Tarantino dropped out of high school in the 80’s to work a number of jobs that would later help him become a successful movie director, including being a video store clerk, which allowed him to really expand his love for film. On the suggestion of a friend, he wrote and directed his first film in 1987. That film, My Best Friend’s Birthday was almost completely lost during a fire. In 1992, he directed Reservoir Dogs, which opened at Sundance to critical and popular praise. Next, his script for True Romance was selected to become a film in 1993. Even though Tarantino didn’t direct that film, the script allowed for many of his trademarks. Quickly becoming a hot commodity, Tarantino rejected several offers to direct big-budget films, and instead focused on Pulp Fiction, which was released in 1994. That film was Tarantino’s first big hit and was very well received by critics. It also provided him with his first Best Director Oscar nomination. The next feature film he directed was Jackie Brown (1997), which was also a critical and commercial success, although not to the degree of his previous films.
Next, he directed Kill Bill, which was released in two parts, released in 2003 and 2004 respectively. Overall, Kill Bill was another hit with both audiences and critics. Tarantino collaborates frequently with Robert Rodriguez including writing and acting in From Dusk Till Dawn. One such collaboration was Grindhouse, which found both Tarantino and Rodriguez directing. That film, released in 2007, received positive reviews, but wasn’t popular with audiences. Next, Tarantino directed Inglorious Basterds in 2009, which was a project that he had began earlier in the decade. That film was well received by critics and audiences, and earned Tarantino his second Best Director Oscar nomination. In 2012, he released Django Unchained, which was commercially and critically successful. His latest film is The Hateful Eight, which releases to theaters this month.
So the question posed is, if you are watching a Quentin Tarantino film and you don’t know it, what are the things to look for that would identify it as such? Here are five of Tarantino’s trademarks as director, in no particular order:
Tarantino once said “Violence is one of the most fun things to watch,” and his films echo this sentiment perfectly. Tarantino’s films are blood-soaked, feeding off of our dark desires for mayhem and destruction. To go along with this, they are also profanity-laden. For a look at just how much violence and swearing Tarantino puts in his films, check out this link. All of his films depict gratuitous acts of violence, sometimes artistic/cartoonish (such as in Kill Bill) and at other times more realistic (Reservoir Dogs). With so much violence, guns and blades play an important role in Tarantino’s films. There is rarely a major character who doesn’t have a gun or blade, and, more importantly, isn’t afraid of using it. Violence, and the death resulting from it, are the primary methods by which Tarantino progresses his films forwards. Typically, the climax features a lot of violence and a lot of death. Tarantino is so fascinated with violence that he borrows violent characteristics from different genres and blends them all together. Kill Bill is a modern revenge story, but features many sword fights and hand-to-hand combat that you might associate with a kung-fu film. Jackie Brown is a homage to Blaxploitation films, and is a gritty crime drama. Grindhouse is a celebration of 70’s camp movies and their often ridiculous amount of violence. Tarantino loves westerns, and elements of them can be seen in all his films besides Django Unchained, which is itself a western. For example, most of Tarantino’s films feature a mexican standoff at some point, most famously in the climax of Reservoir Dogs.
Extended Dialogue Scenes
Tarantino’s films’ don’t consist entirely of blood and gore. About 75% of his films are dialogue. It is through the dialogue, not actions, which Tarantino introduces his audience to characters and explains his settings and plots. He uses dialogue to set up the violence, not unlike a game of chess, positioning all the pieces before making a move. The topics of his dialogue scenes can vary, and don’t always have to do with the plot of the film except for helping to explain the way a character is or how they think. For example, the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs features a conversation that turns into an argument about tipping a waitress. The cause of the argument is Mr. Pink, and the result is we learn that he is a smart alec and has strong opinions that aren’t easily persuaded (of note: Tarantino later ironically casts Steve Buscemi as a waiter in Pulp Fiction). The Jack Rabbit Slims Restaurant scene in Pulp Fiction serves a similar purpose; seemingly normal and unrelated banter yields important clues about the characters. It’s common for these dialogue scenes to take place in a car (or carriage, in the case of Django Unchained), with the characters traveling. One typical Tarantino dialogue scene occurs in Jackie Brown when Louis and Ordell are in the van, and Louis is trying to explain what just happened. Tarantino likes to have one character explain to another their perspective of what the audience just witnessed. Finally, Tarantino sets up his films so that dialogue scenes are often between enemies, and a majority of the time one or both parties are disguised to the other party or the audience. The disguises hide the character’s true motives, such that it is through the dialogue that Tarantino reveals their true nature. Most of the time, this makes the audience hate the antagonist such that the conflict during the conversation continues to build before boiling over into a violent climax. The final dialogue scene in Kill Bill Volume 2 between Beatrix and Bill is a good example. This is the end of Beatrix’s journey, and she wants closure. Although the audience knows what he did, we never see exactly how sinister he is until that dialogue, which results in a final showdown. The bar scene in Inglourious Basterds is also a great example, with a slip up by one character that gives away his disguise and leads to a shootout.
A majority of Tarantino’s films don’t take place in chronological order. Instead, he uses flashbacks to explain a character or their motive. There are also moments when Tarantino will jump forward in time to an important event. This can, understandably, create a lot of confusion. One way that Tarantino organizes his storytelling is with title cards. These are words that flash on screen to explain a location, movie segment, or even characters themselves. In Pulp Fiction, the title cards show the segments of the film that are broken out into chapters starting with “Prologue – The Diner” and ending with “Epilogue – The Diner”. These chapters are not presented in chronological order, so having the cards to explain the break between one point in time with another helps make the complicated storytelling slightly easier on the audience. Both Kill Bill films and Inglourious Basterds are also broken into chapters, with cards introducing each scene in the film and a meaningful title. In Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino uses title cards to show the names of the characters as they are more thoroughly introduced to the audience. Title cards are also used to help explain the setting, such as the year in Django Unchained.
Atypical Use of Music
Music is an important part of all of Tarantino’s films. Tarantino uses music often to create a mood or tone in his films, but he relies on it much more than is typical for a director. Tarantino has an eye for picking atypical songs to use for his films rather than relying on a lot of original compositions. He selection of music puts more emphasis on the tone and emotion of the song than how well it goes with the story or setting of the film. This juxtaposition is attention-grabbing due to the choice being unexpected, and gives the films an in-your-face attitude. Furthermore, repetition of music theme and melody is rare. This gives the films a varied texture that evolves from scene to scene. During the disturbing torture scene in Reservoir Dogs, he uses “Stuck in the Middle With You”, which is a more upbeat happy song. In Django Unchained, Tarantino uses hip hop songs to create a rebellious tone, rather than using songs that would fit into the film’s early 19th century setting. In Inglorious Basterds, a character’s preparation for revenge is set against a blaring “Cat People”, which again doesn’t fit into the film’s WWII setting. And music isn’t the only auditory influence Tarantino uses to make a point. Consider the siren cue in Kill Bill signalling Beatrix’s identification of one of her enemies. Or even Elle Driver’s whistling of the theme song from Twisted Nerve.
Tarantino’s Shared Universe(s)
Tarantino has claimed that the films he has either helped write or direct occupy two different shared universes. One shared universe is more “realistic”, featuring an alternate reality from our own. This universe includes films such as Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. The other is more “fantasy”, with the films being more comic or artistic, such as Kill Bill or From Dusk Till Dawn.
While this is the “official” explanation from the mouth of Tarantino himself, there are theories that all of his films are part of the same universe. The reason for this theory is that all of his films feature easter eggs that are hints towards names, places, or events in other films. In Kill Bill Volume 2, Beatrix is buried alive in a grave marked for Paula Schultz, which is the wife of Dr. King Schultz from Django Unchained. In Reservoir Dogs, one of the only characters who has their full name revealed is Mr. Blonde, aka Vic Vega. The reason for the name reveal is to show a connection to Pulp Fiction, which features his brother, Vincent Vega as a main character. Also in Reservoir Dogs, Mr. White mentions a call girl named Alabama, the same character featured in True Romance. In that film, the characters try to sell drugs to a character named Lee Donowitz, who, it turns out, is the son of Sgt. Donny Donowitz, aka “The Bear Jew” in Inglorious Basterds. Earl and his son Edgar McGraw are two recurring characters who play sheriffs. Earl is first seen in From Dusk Till Dawn, where he is shot by the Gecko brothers. In Kill Bill Volume 1, both Earl and Edgar arrive to investigate the murder at the chapel. In the Grindhouse films, Edgar plays a major role in both films, and Earl appears in Death Proof.
Note that the only film that may not fit into Tarantino’s universe(s) is Jackie Brown, as that film is based on a novel, and is not an original creation by Tarantino like everything else. More proof that all of Tarantino’s films are all set in the same universe stems from his hatred of product placement. Instead of using name-brand products for his characters to interact with, Tarantino has created his own brands or kept many things generic. These fake brands, such as Apple Cigarettes, are featured in more than one film, in both the “Realistic” and “Fantasy” realms, suggesting that they are actually one and the same. The same is true for the fictional fast food restaurant “Big Kahuna Burger”, which is referenced in Reservoir Dogs, Death Proof, Pulp Fiction, and From Dusk Till Dawn.
In addition to the inconsistencies of the Earl McGraw character, another thing that supports Tarantino’s claims of two separate universes is his use of tongue-in-cheek connections between films. He uses these connections to reference what has or will happen in another film, but also sets them aside as “real” or “unreal”. In Pulp Fiction, Wallace’s wife (played by Uma Thurman) explains a TV show she worked on, which is actually Kill Bill. It would be possible that this TV show she references could be based on real events, but that is never confirmed.
Check out our last installment of Directors’ Trademarks: