True Romance (1993)
October 28, 2015 8:01 PM - Subscribe

Clarence Worley watches a Sonny Chiba triple feature at a Detroit movie theater on his birthday where he meets Alabama Whitman. They go to a diner and fall in love. She confesses that she is a call girl hired by Clarence's boss as his birthday present. An apparition of Elvis Presley tells Clarence that killing her pimp will make the world a better place.

The all-star cast:
Christian Slater as Clarence Worley
Patricia Arquette as Alabama Whitman
Michael Rapaport as Dick Ritchie
Bronson Pinchot as Elliot Blitzer
Saul Rubinek as Lee Donowitz
Dennis Hopper as Clifford Worley
James Gandolfini as Virgil
Gary Oldman as Drexl Spivey
Christopher Walken as Don Vincenzo Coccotti
Chris Penn as Detective Nicky Dimes
Tom Sizemore as Detective Cody Nicholson
Brad Pitt as Floyd
Val Kilmer as Elvis
Samuel L. Jackson as Big Don.

The script was written by Quentin Tarantino after Reservoir Dogs and before Natural Born Killers and Pulp Fiction.

Ebert: "True Romance," which feels at times like a fire sale down at the cliche factory, is made with such energy, such high spirits, such an enchanting goofiness, that it's impossible to resist. Check your brains at the door.
posted by growabrain (9 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I like this movie more than is reasonable, and more than can be reasoned with.
posted by figurant at 9:13 PM on October 28, 2015 [4 favorites]

One of my favorite films and it demonstrates that Tony Scott and Tarantino complement each other. I'm not much of a fan of Tony Scott, I think he was too far in the Hollywood Emmerich splosions direction. But in this film, Scott and Tarantino each mitigated the other's excesses, I think, and the movie is better for it.

I'm pretty sure that Tarantino has said that he was skewering Oliver Stone with Saul Rubinek's Lee Donowitz. Even if I'm mistaken and he's not said so, I choose to believe it. (I think he wrote this after he'd worked on Natural Born Killers, although the release of the films were the other way around. And it's because NBK went through a bunch of rewrites and writers, IIRC.)

There's the controversy about the ending -- in the script Clarence is killed at the end. I would have preferred that, although I acknowledge the virtues of the happily-ever-after ending in the context of the story.

I like to think that Val Kilmer's Elvis is the best thing he's ever done.

As I wrote here years ago:
I believe that the scene in True Romance where Patricia Arquette beats up and kills James Gandolfini's character was a watershed moment in American culture. Women almost never beat up men in movies and TV and they never killed people unless they were the villains. When confronted with a gun, they'd wilt. When holding a gun, they would waver.
I think this is very underappreciated. The scene is still a shocking scene, and I suspect that many people see it as misogynist in how brutal it is in portraying a woman being beaten. But I believe that it was quite the opposite, in that it wasn't a fantasy about this tiny person using ninja moves to beat up a hulking hitman, but rather realistically portrayed it in a horrifying way but Alabama never gave up. She kept fighting, she was frightened but nevertheless uncowed. And in the end, she not only unhesitantly shot him in the face with a shotgun, she then beat what was left of him repeatedly with it. Her fear became empowering fury and she was just as brutal as he was. He fatally underestimated her from the beginning.

Like I said, I think that prior to this movie you'd most likely sometimes see men fight unarmed against an armed attackers, but almost never was a woman depicted as doing so. And women almost never killed men like that. So I think the scene was shocking for numerous reasons, it was contrary to the sensibilities of the time, and I think it opened the door to women being more substantially empowered in violent confrontations on screen in a way that is almost commonplace now.

Someone else can talk about the Dennis Hopper / Christopher Walken scene, which is worth talking about. And the Christian Slater / Gary Oldman scene, too. Oldman as Drexel was a work of genius.

Although Tarantino didn't direct this film, it's always seemed to me to very much be part of his oeuvre -- it's very much Tarantino in the same way that Adaptation is very much Kaufman. That Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York is so very much more Kaufman and if we were to imagine a world in which Kaufman had continued to come into his own as a writer-director auteur, I think we'd rightly see his most of the films he wrote and not directed as still very much his films. Only a few screenwriters are that influential and unmistakable, and I think Tarantino is among them and so I consider True Romance just as much as Tarantino movie as the others. (From Dusk Till Dawn, as well.) I mention this only because I often see people talk about Tarantino's movies and they don't mention this one. They also almost never mention Jackie Brown, too, which is just egregious.

And then of course there's Brad Pitt's stoner. I sometimes think about how that guy became one of the top three Hollywood actors.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 9:19 PM on October 28, 2015 [13 favorites]

Hey! Get some beer and some cleaning products!

I love this movie so much: It is my favorite Tarantino film, even more than Jackie Brown. Dennis Hopper is so good in it! Alabama is my crush... And Floyd and Lee Donowitz and Elliot Blitzer and Don Vincenzo, wow...
posted by growabrain at 9:40 PM on October 28, 2015

I also love love love the "would you like to get pie?" bit.

I myself love pie and while it's not my tradition to go get pie after seeing a movie, if a woman suggested that to me, I would instantly fall in love. That was the moment in the movie where I was all in. And it's funny, she was still just doing her job, but I think part of the point of all of that is that Alabama can't help but be herself, all the time, she's like the most unsuited person in the world for sex work because she really has no barriers and no alternate personas. So even though she was still supposedly playing a role at that point, I choose to believe that it was still all Alabama. She enjoyed the movies and she enjoys going to eat pie after a movie.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:16 PM on October 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

More than his other movies, I think "True Romance" is extremely on-the-nose wish-fulfillment for the young Tarantino working in a video store wanting so much for his life to be like a movie. Clarence is a total unrepentant Mary Sue for Tarantino. I'm not knocking it, mind you. It's a perfect window into the mind of the luckiest wanna-be ever.
posted by wabbittwax at 10:55 PM on October 28, 2015 [3 favorites]

"Clarence is a total unrepentant Mary Sue for Tarantino. I'm not knocking it, mind you. It's a perfect window into the mind of the luckiest wanna-be ever."

I like to think about this point -- with which I completely agree -- in the context of Clarence going to confront Drexel. What's really interesting to me about that scene is that it's sort of the counterpart to the Alabama and Virgil scene in that it's unexpectedly not movie fantasy about violence. You watch Clarence waltz in there and face Drexel and act so confident, even to the point of the empty envelope, and if you're like me the first time I watched the movie, you're thinking, dammit, the movie's going to be totally unrealistic and somehow this relatively little guy with no experience of violence is going to avoid being beaten to death by this hardened criminal and his henchmen and then, well, he gets nearly beaten to death by this hardened criminal and his henchman.

He gets a few hits in, maybe, if I recall correctly, but despite all his calm bluster, he basically gets the shit beaten out of him and only that he unexpectedly pulls the gun and shoots Drexel sitting on top of him is how he made it out of there.

The message of both those scenes is sort of a combination of realism and movie wish fulfillment. I think that most of the time in reality, both those situations would have ended differently. However, what Clarence and Alabama both had in common was an indomitable spirit -- almost stupidly so -- that is both admirable and, as we see, unexpectedly empowering. Sometimes, if you just won't let yourself be beaten, you'll come out on top. Maybe with a huge amount of wear-and-tear, but even so.

And I think I understand some of what was going on in Clarence's mind. I partly identify with him in that scene. One thing I figured out in my early twenties -- in stark contrast to my adolescence -- is that when I stopped being afraid of being hurt by physical violence and sort of embraced the idea of getting my own punches in, regardless, suddenly other guys who were belligerent with me behaved much differently than they had before. They almost always backed down, even when they were much bigger. Clarence, I think, just really didn't care so much that he wasn't big enough or could fight well enough to realistically survive that encounter with Drexel without at least very severe injuries. He just did what he did. And I think that despite Drexel's posturing, right before he threw the tray at Clarence he was actually pretty rattled. I think he was as angry as he was because he'd actually been a little frightened. He was thinking, what does this skinny kid know that I don't?

Turns out that what Drexel hadn't accounted for was that Clarence either would have a gun (which was really pretty stupid of him) or, more realistically and believably, that Clarence would actually shoot and kill him with the gun. And I think that, in the end, is really what was going on in that scene and why Clarence had this weird and apparently inappropriate self-confidence. Because he is more than a little sociopathic -- he knew that he was willing to kill Drexel and, really, that's why he went and why he took that empty envelope. I think Clarence was looking for an excuse to do what he wanted to do, anyway. And for some reasons of his own that pre-date Alabama. So what I'm saying is that in his own way, Clarence was at least as crazy as Drexel was and that's what Clarence knew that Drexel didn't. And why Drexel died.

Now what does that say about Tarantino? I think that Tarantino understands the intersections and distinctions between movie violence and real violence and that it's this mix of the real and unreal that plays a big role in how unsettling his movies often are. And why they repulse so many people. Famously, he didn't actually depict the ear being cut off in Reservoir Dogs, but people remember it that way. And I think they remember it that way, and they think of it as an exceptionally violent movie even though little actual violence was on-screen, because there's a visceral element of realism in his violence, even when he's using it in very stylized, unreal scenes.

Virgil, and Alabama with Virgil, and Clarence with Drexel, are all kind of weirdly realistic in their exploration of violence in psychology. Virgil's monologue about one's first kill and then the second being difficult, but later you just do it to see someone's expression change, is actually very psychologically realistic. A more typical movie villain would have enjoyed killing from his first victim, but Virgil's admission that it's extremely unpleasant recalls Munny's monologue about the brutal and sad reality of killing in Unforgiven. Violence and killing is awful and sad and stupid, but it's most remarkable in how it's such an extreme violation of the social compact while also being relatively easy to do, in a practical sense. The willingness is what's frightening and transformative and I think that a lot of movie violence is in some way exactly about trying to pretend that this isn't the case. We watch stylized and trope-y violence that's comfortable in a way because it's telling us something very unreal about violence, when the reality is actually very disturbing.

All of Tarantino's movies are about movies, but while many people think that's self-indulgent and hermetic, I think that it's actually deeply interesting because it's impossible to engage with popular film as a topic like he does without implicitly saying a great deal about the society that makes those films. That's why so much about Tarantino's movies are an unexpected combination of realism and unrealism and I think this is especially true of Clarence and Alabama. They are manifestly unreal, but at the same time there's something about both characters that are extraordinary in a real-world, ordinary way.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 11:50 PM on October 28, 2015 [12 favorites]

I personally like this movie, and I lent it to a visiting postdoc from Greece who had never seen it.

His response: "Good movie, but it was too cool."
posted by porpoise at 12:23 PM on October 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Nicholson and Dimes is the best cop partnership name - should have a spin off
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:54 PM on October 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

I just watched this last week with my partner, who'd never seen it. It's such a great film, perfectly cast and expertly paced. It's not without its flaws (it's fucking corny and holy hell sexist tropes!) but I agree with what has been said above, especially the scene with Arquette and Gandolfini -- so visceral and brutal, in an ultimately unexpected and positive way. I also think this film tells a solid story that doesn't lag or stray at any point. The last 10 minutes literally brings all the strands together in a wonderful explosion (of bullets) and then you get this calm after the storm marimba beach scene. It's just grand.
posted by iamkimiam at 3:08 AM on October 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

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