(Every month, we at The Spool select a Filmmaker of the Month, honoring the life and works of influential auteurs with a singular voice, for good or ill. Given that July sees the release of Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, the ninth film from Quentin Tarantino, we’re exploring the filmography of one of 20th-century cinema’s most breathlessly referential directors. Read the rest of our Filmmaker of the Month coverage of Tarantino here.)
Quentin Tarantino’s oeuvre and his impact on pop culture is well-trod ground at this point, but it feels that only lately has some of the sheen come off his golden boy status. The snappy dialogue, stylized violence, and genre homages he’s known for are still beloved, but the criticism against him is becoming a lot more nuanced and more mainstream.
His obsession with the n-word is finally being openly questioned if not outright condemned. His pathetic response to the Weinstein scandal shone a light on his mistreatment of Uma Thurman on set. (Though if we’re being frank, I don’t think the Weinstein backlash hit him hard enough, considering how long he’s known about it.)
All of this casts a different light on his second picture, one of the only he didn’t direct himself, True Romance. The film is a true Tarantino movie, from the wit to the violence to the sexualization. Unfortunately, it also epitomizes all of Tarantino’s worst tendencies, with little of his brilliance.
The plot of True Romance reads like a 14-year-old boy’s horndog fanfic. A comic book clerk (of course) and a massive kung fu fan (why not) shockingly not named Quentin but instead named Clarence (Christian Slater) meets call girl Alabama (Patricia Arquette) who immediately falls in love with him (sure). The duo quickly wed, but Clarence decides in order to stake his claim on his new bride, he needs to kill her former pimp (Gary Oldman). The decision sets the pair off on a Badlands-style crime spree that eventually involves mob kingpin Vincenzo Coccotti (Christopher Walken) and a road trip to LA.
There’s plenty of blood, sex, and quips to keep things moving at a clip. But within the first 20 minutes, we’re already served up a buffet of Tarantino’s shittiest impulses: homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexism, and even a sprinkling of moralistic sex-negativity for good measure.
The plot of True Romance reads like a 14-year-old boy’s horndog fanfic.
While some of this is clearly just a reflection of the attitudes of the times, there’s so much of it and it’s so blatant (while also irrelevant to the plot) that it’s not worth forgiving. In fact, for a main character, there’s shockingly little to know about Alabama. This is only two years after blockbuster Thelma and Louise so it’s clearly possible to make a rip-roaring crime movie where women actually have personalities, which makes me wonder why Tarantino thought he didn’t need to bother.
Because that’s True Romance’s greatest failing: Alabama is nothing but a husk. Clarence is Narcissus and Alabama is his reflection, and that’s the only reason he has to love her. She likes what he likes and she asks nothing of him while committing herself to him completely. She forgives him all his worst flaws and most grievous mistakes, celebrating the murder of her pimp as “romantic.”
Who Alabama is never matters; all that matters is what she wants and what she wants is Clarence, end of story. As for Clarence, his character is merely a stand-in for every nerdy boy dying for a hot chick to fall for him. Hell, the main theme in the score is a track titled, “You’re So Cool”—a line Alabama admits to thinking about Clarence on repeat in the film’s ending narration.
Director Tony Scott handles the material well enough for what it is. After all, his track record includes action blockbusters Top Gun and The Last Boy Scout. His style lacks Tarantino’s typical over-the-top effect though, which makes me wonder if that’s the real reason the seams in this script show quite so much. There’s less texture to distract you from the text here, and the text leaves a whole hell of a lot to be desired.
That’s not to say there’s nothing fun or remotely redeeming about True Romance. It’s peppered with so many stars it’s practically a Where’s Waldo? of ‘90s celebrities. Val Kilmer’s faceless performance as a figment of Clarence’s imagination and Brad Pitt’s turn as a hardcore stoner are definite standouts.
And Tarantino clearly grows from here. This was his chance to write himself into a fantasy and watch it come to life and he took it, for better or worse. The farther Tarantino gets from himself, the better his work becomes. But watching True Romance in the context of his larger body of work is still incredibly revealing.
Tarantino never really shakes off some of the shallower urges we see here. He never lets go of his love of the n-word. His female characters grow far more complex, but many of them still can’t shake off his over-sexualization. There’s a reason his movies wallpaper the dorm rooms of college boys.
In a lot of ways, despite the grander aspirations of his later work (and I whole-heartedly consider Inglourious Basterds a masterpiece), his films can feel made to be loved by people that just want to be cool. And that’s all True Romance really has to offer—a chance for a very specific kind of boy to watch a very specific kind of power fantasy. It’s a juvenile jaunt that’s just not worth going out of your way to take.