10. Death Proof (2007)
Runtime: 1 hr. 54 min.
Pitch: It’s a lurid, sweating world where beautiful women drink, smoke, and have extensive conversations about the most Tarantino subjects possible: sex, arcane pop music relics of the ‘60s and ‘70s, muscle cars. But in the night, Stuntman Mike sets out on the prowl for unsuspecting women that he can lure into his death-proof car. Well, at least it’s death-proof for him.
Cast: Kurt Russell, Rosario Dawson, Zoë Bell, Tracie Thoms, Rose McGowan, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Vanessa Ferlito, and Jordan Ladd
T Gonna T (Quintessential Tarantino Moment): Let’s table that the first shot of the film tracks a comely pair of female feet, because it’s just too easy. And let’s move on to the point at which Russell seduces a much younger woman by reciting Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in a dive bar, the result of a prank pulled by her friends involving an AM radio talk show. It’s the definition of self-aware indulgence, and rarely has Tarantino ever juxtaposed the eloquent with the filthy in such stark terms.
The Revival (Career Resurgence): Death Proof doesn’t really get enough credit for helping to usher in the more recent Kurt Russell, the one who showed up earlier this year in Furious 7 to actually turn and wink at the camera. Here Russell gets to take full advantage of Tarantino’s love for playing on the star personae of name actors and sinks his teeth into the entire ham from the second he shows up. Also, this movie fully made Zoë Bell’s career as a performer, after she served as Uma Thurman’s stunt double in Kill Bill. She went on to star in no shortage of her own grindhouse movies after this.
The Master Himself (Tarantino Cameo): Tarantino shows up as Warren, the owner of the seedy bar that serves as the center of the universe for the film’s first act.
A pair of familiar faces: Notice Eli Roth and Omar Doom showing up early in the film as patrons. This was more than likely around the same time that the pair was cast in Inglorious Basterds as the young men who would kill Hitler. From such humble beginnings.
On Grindhouse: For those who may not recall, or the vast majority of you who didn’t see it in theaters, Death Proof was half of the release of Grindhouse, Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s attempt to revive the sleazy ‘70s drive-in experience in modern multiplexes in 2007. The pacing of the films was only the beginning of the problems with selling such a thing to a broad audience; likely because of Tarantino’s standing as the more well-regarded filmmaker, the slow-burn crescendo of Death Proof played after the warp-speed throwback gorefest Planet Terror. And it just did not work.
Also: Grindhouse was a delight, and it’s genuinely sad that the experiment won’t live on. No, the Machetes don’t really count.
Analysis: Okay. So Death Proof isn’t Tarantino’s best film. More accurately, there’s a pretty huge uptick in quality of the films on this list immediately following Death Proof. While Tarantino’s fullest-ever immersion in cheap, easy drive-in trash has its moments, as one could expect of a master filmmaker cutting loose within one of his own pet media, it’s unwieldy to say the least. Death Proof is so self-aware of its own slavish adherence to every trope of the medium that at times it gets just as lurid and nasty as its predecessors, particularly around the time that Winstead’s perpetual cheerleader is abandoned by her friends for an implied rape joke that sits worse when it becomes clear the film has no plans of cycling back to her.
But with all this said, and accepting it’s the least of his works, the chase scene that occupies most of the film’s final third is some of the director’s best filmmaking on its own. It moves at breakneck speeds, the actual stuntwork used to pull it off is so tangible on the screen that it makes the film both exhilarating and utterly alarming, and the payoff at its end is so darkly funny and satisfying that it nearly pulls off the trick of justifying everything that comes before it. Nearly.
09. The Hateful Eight (2015)
Runtime: 3 hr. 7 min. (Roadshow version); 2 hr. 47 min. (General version)
Pitch: Making its way through the snow-blanketed mountains of Wyoming, a stagecoach carries two bounty hunters, a captured criminal, and a man claiming to be a sheriff. When a blizzard forces them all to seek refuge at a general store called Minnie’s Haberdashery, they encounter four more rugged individuals who appear to be strangers. Of course, this is a Quentin Tarantino film, and the eight roughnecks may be more connected than anyone realizes, forming a tense, bloody thriller that’s half backwoods Western and half Agatha Christie.
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demián Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, and Bruce Dern
T Gonna T: Once everyone’s holed up in the misleadingly titled haberdashery, it becomes clear that the bar scene from Inglourious Basterds was just a warm-up for The Hateful Eight. Although QT builds tension through the same types of secret histories, subtle looks, and unspoken malice in both films, his latest outing boils over two hours rather than 30 minutes. Don’t be surprised if your fingernails are gone by the time the credits roll.
The Revival: Every one of the main actors here (and even some of the bit parts) is an A-lister in no need of a career revival. Even Demián Bichir, the sole cast member I had to look up, is an Oscar nominee. We’ll go with Michael Madsen, though.
The Master Himself: We can’t speak for the film’s standard version, but anyone seeing the extended “Roadshow” edition of The Hateful Eight in 70mm is welcomed back after intermission by a voiceover from QT himself. Don’t get too excited — it’s the weakest part of the movie, another moment where Tarantino can’t resist winking at the audience. That’s fair enough in and of itself. After all, the guy did create the thing. But at the end of the day, the script isn’t complicated enough to suddenly warrant a narrator; he should learn to trust in his own visuals.
The Play’s the Thing: It’s no surprise that The Hateful Eight has origins as a staged reading, as it often feels more like a short play than a film. Outside of the stagecoach journey, there’s only one location (the Haberdashery), and the entire cast — bit parts and all — totals only 18 actors. Maybe we’ll see an adaptation go up at an Off-Broadway blackbox sometime in the next few years.
Once Upon a Time in the ’80s: When Tarantino revealed that dynamically weathered composer Ennio Morricone would be scoring his first Western since 1981 with The Hateful Eight, you could almost hear the music right then and there: prairie harmonica, clomping guitar, maybe a theme for each character. Yet despite working in his most famous genre, Morricone bucks the traditions he created in favor of more ominous drones reminiscent of his work on The Thing. The menacing sonics make sense when you consider the film’s tightly wound violence, and the fact that, while The Hateful Eight may be a Western, it’s not a spaghetti Western.
Analysis: The more you know about The Hateful Eight, the less you’re going to enjoy it. Just understand that it mixes the best parts of the picturesque Western (think Huston and Ford, not Leone and Carbucci) with the best parts of a murder mystery (see: the aforementioned Christie reference). And like most things Tarantino, the film breaks out of these genre trappings by leaning on a thematically rich plot device: having all of its characters be directly affected by the Civil War. The still-boiling regional and racial strife makes allies seem less trustworthy, enemies seem more friendly, and every person capable of terrible acts.
08. Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004)
Runtime: 2 hr. 17 min.
Pitch: Picking up right where the first Kill Bill film leaves off, The Bride sets out to finish off the rest of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad en route to Bill, the man who killed her. Only he didn’t. And there’s the matter of him having the Bride’s daughter under his roof, a daughter she believed she’d lost.
Cast: Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Daryl Hannah, Michael Madsen, Gordon Liu, Michael Parks, Perla Haney-Jardine, and Samuel L. Jackson
T Gonna T: When it comes to the Kill Bill films, everything happening onscreen at virtually any time is peak Tarantino. But it’s the moment when The Bride is buried alive that sets off a solid 20-30 minutes of quintessentially QT cinema. Setting aside that the film leaves its protagonist to die and then takes that opportunity to stage a lengthy digression about her tutelage in the mountains, there’s also the nightmarish shot of a pepper spray nozzle in extreme close-up, the claustrophobic terror of her mad scramble inside the grave, and the suddenly oversaturated, grindhouse-quality photography of the entire Pai Mei sequence itself. By the time she claws her way back to the world of the living, to the tune of Ennio Morricone’s “L’arena” no less, you can practically hear the director cackling with glee.
The Revival: During the late-game diner conversation in Pulp Fiction, Samuel L. Jackson expresses his desire to “walk the Earth, like Caine in Kung Fu.” So it makes sense that about a decade later, Tarantino would cast Caine himself, David Carradine, as the pursued Bill. And just to drive the point home about some of his other beloved genre stars, Gordon Liu and Michael Parks both get to play different roles than in Vol. 1; Liu is the vicious but skilled Pai Mei, who once gave The Bride the training she needs to eventually punch her way out of an early grave, and Parks shows up as Esteban Vihaio, the gentleman pimp who gives The Bride her essential final clue to finding Bill.
The Master Himself: Vol. 2 is actually the only Tarantino film to date in which the filmmaker doesn’t appear in some way, onscreen or otherwise. Sure, if you take the Bills as one movie, he’s elsewhere, but more on that later.
The Killing Strike: Vol. 2 isn’t the first film where the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique has popped up. The Shaw Brothers’ Clan of the White Lotus and Executioners of Shaolin both address this method of disposing of one’s enemies as well. It’s unclear whether or not dim mak is actually real, but it makes for one hell of a film ending.
Film Bros: That version of “Malagueña” that plays over the film’s curtain-call end credits? It’s by Chingon, the Texas band featuring Tarantino’s longtime filmmaking bestie Robert Rodriguez. Rodriguez was also responsible for a good bit of the score in Vol. 2 as well.
Analysis: Because of the nature of Kill Bill’s dual structure, it’s difficult at points to not take Vol. 2 as a comedown from the film’s giddy first half. It’s not an inherently bad thing, and it may well make the case for the films as better as disparate halves. (Though having that argument, the second part absolutely works better as a standalone than the first by that metric.) Vol. 2 is Tarantino’s first real overture into the sort of grandiose, operatic, frequently 70mm filmmaking that he’s always called the biggest influence on his own work.
It also casts into sharp relief the one topic Tarantino has never explored in any truly deep way as a filmmaker: love. Vol. 2 is romantic cinema not only in its often opulent production, but in its realization that a four-plus-hour bloodbath about revenge can end in a conversation of searing revelations. (Its closest kindred spirit would be Django Unchained, but even that film ends on the burning plantation house and not on the couple merrily riding away.) The Kill Bill story doesn’t end in a way that really answers to The Bride so much as what made her.
Ultimately, it’s a saga about Beatrix and Bill and the doomed love they once had. And for his only real foray into that particularly well-trodden narrative realm, Tarantino understands that sometimes, underneath all the cool battles and the elaborate death threats, there’s just a lot of broken hearts. It’s as honest a way to end an action movie as the director will ever land upon.
07. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Runtime: 1 hr. 39 min.
Pitch: Six criminals with color-coded names execute a diamond heist for crime boss Joe Cabot, but something goes awry and everyone smells a rat. The surviving crooks convene at their rendezvous location, where each tries to figure out who’s not on the level.
Cast: Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Steve Buscemi, Lawrence Tierney, Chris Penn, Eddie Bunker, and Quentin Tarantino
T Gonna T: Tarantino lives and dies by his influences, yet has that unique ability to spin gold from faded celluloid. Take the iconic opening stroll that heralds Reservoir Dogs’ opening credits: the cool, grinning confidence evokes Kiss of Death’s terrifying Tommy Udo, the tableau is a clear reference to the droogs in A Clockwork Orange, and the matching suits are John Woo through and through. The simplicity with which he blends these elements, and the ingenuity he shows through both his use of slow-motion and choice of ‘70s pop – George Baker Selection’s “Little Green Bag” – creates an aura that’s as inviting as it is ominous. There’s a reason it’s one of the most memorable opening credit sequences of all time.
The Revival: Tarantino didn’t bring any actors back from the dead with Reservoir Dogs, though, along with 1992’s Bad Lieutenant, he certainly helped remind people of Harvey Keitel’s talent for playing vulnerable, complicated crooks. His biggest piece of throwback casting was probably Lawrence Tierney, the gravel-voiced brute who memorably played the title character in 1945’s Dillinger. Tarantino actually wrote the role of Cabot for his hero Timothy Carey, another imposing heavy who made a name for himself in genre fare like Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing and John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, but Carey was apparently just a touch too unpredictable for the first-time director. Tarantino, instead, included him among the film’s dedications.
The Master Himself: Tarantino, mugging it up like this were a community theater production, looks like he’s having the time of his life as Mr. Brown, the ill-fated getaway driver. He’s less of a character, really, than a manifestation of his own singular energy. More below…
Pop Goes the Culture: Nobody talks about pop culture like Tarantino. His appetite for movies, music, books, and comics isn’t just a quirk of his character, but in so many ways the driving force behind his aesthetic. Casting himself in Reservoir Dogs to give a lengthy monologue about Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” could be read as a vanity move, but it registers more as an introduction of sorts. He’s not gonna kick off his hard-boiled crime drama with a splash of blood, but rather a carefree breakfast where we can see these criminals talk like human beings – what other heist flick would introduce the rugged, ruddy-faced Eddie Bunker by having him proclaim his love for Madonna’s True Blue?
K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the ’70s: Setting a torture sequence to music was an idea Tarantino pilfered from Joseph Lewis’ 1955 crime film The Big Combo, but his greatest moment of inspiration was choosing a song as upbeat and catchy as Stealers Wheel’s 1972 ditty “Stuck in the Middle with You”. It’s a trick Tarantino uses throughout the whole movie, as nearly the entire film is soundtracked by K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the ‘70s, a radio program specializing in the bright, sunny pop hits of that kaleidoscopic era. There’s no eerie synths or orchestral drones here. Just pop.
Analysis: Tarantino pulled a Shakespeare with Reservoir Dogs. He took a story that’s been told a dozen times before – almost beat-for-beat in Ringo Lam’s 1987 Hong Kong heist film City on Fire – and elevated it with the artistry of his vision and the talent of his execution. It’s not the story that asserts itself; it’s everything from the dialogue and character designs to the cinematography and use of violence. Shakespeare wasn’t remembered for the ingenuity of his stories, but what he could accomplish within the confines of one. Tarantino could’ve filmed “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” and still made a splash.
Reservoir Dogs is packed with all the influences, nods, and Easter eggs that people love to dissect when they’re discussing Tarantino, but by virtue of it being his first film, it feels less like an event and more like, well, a movie. By this, I mean to say that the Tarantino style, as it’s developed, is one that’s encompassing – every exchange, action sequence, or act of violence is simultaneously hilarious, ominous, and upsetting. Reservoir Dogs is less layered, as Tarantino was clearly still honing his sense of humor.
There’s lots of great dialogue in Reservoir Dogs, but there’s no sick joy in watching Mr. Blonde slash Nash’s face with a straight razor or Mr. White mow down a car full of cops. It’s ugly, really, a word you’d be hard-pressed to apply to any of Tarantino’s other works, which tend to temper the violence with a sheen of surprise, irony, and winkiness. Still, Reservoir Dogs is stunning, an ode to the heist films of yesteryear that, 23 years later, still feels thoroughly modern.