Sprinkled over Quentin Tarantino’s seven-and-a-quarter films (not including The Hateful Eight, for now anyway) are action heroes, caricatures and, despite his reputation, naturalistic portraits. In compiling this virtually complete ranking, my goal was to give due consideration the full range of Tarantino’s casts, from Ordell to poor Emilio the Goldfish.
The list is ranked from the worst to the best of the best. I have only included films Tarantino directed: Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Four Rooms, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill 1, Kill Bill 2, Death Proof, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained.
Without further ado, here is Part 1. You can start screaming in rage and cursing my name with inventive profanities… now.
183. Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) — Django Unchained Stephen is a familiar character. He’s in Gone With the Wind; he’s in Birth of a Nation. He’s the slave who identifies with the master, the servant who wrinkles his or her nose at the uppity black freeman who dares to woo white woman, or vote, or even just shake a white man’s hand. One of the most pernicious, and persistent neo-Confederate myths is that the slaves were happy, willing inferiors — that black people identified first, last, and always with their white families, and had only contempt for other blacks who got above their station.
Stephen is a kind of inversion of this trope in that he’s supposed to be the bad guy, not the good guy. But how much does that change things really? The fact remains that Stephen, like those good slaves, hates other blacks and identifies solely with slaveowner Calvin, whom he seems to treat as a beloved son. He loves Calvin so much that he doesn’t even see other black people as human; he is horrified that Django might sleep in a white person’s bed.
You could see this as a parable about black self-loathing or internalized racism, I guess. But the film doesn’t really treat it that way. In fact, the film doesn’t exactly treat it at all. There is no explanation of why Stephen is this way, as there is no explanation in neo-Confederate narratives. Where is Stephen’s family? Where is his mother or father, his sisters? Where are the women, or for that matter, men, who he has loved? How has he gotten to this place, where his only loyalty is to the man who owns him and hates him for the color of his skin? The only explanation we are given is Calvin’s nattering about black people’s innate servility. We’re not supposed to accept that, but then, what are we to make of Stephen?
The film offers no answers. Instead, it simply presents Stephen as a betrayer, and really as the primary villain. It’s Stephen who realizes that Django and King are perpetrating a fraud; it’s Stephen who exposes them and sets them up for ruin. It’s Stephen whose death is presented as the climax of the story.
Again, it might be possible as a way of symbolically rejecting these invidious stereotypes, leaving Uncle Tom to burn to death in the slaveowner’s house. But Stephen doesn’t feel like a symbol. He feels like a villain. Because Samuel Jackson is so talented, Stephen, in all his crotchety malice, becomes the most vivid character in the film, which ends up making things worse. The most memorable character in the film, the most living portrait is a black man, who is unaccountably evil and unaccountably servile.
Stephen is a racist trope. Tarantino does nothing to undermine that; It’s not clear he even realizes what he’s done. In an anti-racist film, to rob a black man so thoroughly of his humanity, and to replace that humanity with neo-Confederate bilge, is a massive failure.
182. Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros) — Pulp Fiction Tarantino’s most annoying female character, Fabienne, is a hapless, cutesy amalgam of sex and ineffectual domesticity. Isn’t it adorable how she asks for “oral pleasure”? Isn’t it amusing how she dithers and minces appealingly, putting her boyfriend’s life in danger? Tee hee, tee hee, vacuous women are so sexy. Thanks for the bulletin, QT.
181. Butch (Bruce Willis) — Pulp Fiction Butch is a thoroughly boring tough guy action hero, played by thoroughly boring tough guy action hero actor Bruce Willis. Butch looks stoic, purses his lips, kills people, and then purses his lips and looks stoic some more. Tarantino coaxed a career-redefining performance out of John Travolta, but all he could get from Willis was the man’s usual impersonation of a self-impressed stick. The Butch section of Pulp Fiction is some of the weakest filmmaking Tarantino ever did. Willis isn’t the only reason for that, but he’s a big one.
180. Maynard (Duane Whittaker), Zed (Peter Greene) and The Gimp (Stephen Hibbert) — Pulp Fiction The degenerate hillbilly rapists in Pulp Fiction reproduce the degenerate hillbilly rapists from Deliverance, sans that movie’s ambivalent hatred of progressive city dwellers (and with a little giggle added). Poor white trash is stupid and funny and disgusting, especially when it’s homosexual and writhing on the floor with its balls shot off.
Tarantino goes just a little further for the Gimp, brilliantly combining mockery of the mentally disabled with sniggering nervousness about S&M. Ideally the Gimp would have had a chance to beat the smug snot out of Bruce Willis, but we’re not even given that pleasure. Instead, we’re supposed to cheer when hearty hetero Butch smashes the debased non-human queer thing in the head. Yay.
179. B.B. (Perla Haney-Jardine) — Kill Bill 2 How about that: It’s a cutesy kid symbolizing purity and redemption through maternal love. B.B. is both grating and incoherent; she’s supposed to be happy and riding off into the sunset with her mom, but, you know, the only parent she’s ever had in her four years is dead, and she doesn’t know the Bride from Shogun Assassin. It’s not Perla Haney-Jardine’s fault, but saccharine dreams of childhood and mother’s love appear to have overwhelmed Tarantino’s cynicism, and even his brain. The results are not pretty.
178. Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington) — Django Unchained Broomhilda is primarily there to look pretty and be rescued. Along the way, she trembles in fear, faints, and, in an egregious scene at the end, claps like a little girl for Django after he blows up Candie’s big house. Kerry Washington has shown herself a capable actress in other settings, but here she has nothing to work with. She’s just a prize and an audience for the hero. For someone like Tarantino who has written so many great roles for women of color, this is an embarrassment.
177. Rodney (Sammi Rotibi) — Django Unchained Rodney is one of the Mandingo fighters, and his main function in the film is to look at Django. While going to Candyland, with Django pretending to be a slaver, Rodney glares at him, obviously feeling he’s a betrayer, and Django (in character) sneers and threatens him. Later, Rodney sees Django get free, kill the mining employees and ride off with guns and dynamite.
At this point, we get what may be the single worst shot in any Quentin Tarantino film. There’s a close-up of Rodney gazing admiringly at Django, starting to smile. That would be bad enough… but then Tarantino cuts back to him again to show Rodney nodding to himself. Just in case someone, somewhere missed the cutesy point. Spielberg himself couldn’t have been more clumsy or smug. Django’s a hero! He inspires the downtrodden! Look upon him and feel the Hollywood uplift.
176. Leo (Bruce Willis) — Four Rooms Leo curses out his unseen wife and then throws furniture around. There’s not much to the role, but Willis, even unpaid and uncredited, still manages to seem inordinately pleased with himself.
175. Esteban Vihaio (Michael Parks) and His Girls — Kill Bill 2
Vihaio, the slow-talking, gallant, queasily insinuating pimp, manages to be genuinely unsettling without doing anything overtly awful. To see how Tarantino manages that, it’s instructive to contrast the prostitutes in Esteban’s bar with the dancers where Budd works. The latter speak, hob-nob with management, and generally seem, not exactly healthy and happy (what with the coke snorting) but at least sentient. The former, on the other hand, don’t speak. The one woman we see close up has a facial deformity. They’re silent, other, threatened and vaguely threatening. The difference, pretty clearly, is that the women in Budd’s workplace are white, and the women in Esteban’s are Latina women of color. Tarantino is leveraging stigma against sex workers, and against people of color, to create an ominous atmosphere of exploitation and danger.
174. Angela (Jennifer Beals) — Four Rooms In Alexandre Rockwell’s section of Four Rooms, Angela is a vertiginous cross between a femme fatale and an Edward Albee heroine, all absurdist castration and vicious one-liners (at least when she’s not gagged.) Tarantino picks the character up, and… does nothing with her. She just wanders around in the background, wishing she could get back to that other room, over there, with that other director who gave her something to do.
173. Cora (Dana Gourrier), Sheba (Nichole Galicia), Betina (Miriam F. Glover), Little Jody (Sharon Pierre-Louis) Coco (Danielle Watts) — Django Unchained Black women in Django don’t get to do too much. That’s most obvious with the female lead Broomhilda, but it extends to bit parts as well. Betina, a slave on Big Daddy’s plantation, follows Django’s orders and looks confused and dumb; Little Jody, whom he rescues from a whipping, just stares at him in admiration. Cora, the cook at Candyland, again just follows Django’s orders, and even acts as a kind of ventriloquist’s dummy in her biggest scene, when he tells her to say goodbye to her mistress before Django shoots Lara Lee. Sheba, Calvin’s mistress, gets to languidly flirt with him for a line or two but otherwise mostly functions as eye candy. Coco is a simpering embodiment of Candy’s francophile fetish; she wears a French maid costume and giggles out bad French, with never a side-eye to the audience to suggest that somewhere in there is an actual person who exists for herself, not for Candie’s pleasure.
172. Hattori Hanso (Sonny Chiba) — Kill Bill 1 An amalgam of tired ethnic stereotypes, Hattori Hanso alternates between tormented-Japanese-craftsman and warm fuzzy restaurant proprietor ethnic slapstick. The joke is that Chiba has played these characters before… but it still feels more like derivative retread than witty homage.
171. Imprisoned Slaves Set Free — Django Unchained Django opens with King Schultz freeing Django and other members of a chain gang. Schultz then suggests that the former slaves kill their slave driver. The quick early rush of revenge is enjoyable enough — but the way in which the slaves hang on Schultz’s words, and seem to require his direction, is off. What kind of freedom is it, anyway, where the white guy has to tell you what to do?
170. Chester (Quentin Tarantino) — Four Rooms Tarantino plays a rich bored asshole… which is maybe just a tad too close to home. His boorishness is supposed to be funny, but for the most part, it’s just a bore.
169. Winston (Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister) — Jackie Brown “I don’t have to know what I’m doing just as long as you know,” Winston tells his bail bond boss Max Cherry. He’s the loyal black sidekick to the white hero. Not Jackie Brown’s best moment.
168. Tokyo Business Man (Yoshiyuki Morishita) — Kill Bill 1 Buck-toothed Japanese businessman stereotype who gets offed for expressing interest in Gogo (in schoolgirl outfit). Ho hum.
167. Bald Guy (Kenji Oba) — Kill Bill 1 Like Hattori Hanso, the Bald Guy’s cute ethnic antics are supposed to be funny. He’s less annoying than Hanso, though, because he’s onscreen less.
166. Boss Matsumoto — Kill Bill 1 Animated, monstrous bad-guy pedophile. Maybe I just read too many comics, but I don’t really need to see this particular villain archetype ever again.
165. Karen (Helen Kim) — Kill Bill 2 The assassin who lets the Bride go when she discovers she’s pregnant. “Congratulations,” she says awkwardly as she leaves. So yeah, Karen is basically a sitcom-worthy gag. She could be a character in a Charlie’s Angels sequel.
164. Pai Mei (Gordon Liu) — Kill Bill 2 Pai Mei is Tarantino’s hyperbolic riff on the tough, irascible kung fu master. It’s certainly funny in bits; You can’t help but giggle the fifth or sixth time he strokes that long white beard. But ultimately the tone isn’t quite right — both too arch and too naturalistic. In The Naked Gun, the gag might have worked, but this film is too close to treating the Bride like a real person. Watching Pai Mei be a misogynist prick to her ends up feeling abusive, and all the more so since she ends up venerating him. At least you get to see him die in humiliating agony when Elle poisons his fish heads. That’s something.
163. Emilio the Goldfish — Kill Bill 2 B.B. steps on her pet fish and it teaches her about death. If we actually saw the fish die, this might have more of a bite. We only hear about it in anecdotally, though, and so it just comes off as precious.
162. Bill (David Carradine) — Kill Bill 1-2 It’s hard to quite know where to put Bill. David Carradine infuses the character with oodles of dry menace, and there are some great lines, both evil (like when he tells the Bride he’s murdering her out of masochism) and goofy (his lengthy monologue about how Clark Kent is Superman’s satire on humanity.) But the last hour or so of 2 is kind of unforgivable. Tarantino has him just talk and talk and talk and then talk some more, to no purpose or interest. The evil genius is just a blowhard, which is maybe a clever meta-comment about Tarantino himself, but still isn’t much fun to watch. Ultimately, the disappointment outweighs the good bits. This is probably Tarantino’s least effective bad guy.
161. Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) — Django Unchained In slavery narratives on film, it’s apparently almost impossible to avoid throwing in a white savior.
In most respects that matter, this is Schultz’s film. He rescues Django, he teaches him to be a bounty hunter, he concocts the plan to rescue Djangos’s wife, he gets to kill the big bad guy, Candy. And even though Candy dies, it’s his skills which Django uses to finally take his revenge (a fact emphasized in a late flashback to his training). Django is presented as one “nigger in ten thousand”, but really, the remarkable, awesome superhero in the film is Schultz. If Django is special, it’s because Schultz made him so.
And why did Schultz make him so? Because the German bounty hunter — who kills people for a living — finds slavery morally repugnant. His murderous profession, it turns out, is just a way to show him as one of those lovable Hollywood bad boys. Shooting men and taking their corpses to the law for payment is just his version of Han Solo’s smuggling. Underneath it all, he has the shooting ability of 10 because his soul is pure. In one particularly overheated scene, he demands that a slaver stop playing Beethoven on the harp because he can’t stand to hear the music defiled. The magic in Schultz’s gun is mirrored by the magic in his heart; He is the complete superhero package of violence and goodness.
Christoph Waltz is an enormously charismatic actor: He sells that scene with the stupid harp, and the whole white savior package, as well as both of those things can be sold. But with all his skill, he can’t change the fact that this what we’ve got here is a treacly Hollywood paragon.
160. Holdaway (Randy Brooks) — Reservoir Dogs Randy Brooks gets to play the role of director, prepping Orange for his undercover work with a complete script (four whole pages to memorize) just as Tarantino is directing Orange for his role as an undercover operative. “Pretend you’re Don Rickles or some-fucking-body” is a killer line — but ultimately Tarantino doesn’t do enough with the part to make the director metaphor resonate, or to give Holdaway a real personality beyond default cleverness and profanity. As a result, Holdaway ends up treading dangerously close to magical black person stereotype. In a film that includes a lot of gratuitously racist dialogue, the failure to do more with the one black character is not a good look.
159. Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) — Death Proof The ditzy pretty girl is the weak link in Death Proof’s otherwise superb cast of characters. Winstead does her best to give Lee some appeal and backbone, like when she lays down the law to Abernathy about how they’re going to divvy up Italian Vogue. But the script remorselessly turns Lee into a punchline, emphasizing her stupidity and her friends’ contempt for her. Having Abernathy set her up to be alone with a gross guy, and making a joke of her potential sexual assault is a jarring contradiction to Death Proof’s themes of female friendship and male castration. It’s a sequence that feels like it wandered in from another Tarantino film — and while it might have worked there, it does not here.
158. Billingsley Sales Girl #2 (Tangie Ambrose) — Jackie Brown Jackie Brown is more naturalistic and less cartoonish than Tarantino’s earlier films. Among other things, that means that bit players like the second Billingsley salesgirl don’t have even minimally punchy dialogue.
157. O-Ren’s Father and Mother — Kill Bill 1 Seen only in the animated sequence, the dad fights valiantly, the mom just gets axed. Standard-issue revenge traumatic backstory, though the visuals are very stylish.
156. The Dreyfuss’ — Inglourious Basterds You don’t even really see the Dreyfuss’. They just cower under the floorboards, and then get shot.
155. English Bob/Paul (Paul Calderone) — Pulp Fiction Calderone was almost cast for the part of Jules. Instead he got this completely forgettable role as Marsellus Wallace’s bartender. Sometimes, that’s just the way it goes.
154. Old French Veterinarian (André Penvern) — Inglourious Basterds Penvern has a long, dolorous face, appropriate for being rousted out of bed in the middle of the night to dig bullets out of a superspy movie star’s leg.
153. Sheriff Gus (Lee Horsley) — Django Unchained A lawman, who is basically the only person friendly with Schultz and Django.
152. Miscellaneous Basterds — Inglourious Basterds Jewish-American heavies who stand around, laugh at Aldo’s jokes and kill Nazis. Not necessarily in that order.
151. Lanna Frank (Monica Staggs) — Death Proof She brings weed. She dies horribly in the car crash. Lanna, we hardly knew you.
150. Trackers — Django Unchained There are a bunch of mysterious masked trackers who catch D'Artagnan. One of them is stuntwoman Zoë Bell… there was supposed to be some sort of fight scene, which never got shot, apparently. Oh well.
149. Bartender (Ellis Williams) — Jackie Brown Another character whose sole function is to briefly point out that Jackie Brown/Pam Grier is awesome. Actually, I’m okay with that.
148. Coffee Shop Manager (Robert Ruth) — Pulp Fiction Another random civilian threatened at gunpoint. Robert Ruth does a good job of seeming like he really, really doesn’t want to be there.
147. Leonide Moguy (Dennis Christopher) — Django Unchained Calvin Candie’s lawyer. He gets a fair bit of screen time, but mostly just nods yes to whatever Candie says. The lack of interest displayed here probably isn’t Dennis Christopher’s fault; Tarantino’s flair for bit characters seems to have largely deserted him in Django.
146. Edgar McGraw (James Parks) — Kill Bill 1, Death Proof Deputy of Earl McGraw, basically just there for the “son number one” joke in Kill Bill 1, and for the reprise of that joke in Death Proof.
145. U.S. Marshall Gill Tatum (Tom Wopat) — Django Unchained Just your typical authority figure, enforcing law and order and looking slightly foolish when foxed by the murderous (but legal!) shenanigans of King Schultz.
144. Cpl. Wilhelm Wicki (Gedeon Burkhard) — Inglourious Basterds An Austrian Jew who fled to America and then joined the Basterds. It’s an interesting backstory, but he doesn’t do much except translate for Aldo when he’s threatening the Nazis (though he does that with relish, it’s true).
143. Gaspar (Buddy Joe Hooker) — Inglourious Basterds He’s the poor film developer Shosanna and her projectionist/lover Marcel force to develop their anti-Nazi footage. Back in the old days, Tarantino seems to be saying, those old filmmakers had it rough.
142. Norman (Paul Calderone) — Four Rooms After his small, negligible role in Pulp Fiction, Paul Calderone got this slightly less small, slightly less negligible role as the dude in Four Rooms who gets his finger cut off. He screams impressively.
141. Butch Pooch (James Remar) — Django Unchained Calvin Candy’s bodyguard is a standard-issue heavy who gets dispatched in the standard way. The only notable thing about him is his mustache. Still, he remains the best Tarantino character named “Butch.”
140. Ernie (Clark Middleton) — Kill Bill 2 The notable thing about Ernie is that even though he helps Budd dig the Bride’s grave, she doesn’t kill him afterwards. He may be the one person who does her wrong who is still left breathing at the end of the film.
139. Jasper (Jonathan Loughran) — Death Proof Loughran does another riff on his beefy, creepy assaulter from Kill Bill. His hearty, brain-dead chuckle is entertaining, but the shtick is maybe a little tired at this point.
138. Miscellaneous Slavers for Canon Fodder — Django Unchained Django Unchained features a lot of sadistic, uncouth, profanity-spewing slavers whose main function is to do and say evil things so you can really enjoy watching them get shot by King and/or Django. The Speck brothers, the Brittle brothers, Mr. Stonesipher and his brutal gang of slave catchers — and most prominently, Walton Goggins as Billy Crash — all blur into a single bloody excuse for revenge. In Inglorious Basterds, the various Nazi antagonists are granted individuality, courage and pathos. That doesn’t happen here. As a result, the characters end up being repetitive and a bit dull.