse for details.

Three to watch

Pulp Fiction (1994)

So much for that difficult second film: Tarantino's is arguably still his masterpiece. It weaves a tapestry of criminal characters into a never-matched look at LA's underworld, blending shocking violence and abuse with verbal dazzle. A career-high point for pretty much everyone involved.

Kill Bill: Vol 1 (2003)

The Bride's "rip-roaring rampage of revenge" begins as she faces down the first two names on her kill list: Vivica A. Fox's Vernita Green and Lucy Liu's O-Ren Ishii. In the lead role, Uma Thurman is utterly implacable and seriously deadly, and her fight against O-Ren's "Crazy 88" bodyguards is one for the ages.

The Hateful Eight (2015)

John Ford meets John Carpenter in this ice-cold stand-off. An octet of gunslingers, outlaws and bounty hunters meet at a remote outpost in a snowstorm and, well, ancient grudge breaks to new mutiny. Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell are on top form, but that doesn't mean that all will go to plan for them.