And now, Playboy.com presents the final part of our extremely thorough ranking of characters who’ve appeared in the movies Quentin Tarantino has directed, up to The Hateful Eight. (Want to start at the top? You can do so here.
45. Marvin Nash (Kirk Baltz) — Reservior Dogs Officer Marvin Nash gets tortured and dies and that’s about it. Tarantino and Baltz make the most of his minimal screen time, though. A few lines of pleading for a family juxtaposed with the quick acknowledgement that he is withholding information; A moment of misplaced vanity as he hopes he still looks okay without an ear — and suddenly he’s not a hunk of meat, but a disturbingly sympathetic person. An understated bit of humanity in a film not known for subtlety.
44. Simone (Hattie Winston) — Jackie Brown After dancing to Mary Wells with a glam gown plastered to her generous curves, Hattie Winston manages to make even “I’ve got to pee” sound like a come on. Part of what’s so great about Simone is that she’s an echo of Jackie Brown herself. Older, heavier, sillier, but still smoking, and still smarter than Ordell, who she rips less spectacularly but no less smoothly than Jackie does.
43. Francesca Mondino (Julie Dreyfus) — Inglourious Basterds Dreyfus exudes obsequious sexuality as Goebbels’ French translator and mistress. Shosanna loathes her because she’s gross and a traitor, and we’re obviously supposed to despise her as well. But she seems so pleased with herself and her position — and she does seem to care, inexplicably, for Goebbels. In a quiet way, she’s a female Landa of sorts: She does what’s necessary to survive, but that doesn’t mean she can’t enjoy it.
42. Lance (Eric Stoltz) — Pulp Fiction Eric Stoltz plays low-rent drug dealer Lance with a riveting schlubbiness. Every shake of his shaggy mop top connotes downward mobility, and he makes even eating cold cereal seem like an exercise in hollow decadence.
41. The Bride (Uma Thurman) — Kill Bill 1-2 The Bride (aka Beatrix Kiddo) is a tricky character to rank. She’s Tarantino’s effort to create an iconic action hero, and as such she’s fairly successful. She’s not quite up there with her prototypical Eastwood Man With No Name, but she has a lot of his laconic badass cool, as well as a very Tarantino-esque improvisatory viciousness. When she tells Vernita she’s not going to spare her just because she “got knocked up,” when she tears out a trucker’s tongue with her teeth, when she plucks out Elle’s other eye, she makes good on all of Tarantino’s gory pulp promises. She’s a force of nature, crawling up out of her hospital bed or out of her own grave to wreak vengeance upon the evildoers. Though Bill calls her a superhero, Batman and the Punisher look staid in comparison.
So all of that should put her up near the top of the list. If only Tarantino hadn’t felt the need to add depth. The Bride is great when she’s just a series of tough one-liners and stunts, the way an action hero is supposed to be. When Tarantino tries to give her a character arc, though, the whole thing falls apart.
That arc is summed up in one word: motherhood. The Bride was a vicious, amoral killer. Then she discovered she was having a baby, and she immediately gave up her career, her lover, and her former life to devote herself to raising her child in a comfortable middle-class lifestyle with some average Joe husband.
The fact that Bill points out that this is unconvincing doesn’t make it any more convincing. And the end, where the Bride kills the only parent her four-year-old B.B. has ever known — and then devotes herself to motherhood — seems both confused and weirdly disrespectful of the child in question. Motherhood isn’t even about the kid; it seems more like it’s about women (Vernita too) giving up their cool genre pulp existence for blissful domesticity. You can bet that never happened to Clint Eastwood.
40. Shanna (Jordan Ladd) — Death Proof Shanna could come off as gratingly chipper, but Ladd gives her banter an easy self-confidence that’s appealing rather than off-putting. She’s thrilled at Jungle Julia’s success and she thinks her dad is ridiculous but sweet. She may be keeping Dov around, but she sees through him easily enough. She’s a young woman who seems comfortable in her own skin — a rare creature in Hollywood, a fact which makes her end all the more painful.
39. Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) — Reservoir Dogs The crook with a code and a conscience isn’t exactly new, but Keitel brings his usual gravitas to the part, alternating disturbingly believable cold-blooded violence with misguided compassion for the wounded Mr. Orange. White’s not a great character necessarily, but as the biggest name in the film, Keitel admirably lets the part serve as an anchor for other, more colorful performances.
38. Mr. Brown (Quentin Tarantino) — Reservoir Dogs Mr. Brown doesn’t have much screen time, it’s true. But his bizarre violent interpretation of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” is presciently disquieting. It’s Tarantino himself playing the character and babbling on and on about how virginity is pain and also giant penises. The mix of sadism, arts criticism, and meta nicely sums up Reservoir Dogs’ embrace and analysis of pulp violence, not to mention the film’s exuberant self-parody (Mr. Brown notes at one point that his alias is maybe too close to “Mr. Shit.”)
37. Sgt. Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth) — Inglourious Basterds One of the most enjoyable parts of Inglorious Basterds for a Semite such as myself is the fantasy vision of Jews not as the Holocaust’s victims but as brutally virile superhero avengers. Donowitz, or “The Bear Jew”, is the most vivid take on that unlikely trope, especially in the scene where a buff Eli Roth bashes in a German’s head with a baseball bat and then starts crowing about hitting the ball out of the park in a thick Brooklyn accent. It didn’t really happen that way, but it’s hard not to wish, just a little, that it did.
36. Captain Koons (Christopher Walken) — Pulp Fiction Tarantino’s merciless parody of war-film daddy issues is played with crewcut lobotomized brilliance by Christopher Walken, who barely pauses as he informs an eight-year-old Butch that his father hid a watch from the Viet Cong by stowing it in his rectum for five years (perhaps contributing to his death by dysentery.) Freud would have something to say about anal heroism and Walken’s spit-shined embrace of duty and honor, with an obligatory pause to acknowledge the grief of Butch’s mother before plunging further (as it were) into the tale.
35. Winston Wolf (Harvey Keitel) — Pulp Fiction Tarantino is always half-mocking his gangster tropes, but Mr. Wolf is where he veers gloriously into flat-out parody. Keitel pulls out all the stops as a ball-busting fixer, spewing profanity and displaying earnest competence as he helps avert the crisis that will ensue if Jimmy’s wife gets home to find brains in her garage. Mr. Wolf would be more at home in one of the Airplane movies than in The Godfather — and that’s a good thing.
34. Honey Bunny/Yolanda (Amanda Plummer) — Pulp Fiction This is the first speaking role for a woman in a Tarantino film, and it’s worth the wait through Reservoir Dogs. Vicious, lovestruck and mercurial, Yolanda spits, screams and moons, sometimes all at once. She looks genuinely despairing when Jules gets the drop on her sweetie Ringo, her gun wavering back and forth like a weather vane in a wind tunnel. Vulnerable and homicidal is a tough act to pull off, and it’s a testament to Plummer’s performance that you’re relieved when the terrifying Yolanda gets to walk away with her darling intact. She’s one of the few characters in Tarantino’s first few films who you really, despite yourself, want to see happy.
33. Sgt. Werner Rachtman (Richard Sammel) — Inglourious Basterds Sammel gets to play a straight stoic hero’s role, projecting quiet dignity and defiance in the face of certain death. Only, in this case, there’s no last-minute escape — and, more important, the hero is a Nazi. “Did you get that for killing Jews,” the Bear Jew asks of a medal on his chest, and he replies, “No, for bravery.” He then demonstrates, as he waits unflinchingly to have his head bashed in with a baseball bat. You sometimes see noble villains on screen, but noble Nazis are few and far between. Noble Nazis mocked and tortured by unfeeling Jewish-Americans are even rarer.
32. Beaumont Livingston (Chris Tucker) — Jackie Brown Poor Beaumont querulously goes out with Ordell, querulously climbs in the trunk of his car and is querulously shot. The combination of incessant whining and incessant malleability is both grating and endearing. The scene where he looks down in the truck, gesturing in futile disgust, is such a ludicrous, hapless epitaph. Of all Tarantino’s many sad criminals, Beaumont is the most pitiful.
31. Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) — Inglourious Basterds Sylvester Groth turns in a repulsively campy performance as the Reich minister of propaganda. The way he wiggles his fingers when reaching out to take Shosanna’s hand is enough to put you off your food. A film enthusiast and a filmmaker, Goebbels starts to weep softly when Hitler compliments his movie. Like Cecil Evans in Death Proof, directors in Tarantino don’t come off so well.
30. Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) — Reservior Dogs You can’t spit in a movie theater without hitting an onscreen Hollywood psychopath, but Mr. Blonde (aka Vic Vega) is one of the most winning variations of the trope. Blonde cheerfully embraces his sadism (“It’s amusing to me to torture a cop”), and Madsen seems to be having the time of his life in one of the most unpleasant scenes in American cinema. His flamboyantly stiff lip-synching to “Stuck in the Middle With You” as he brandishes a knife at the helpless, bloody hostage cop is goofy, cool, sexy and awful all at once — media violence as a cheesy feel-good money shot.
29. Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) — Inglourious Basterds Why does a famous German actress decide to become a British agent? We never find out. All we know is that Bridget is an incredible spy. Operation Kino — the attack on the cinema where the Nazi top brass are attending an opening — is her brainchild. And she carries her part through with panache and daring. Her vivacious woman-of-pleasure façade is perfect, and when, through no fault of her own, it is shattered, her bravery and determination never wavers. Shot in the leg and tortured by her allies, she soldiers on.
Kruger imbues her with a wonderful intelligence, too; watch her in the scene where Hicox blows his cover. You can see she knows what’s coming, but still tries to carry it off. It’s a great piece of acting, by Kruger and Hammersmark both.
28. Budd (Michael Madsen) — Kill Bill 1-2 Tarantino has created any number of hopeless losers, and a large number of hyper-competent badasses, but Budd is perhaps unique in combining both in one character. On the one hand, he’s a shuffling loser who can barely hold on to his dreadful job at the strip club where he’s routinely humiliated and forced to clean toilets. On the other, he’s the only character in the film who out-maneuvers and takes down the Bride one-on-one. The script doesn’t exactly reconcile those two halves of Budd, but Madsden puts it all together into one craggy, laconic package. He’s Wolverine as sniveling jerk; James Bond stranded with no money; action hero as dipshit.
27. Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) — Inglourious Basterds Hicox just about strangles on his own Englishness — in more ways than one, since his accent gives him away to the Germans. But for all the dry Briticisms (“If you offered me a Scotch and plain water, I could drink Scotch and plain water”) the real parody here is of film critics. Hicox is chosen as a spy because he’s an expert on German cinema — a profession that you’d think would make him the hero of such an obsessively film-referential movie as this one. But alas, his knowledge of film is not knowledge of the real thing, his accent is bad, he doesn’t know which fingers Germans hold up to signal “3”… and most of all, he’s impatient. He wants his rendezvous to move along with dramatic speed. As a result, he gets drama, and everyone dies. Critics: don’t trust them. Or at least, don’t trust them to be spies.
26. Jungle Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier) — Death Proof Characters with authority in Tarantino are almost always jerks and bullies. Julia isn’t an exception. Her success as an Austin DJ gives her glamor and authority, and she uses that to lord it over her friends, just a little. But she also clearly loves them, even if that love is at times a bit misguided (as when she tries to find Butterfly a cute guy by announcing on the radio that Butterfly will give a lap dance to a cute guy). One of Tarantino’s sweetest moments is the scene where Julia and Butterfly drunkenly nestle up against each other and Julia tells her she can bring a boy to the cabin if she wants. Julia is driven, but part of her ambition is involves caring for her friends — and if she fails at that, Stuntman Mike is to blame, not her.
25. Kim (Tracie Thoms) — Death Proof “Of course I watched Pretty in Pink. I’m a girl. But I also watched car shit too.” Kim’s a badass gearhead who outdrives, outshoots and generally beats the shit out of that old psychopath Stuntman Mike. But the film insists that doesn’t make her masculine, or somehow unwomanly. Instead, Death Proof admires her both for her friendship with women and for her stunt know-how. When Lee tells her that she could avoid trouble by not taking her laundry out at midnight, Kim responds, “I want to do my laundry whenever I want to do my laundry” — badass domesticity.
24. Perrier LaPadite (Denis Ménochet) and his daughters — Inglourious Basterds The dairy farmer LaPadite (like Shosanna) has relatively few lines, but still manages to paint a portrait of a man broken by his inability to afford his morality. We never learn what his relationship is with his Jewish neighbors the Dreyfuss’, or why he’s decided to hide them, but it is clear that they are in some sense family; betraying them is betraying himself. The opening scene here functions as a brief, devastating answer to the Spielbergian uplift of Schindler’s List with its heroic white savior defying the Nazis. For every Schindler, there were surely a hundred LaPadites who hoped to be allies, and ended up conspiring in genocide.
Padite’s daughters mostly stand off to the side quietly. They do, though, function as a threat (Landa alludes to possible consequences for them if LaPadite doesn’t play along) and as a subtle hint of why Perrier cares about the Dreyfuss family. Charlotte (Leá Seydoux) looks to be about Shosanna’s age, and seems especially resentful of Landa. She and Shosanna may well have grown up together. Perrier may be thinking about that when tears come to his eyes.
23. Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton) — Jackie Brown Ray’s “just a young guy having fun being a cop,” as Max says — and what’s wonderful about the character is that Tarantino demonstrates just how repulsive and ridiculous that description is. You can see the character watching himself be a badass, or watching himself play the oily good-cop to his partner Dargus’ more straightforward thugishness. He’s convinced he’s the star of the picture (he’s played by Michael Keaton!), which makes him both an utterly conscienceless bully and a fool.
22. Zoe Bell (Zoe Bell) — Death Proof Tarantino’s greatest moment of stunt casting is having stuntwoman Zoe Bell play stuntwoman Zoe Bell. It’s true that Bell’s acting isn’t quite up to the dazzling performances that Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thoms turn in. But as a superhero icon, there’s no arguing with her jaw-dropping work clinging to the front of that moving automobile. The murderous Stuntman Mike thinks men are tough and competent and the only ones who know about old movies. Who better to high-kick that smug smile off his face than Zoe the Cat, the concealed hero of so many films, who gets her place in the spotlight at last?
21. Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) — Reservoir Dogs We don’t exactly learn a ton about the motivations or “real” personality of Mr. Orange (aka undercover cop Freddie Newandyke) — but that’s part of the fun. Even when he’s shrieking in pain from a gunshot wound, he’s still on the job, parlaying his imminent death into a way to con Mr. White into giving up his real name. “They believe every word because you’re supercool,” he tells his reflection in the mirror, and maybe it’s that ego which keeps him on task even as he bleeds out and/or watches a cop get his ear cut off. Roth gives a virtuoso performance swinging from panicked agony to swaggering subterfuge. He’s performing the role of a performer: Mr. Orange is great not because he’s deep, but because of the mirrored surfaces. The best part of Mr. Orange, maybe, is that you don’t really know why he confesses at the end — and the fact that it’s not exactly out of character, because you don’t have enough information to know exactly who his character is.
20. Bonnie Dimmick (Venessia Valentino) — Pulp Fiction Even though she has no speaking role, Bonnie is an imposing figure. Organized crime fixer Mr. Wolf is called in specifically because Bonnie will be pissed if she returns home from her work as a night-shift nurse and discovers a car with a corpse parked in her garage. The whole set-up is sitcom farce, with Bonnie as the off-screen maternal figure who turns the macho gangster story into a ditzy feminized I Love Lucy riff. Tarantino is always highly attuned to the power of the not shown, and Bonnie’s absence turns her into a kind of hyperbolic force of nature, whose disapproval makes stone-cold killers tremble.
19. Elle Driver (Darryl Hannah) — Kill Bill 1-2 Though the title says Kill Bill, Elle Driver is easily the most entertaining arch-villainess, and possibly just the most entertaining character in the film. The set-piece where she reads an Internet description of black mamba venom to Budd while he dies of some shows Tarantino’s approach to genre: cold, clinical and eager to catalogue the sadism. Elle’s so happy about hurting people, you really feel bad for her when Bill’s code of honor (and hers) keeps her from killing the Bride in her sleep. And of course, you have to join in her satisfaction at killing that jerk Pai Mei. Someone should have poisoned his fish-heads a long time ago.
One of many Tarantino missed chances in the film is the failure to ever give Bill and Elle a scene together. Their relationship has to be something to behold. Instead we have to be satisfied with watching Hannah go into complete freakout mode when the Bride plucks out Elle’s other eye. Tarantino has threatened to include the blinded Elle in a Kill Bill 3, which seems promising.
18. The Sheriffs in the Bathroom — Reservoir Dogs One of the great recursive moments in Reservoir Dogs involves Mr. Orange telling an invented anecdote about an incident when he went into a bathroom and encountered four sheriffs and a German shepherd. The sheriffs don’t notice him because one of them is telling his own hilarious anecdote about almost shooting a civilian — and of course Mr. Orange earlier/later in the film shoots a civilian by accident. The sheriffs then both are and aren’t Orange, who both is and isn’t the good guy, and is and isn’t real. That’s a tour-de-force of characterization, even if it’s only onscreen for a minute.
17. Hitler (Martin Wuttke) — Inglourious Basterds The best part of Martin Wuttke’s whiny, ineffectual Hitler is that he’s a huge fan of violent cinema. At the film premier of Nation’s Pride, he laughs hysterically every time the onscreen Frederick Zoller kills someone. Moments thereafter, the audience of Inglorious Basterds is supposed to laugh hysterically as Hitler is shot. Hitler: He’s a laugh riot.
16. Melanie (Bridget Fonda) — Jackie Brown Ordell’s white surfer chick is all bleached-out sexuality and laid-back spite. Mel says her ambition is “to get high and watch television” — but really her ambition is to get high, watch television and be a femme fatale. She tries to seduce Louis to join her in ripping off Ordell, but he’s too loyal, and she has all the subtlety of… well, someone who is really, really stoned. That’s okay, though, because mean Mel with a grudge is even more fun to watch than wannabe-seductive Mel. The scene where she taunts Louis about losing his van is a masterpiece of schoolyard vindictiveness.
15. Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) — Pulp Fiction Mia is both a femme fatale and a manic pixie dream girl, and mixing those two together leaves behind a pulp female part that is neither a strong female character nor an obvious invidious archetype. Mia flirts with seducing Vincent, putting him in the dangerous position of sleeping with Marsellus’ wife. She gets him to dance and loosen up. And then she ODs, because she’s more interested in her own momentary hedonism than in seducing or inspiring Vincent. At the end of her sort-of date, after she’s had adrenalin plunged into her heart, she sheepishly tells a vaudeville joke. The romantic comedy ends with corny old-man humor rather than a happily ever after. Mia’s on the poster, but she dances, snorts and pratfalls her way out of the usual pulp fiction dead ends reserved for the female lead.
14. Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl) — Inglourious Basterds Frederick Zoller is a real-life war hero who plays himself in a film about his exploits. No wonder he thinks he’s in a movie. What’s unexpected is the genre: Frederick unaccountably acts as though he’s the star, not of a war movie, but of a romantic comedy. Smitten with Shoshanna’s beauty and love of cinema, he pursues her with abashed aw shucks persistence. He’s so gosh darn nice you have to feel sorry for him when Shoshanna stonewalls him.
Daniel Bruhl brilliantly sells Zoller’s fresh-faced inoffensiveness, even as that inoffensiveness starts to slide towards something darker. Zoller never stops being nice, but it’s a niceness backed up by entitlement and power. Like all those rom-com heroes, he can make Shoshanna deal with him — if not through sheer charm, then through his Nazi connections and his position as occupier. And while at times he doesn’t seem to know his own leverage, he also relies on it. A man who has killed 300 people is not sent away lightly, as he tells Shoshanna — and that’s a threat. He’s the charming good guy hero in action and romance; He expects to get the girl. And he does, in true war hero fashion, by shooting her dead.
13. Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) — Death Proof Inevitably, Tarantino’s creepiest character is also a stand-in for the director himself. Mike’s love and knowledge of old films seem inseparable from his (very sexual) sadism, and he uses the machinery of film (reinforced stunt cars; photography) to arrange for, and get off on, murder. Russell is chilling and repulsive, but also charismatic. You can see why Butterfly and Pam flirt with him, even though they can surely see that flirting with him is a bad idea. “There are few things as fetching as a bruised ego on a beautiful woman,” Mike says, and that’s clearly a statement of intent. He, like the movies, loves to hurt women. It takes women who know how movies work to wrest that narrative convention from him, and turn him into the whining, gibbering baby-man that (Tarantino suggests) has always been the ridiculous core of all those tough guy rebels.
12. Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) — Reservior Dogs Reservoir Dogs is built on a central conceit: What if the characters in mob films like The Godfather or Goodfellas were both endearingly nerdy and also vicious self-centered jerks? Mr. Pink is the best answer to that question, in large part because of Steve Buscemi’s manic performance. Whether he’s beating a helpless police officer (and hurting his hand) or holding forth on the evils of tipping the waitress, Pink attains a kind of degenerate purity through the jittery intensity of his rat-like instinct for self-preservation. That instinct gives him a contradictory perspicacity. It’s Pink who figures out that the gang has been ratted out; It’s Pink who grabs the diamonds; It’s Pink who is the only one left standing at the end. Though others succeed him — most notably Ordell — Pink remains one of the slimiest and most charming characters in Tarantino’s gallery of slimy charmers.
11. Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) — Inglourious Basterds Casting Brad Pitt here is as brilliant as casting DeNiro in Jackie Brown; the part becomes vicious self-parody. Pitt as a heroic movie star protagonist becomes the ugly American as a backwoods Nazi-hunting sadist. Pitt’s southern Appalachian accent is almost a character in the film itself (played quite possibly by John Wayne), while his plain-talking, lowbrow viciousness contrasts perfectly with Christoph Waltz’s sophisticated villainy. At the end of the film, Raine carves the swastika into Landa’s head and says it’s his masterpiece — referring both to the bloody symbol and to the film itself. Aldo is Tarantino, then, which means that Tarantino is naming himself as a stupid American thug who revels in cruelty. He (Tarantino or Aldo) is an anti-fascist fascist, a murderous yokel who demonstrates his anti-racism by insisting Nazis must be Nazis forever and branding them just as the Nazis made Jews wear a star. Aldo’s funny, and you cheer for him. As Tarantino knows, movies can make you cheer for anybody.
10. Louis Gara (Robert DeNiro) — Jackie Brown For anyone who has ever been irritated by DeNiro’s repetitive gangster tough-guy shtick, Louis Gara is both palette cleanser and revenge. It’s also a vindication for the actor, who sets aside his self-regard and turns his much-vaunted method acting toward creating an actual character. Whether he’s watching Simone dance with an expression suggesting he’s swallowed his gum, indulging in a three-minute-or-less bland fuck with Melanie or losing his van after the heist, Louis is a sweaty clump of uptight incompetence and misplaced loyalty.
The best part, perhaps, is the suggestion that Louis used to be that tough guy DeNiro always plays. “What the fuck happened to you, man? Shit, your ass used to be beautiful!” Ordell says right before killing him. Louis is Jimmy Conway from Goodfellas with too many years in prison. Time has taken him on — and the result is a self-parody which is also, and not coincidentally, DeNiro’s greatest performance on film.
9. Ordell Robbie (Samuel Jackson) — Jackie Brown Ordell Robbie is a superbad blaxploitation gun-running mother — in his own mind. He’s got the trappings: loads of money, a cool car (with the levels on the stereo set just the way he likes it), women and a criminal empire of sorts. But when he takes on Jackie Brown it all falls apart.
That’s because nobody messes with Jackie Brown, of course. But it’s also because Ordell’s badness is mostly a thin film of BS. Ordell’s ruthlessness isn’t cool or scary. It’s mostly just a willingness to take advantage of other people’s trust to shoot them in the head. The folks he kills — Beaumont and Louis — are barely functional, perpetually stoned losers who, as part of being losers, trust the obviously untrustworthy Ordell. Whenever Ordell deals with anyone with a brain, he loses. He can’t con Max into giving him an extension on Jackie’s bond — not even when he embarrassingly tries to leverage racial guilt.
Jackie Brown is a blaxploitation film of sorts, but it’s also a critique, or a parody of those films, and of the kind of masculinity they tout. Ordell listens to Johnny Cash murder ballads and swaggers around like Superfly. But he’s just a jerk, and not a very bright one at that. (“He moves his lips when he reads,” Mel sneers.) Tarantino is sometimes accused of glamorizing gangsters, and maybe sometimes he does. But Ordell doesn’t look too glamorous when he starts in on the high-pitched pleading after Jackie Brown shoves a pistol in his crotch.
8. Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) — Inglourious Basterds Shosanna is all Mélanie Laurent. Unlike almost every other character Tarantino’s ever touched, Shosanna is underwritten. She’s almost always in dialogue with Nazi officials, whom she doesn’t want to talk to. Her dialogue (which is all in French) is sparse and virtually monosyllabic.
Laurent, though, doesn’t need words. She’s a wonder, whether she’s rolling her eyes at the oblivious suitor Zoller, or breaking down into tears after fooling Colonel Landa, or telling Marcel, her cameraman, with a teasing-not-teasing intensity, that they’re going to die together killing a theater full of Nazis. The Bride and Django are forces of nature, but Shosanna isn’t. You can always see her thinking and feeling. There’s a person there, not an icon. As a result, her transformation at the end into a film demon Jew of revenge is not so much triumph as heartbreak. Hitler dead isn’t really worth Shosanna dead, and the film suggests that one of Hitler’s crimes, and the crimes of those like him, is putting Shosanna in a position where anyone believes it is.
7. Vincent Vega (John Travolta) — Pulp Fiction Every time something important happens in Pulp Fiction, Vincent Vega on or near a toilet. When the diner gets robbed, he’s in the bathroom; when Mia takes an overdose, he’s in the bathroom; when Butch shows up back at his apartment, he’s in the bathroom — which ends up meaning he never goes to the bathroom again, alas.
The toilet sums up Vincent’s brilliance as a character — not because he’s especially crappy, but because everyone goes to the bathroom. Vincent isn’t an everyman, exactly, but he is defined by that least dignified thing every man does. Vincent is smaller than life.
Tarantino is sometimes accused of glamorizing violence, and that’s fair to some extent. But unlike Scorsese or Coppola, Tarantino likes treating his gangsters like dorks. Vincent is lousy at his job, he shoots people by accident, he runs off to poop and leaves his gun behind, he takes out his bosses’ wife and she ODs on his stash. He’s a bad guy, but he’s also bad at being a bad guy — and that’s in part what makes him sympathetic and appealing.
Plus his dance moves, of course.
6. Max Cherry (Robert Forster) — Jackie Brown Max Cherry turns fuddy-duddy corn into implacable super-cool. Aging small businessmen who cheerfully admit to the self-esteem benefits of hair implants don’t usually get to be action or romantic leads, but Tarantino and Robert Forster make you wonder why not. Awkward gallantry (as when he informs Jackie that there’s nothing wrong with her 44-year-old bigger butt) comes across as charming infatuation, staid blandness transforms into unflappable grace under pressure and dreary competence becomes sly intelligence. The cops and robbers all think they’re the movie tough guys. But just old regular Max strides stiffly around them all and kicks their tails with a friendly shrug.
The best part of the character, though, is that in the end, he doesn’t quite embrace his badassness — or has to deny it to keep it, perhaps. Jackie Brown strolls into his life and shows him what he could be: the hero who listens to the Delfonics, strolls leisurely around the murderous psychopath to grab the goods and rides into the sunset with the sexiest woman on the planet by his side. He says at the end that he’s a little scared of Jackie (holding his thumb and index finger together in that fuddy-duddy way) but you have to wonder if he’s not maybe scared of himself. His particular cool and grace throughout the film come from knowing who he is, hair implants and all. What happens to that cool and grace if he takes off for adventures with Jackie Brown? He doesn’t want to find out, which is bittersweet. Still, the film makes it clear that being Max Cherry isn’t a sad fate or a sad ending — especially when you get to share one last kiss with Jackie Brown.
5. Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) — Inglourious Basterds Landa is Tarantino’s greatest villain. He’s so thoroughly chilling, in part because he utterly dispenses with that Tarantino villain (and hero) staple: macho posturing. Landa isn’t Marsellus Wallace, or Joe from Reservoir Dogs, or Ordell. He doesn’t talk tough and threaten and glower. Instead, he’s unfailingly polite — asking the nice French farmer if he minds if they switch to English, or cordially recommending the strudel to Shoshanna. And that politeness seems to conceal not ruthlessness or malice, but a song in his heart. He fairly bursts with glee when he guesses correctly the rank of Aldo’s commander and shouts, “The Bingo.” (He seems even more thrilled when Aldo explains that “it’s just Bingo.”) Or when he shouts, with seemingly unfeigned good fellowship, “Au revoir, Shosanna!” to the girl running away from him in terror because he’s killed her entire family.
What’s most disturbing about Landa is that he’s in some sense the hero of the film. His motivating passion isn’t, as it turns out, racism (which he seems to harbor only because it’s convenient), nor exactly sadism (he does strangle a woman to death, but efficiently; maybe he takes pleasure in it, but no more than in his strudel.) Rather, the core of his being is self-interest, which means that as soon as he sees an advantage in betraying the Nazis, he takes it. His dreams aren’t Nazi in particular; they’re capitalist. He wants fame, money, accolades (a Congressional medal of honor, no less). He’s become a terrifying hunter of Jews, and an accessory to genocide, because that’s how you get ahead as a Nazi. That’s the banality of evil, but Landa isn’t banal. He’s fun, funny, energetic, intelligent, dashing and joyously campy in his performance of a role in which he is too sophisticated to disbelieve. He’s the perfect pretend Nazi, which makes him the perfect Nazi. And he will, presumably, be the perfect pretend American as well — even with (or especially because of?) that swastika Aldo carves into his head.
3-4. Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) and Abernathy (Rosario Dawson) — Death Proof Death Proof is a revenge narrative constructed around two groups of female friends. The first are murdered; The second humiliate and (perhaps) kill the murderer. Part of the way this works is that the second group of women stand in for the first. The characters are mirrors, and therefore essentially avenge themselves.
Tarantino does this mirroring most directly through Arlene and Abernathy. Both characters (obviously) have names that start with “A.” Both are the first ones in their respective narratives to see Stuntman Mike stalking them. Both are the characters he most intimately interacts with. Both have boyfriends whom they’re deliberately not going all the way with. And the actresses, Ferlito and Dawson, resemble each other.
The characters’ differences are important too. Arlene is younger, or at least not as far along in her career and she seems less comfortable with herself. She has a boyfriend, but is looking for someone else — and Stuntman Mike trades on her uncertainty to flatter and bully her into giving him that lap dance. Ferlito doesn’t overplay it. Arlene isn’t miserable or broken — she’s just young, and trying to figure things out.
Abernathy is older and more accomplished. She’s got a job as a film makeup artist, and while she hasn’t been saved by a guy or anything, the ups and downs of her love life (including a briefly mentioned child) seem to cause her less angst. Dawson plays her with a riveting, incandescent poise, whether she’s negotiating the purchase of Italian Vogue, setting Lee up as collateral for the car, or delightedly beating the crap out of Stuntman Mike at the end. She can enjoy being tough and enjoy girl’s stuff, she can be a mom and enjoy stupid pranks, and look good doing all of it.
Arlene’s nickname is Butterfly, and that’s not an accident. Her character is partly about the fact that, given time, and the love of her friends, she could someday be Abernathy. Part of the joy of the film is that you see that transformation. You see her turn from someone Mike can victimize into someone who can take care of herself, and Mike too. But there’s also sadness there, because Arlene doesn’t get to be Abernathy, or someone like her. Her road ends too soon.
2. Jules Winnfield (Samuel Jackson) — Pulp Fiction Hollywood characters tend to learn life lessons and experience transformative moral change over the two to three hours you’re watching them. Tarantino’s protagonists are more realistic in their inertia. People may pick up new skills (like, learning to shoot a gun), and relationships may change (a la Marsellus and Butch), but Nazis stay Nazis, vengeful ninjas stay vengeful ninjas, and gangsters stay gangsters. Adults have mostly thought through their bad choices — they don’t change their lives because the string section starts to swell.
The one iconic exception in Tarantino’s oeuvre is Jules. Jules starts out much like one of those verbally proficient, cold-blooded killers from Reservoir Dogs, running comedy riffs while shooting people dead. (“I’m sorry. Did I break your concentration?”)
But then, everything changes. A gunman misses him and Vincent Vega at close range, and suddenly Jules re-examines his life. God, he figures improbably, has saved him. And he’s going to give up a life of crime and wander the earth like Caine on Kung Fu, having adventures and saving folks. He was the evil man from Ezekial 25:17, and now he’s saying, “I’m trying, Ringo. I’m trying real hard to be the shepherd.”
Part of what’s great about Jules’ transformation is that it doesn’t involve a character arc or Hollywood story of life-lessons learned. Even the “miracle” isn’t really a sufficient explanation. The gunner missed Vincent too, but that didn’t change his life. The choice to cease being violent and evil, the decision to be the shepherd, is an unexplained rupture. Maybe it’s a joke; Maybe it’s grace. But either way, it doesn’t make sense. Moral experience may exist for Tarantino, but it doesn’t fit into a traditional Hollywood frame.
And part of the reason it doesn’t fit into a traditional Hollywood frame is that Jules doesn’t exactly go from “bad” to “good.” His first act of virtue is letting two criminals rob a bunch of innocents without killing them, on the condition they leave him the suitcase he needs to take to his gangland boss. Jules doesn’t become a superhero who rights wrongs and helps the innocent. He chooses peace, but is that the moral choice here? Jules says he’s going through “a transitional period,” but we never find out what he transitions to. His move to nonviolence, Tarantino suggests, takes him out of pulp fiction — and out of Pulp Fiction as well.
1. Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) — Jackie Brown Furiosa, Ripley, Linda Hamilton — there are a list of badass action strong female heroes, who are lauded for blowing things up and fighting the patriarchy. But none of them are one tenth as awesome as Jackie Brown.
Over 40, black, not slender and working class: Hollywood, and for that matter feminism, don’t usually put people like that centerstage. The other characters in the film are well aware of that. Ray and Mark, the white cops, refer repeatedly to Jackie’s crappy job and her lack of options. They can get her to do what they want because she’s not the kind of person who can afford a lawyer, or convince a judge she doesn’t belong in that jail cell alongside all the other black women prisoners. She’s not a star and no one cares about her. She’s an aging black stewardess. This shouldn’t be her film.
Jackie makes it her film, though, by using the fact that it isn’t supposed to be her film. Except for Max, every other person she meets underestimates her. Ordell thinks he can take her out like Beaumont, then ends up handing over his money, and then his corpse. The cops think they can use her, and Ray ends up pacing around the interrogation room throwing up his hands and contorting his face so it looks like he’s been hit in the nose by a flounder. She tells Max she didn’t use him, and she didn’t — but she’s got to reassure him, because she’s used everyone else, and made it look easy.
Often in the movies, when you’re told that so-and-so is a super smart schemer, you have to work to suspend disbelief (I’m looking at you, American Hustle). But you don’t have to take it on faith in Jackie Brown, because Pam Grier makes you believe it. Grier has always had charisma to burn, and her 70s blaxploitation performances were game and powerful, sometimes despite, sometimes because of, her lack of polish.
Jackie Brown, though, is something else. Twenty years on, and Grier has learned to act not just better than her younger self, but better than everyone else, too. She goes through emotions with completely convincing facility: The scene where she storms into Ordell’s house wearing a jaw-dropping red dress, gives Mellie one of the most exasperated looks ever filmed, and then downshifts to bubbling acquiescence is pitch perfect. You can see why Ordell is dazzled, because who wouldn’t be dazzled? The whole film is like that, with Jackie sizing people up and then telling them what they want to hear so convincingly that you believe it too.
Grier wasn’t nominated for an Oscar, because fortysomething black women don’t get nominated for Oscars. But if the Academy (like Ordell) underestimated her, there’s not reason the rest of us have to go along. Pam Grier gave Tarantino his greatest character — and one of the great performances in American film.