As soon as I learned that the subject of this week’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” was Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997), a thought struck me: “I’m probably going to choose an image of Pam Grier being a badass.” And here we are! The above is part of a rat-a-tat-tat shot sequence, timed down to the millisecond courtesy of Tarantino’s late editor Sally Menke. Jackie scans a list of tenants and dials the number for Bridget Fonda’s Melanie, whose voice snaps out of the intercom: “What?” Jackie retorts with her own name, as if reciting a password. That sharp delivery, the way she sidles up to the intercom during this roughly two-second shot… it’s become cliché to call Tarantino’s characters “cool,” but I don’t know another word that would fit her so well.
That coolness has a special power here, too, because Jackie Brown is by far the lowest-key of Tarantino’s movies. Although he’d already aestheticized the bullshit small talk of L.A.-area criminals in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, here that inclination toward the mundane is pushed even farther. Stylized dialogue and genre movie homage—the latter represented mostly by Grier’s mere presence—take a backseat to scenes of Jackie and bail bondsman Max Cherry doing business, killing time, and awkwardly getting to know one another. This is a very autumnal story, one that’s frank as can be about the ages of its stars, so moments of intense cool like this take on a new significance.
In light of the weariness that pervades Grier’s performance, right up through that heartbreaking lip-sync to “Across 110th Street” in the final scene, shots like this come to feel like anything but movie star posturing. This is Pam Grier: genuine badass. Her image is burnt into the composition, with her matching red nails and dress balanced against the muddy blue of the intercom. The shades suggest glamour, mystery, while the glint of her gold earring and the hair flowing out toward the edge of the frame put me in mind of classical sculpture. Jackie Brown may break down the iconography of Grier’s 1970s performances, but as she leans against that intercom you can see it rising stronger than ever before, phoenix-style, from the ashes.