Selected filmography: Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003), Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004), Death Proof (2007), Inglourious Basterds (2009)
It's not that (fictional) crime stopped paying—for Quentin Tarantino, crime just wasn't enough anymore. As the new millennium rolled around, the critically acclaimed, aggressively unconventional filmmaker took a break from writing and directing movies about gangsters, thieves, and other varieties of law-breaking deviants.
A lifelong enthusiast of all things genre, the one-time video store clerk approached the aughts with the giddiness of a teenage boy sneaking into a sticky Times Square movie theatre during the 1970s to watch crackly film prints play exploitation films with titles like Black Mama, White Mama, Black Belly of the Tarantula, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, and Ms. 45.
No influences were left un-mined. No filters were applied. With the confidence expected from the man who'd already changed the game with movies like Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), Tarantino let his highly decorated freak flag fly with four risky, gory, immensely entertaining exercises in excess: Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003), Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004), Death Proof (2007), and Inglourious Basterds (2009). The results were unlike anything made by any other filmmakers in the 2000s—well, save for the litany of Tarantino copycats who, whether they realize it or not, have only made us appreciate the real deal even more.
The genre fanboys and girls weren't the only ones excited. Throughout the 2000s, just like he did in the decade prior, Tarantino blurred the usually bolded line between highbrow critical accolades and lowbrow violence, profanity, and over-the-top stylizations. Except that, when Tarantino characters slice people's heads off or play Home Run Derby with Nazis' heads using wooden baseball bats, there's an artfulness to the carnage, as well as constant hat-tips to the filmmakers who've come before him. What other Academy Award-winning director can get away with randomly inserting composer Ennio Morricone's "Paranoia Prima"—originally made for Italian horror icon Dario Argento's 1971 murder flick The Cat o' Nine Tails—into one of his motion pictures?
Whereas lesser genre directors revel in the sadism, he makes the sadism sizzle. His musical choices are often in stark contrast to what's happening on screen—in Death Proof (released as part of the ambitious and sadly misunderstood Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez-overseen, nostalgic double feature Grindhouse), when the homicidal Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) murders four innocent, fun-loving women by driving over their car with his, the girls are rocking out to Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich's bubbly foot-stomper "Hold Tight!" What you're seeing on screen is horrific, but the vibe is just so damn vibrant. Head-nods alternate with cringes, which then alternate with wide-eyed awe at Tarantino's directorial prowess.
Death Proof often catches flack for being Tarantino's weakest film—a claim that, while true, has kept too many from seeing its many inspired moments of technical excellence, like the climax, a long, incredibly staged chase with real cars smashing into real cars on real highways. Yet, despite Death Proof's widespread downgrading, the aforementioned car crash sequence stands as one of the filmmaker's crowning achievements.
In Tarantino's universe, the more heightened the mayhem, the bigger the thrills. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is his wildest and most unruly film to date. Amongst other insanity, there's a hard-R-rated anime section; an extended scene of choreographed kung-fu presented in black-and-white triggered by The Bride (Uma Thurman) yanking a foe's eyeball out of its socket; and the repeated, consistently electrifying use of the siren horns from Quincy Jones' Ironside theme music whenever The Bride sees one her must-kill targets. As a whole, the first Kill Bill feels like all of Tarantino's favorite '70s-era genre movies stuffed into a blender that overflows, spills its contents all over the screen, and somehow leaves those it reaches with a rich, intoxicating aftertaste.
But with Kill Bill: Vol. 2, Tarantino flipped the script, showing off his creative diversity by scaling back the first movie's nihilism in favor of quiet moments about death and retribution. It's hard not to think of Kill Bill: Vol. 2 without replaying The Bride's trailer-home smackdown with Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), but that outburst of violence pales in comparison to the scene where The Bride is buried alive inside a casket, way beneath the ground, under many feet of heavy dirt. Turning the screen pitch-black, Tarantino conveys her desperation through stillness. For sheer superficial kicks, The Bride's one-versus-many fight against the Crazy 88 at the end of Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is tough to beat, yet there's a reason why many critics have hailed Vol. 2's living burial scene as the Kill Bill saga's high point. Even when he dials his recklessness back, Tarantino is a master of breathtaking tension.
Which he's just as apt to do with words, of course, not just visual and sonic assaults. After all, we are talking about the film community's reigning king of dialogue. Inglourious Basterds—a box office juggernaut that earned $321 million—has its memorable moments of brutality: Donnie "The Bear Jew" Donowitz's (Eli Roth) head-bashing introduction, the cathartic image of Jew-in-hiding Shosanna (Melanie Laurent)'s face blown up on the fire-ravaged movie theater's big screen as the Basterds fire bullets into the bodies of high-ranking Nazi leaders, namely Adolf Hitler (played by Martin Wuttke). But those scenes are more badass than truly heart-pounding. Tarantino saves the film's best nail-biters for scenes where there's hardly, if any, action.
All that SS Colonel Hans Landa (Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz, giving one of the decade's best performances) needs to do to makes viewers' knuckles white is compliment a French dairy farmer about his "delicious milk," or compare Jews to rats, or, in a later scene, recommend his favorite kind of strudel to a frightened Shosanna during a casual brunch. For undercover Basterd Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger) and his British associate Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), their participation in one of Tarantino's greatest scenes of sustained, dialogue driven intensity derives from a silly game where they have to guess the famous names on cards stuck to other players' foreheads.
The final shot of Inglourious Basterds finds Basterds leader Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) carving a swastika into Hans Landa's forehead, commenting to his colleague Smithson Utivich (B.J. Novak), "I think this just might be my masterpiece." It doesn't take a genius to see this as Tarantino's indirect way of declaring Inglourious Basterds his masterpiece, an opinion that we're not about to argue with. It's his most fully realized film, because it's totally fueled by the power of movies.
As the story goes, Tarantino initially planned to make Inglourious Basterds before Kill Bill: Vol. 1, but pushed his WWII epic to the side in order to fine-tune its far-reaching screenplay. That he ultimately ended the aughts by finally releasing Basterds, his then-11-years-in-the-making passion project, is fitting. He spent the first seven years of the 2000s elevating genre filmmaking to new heights, before ending the decade with a true masterwork. —Matt Barone