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Did success ruin Quentin Tarantino? Filmmakers should quit while they're ahead

He should have stopped at Jackie Brown. (Credit: Jerod Harris/Getty)

He should have stopped at Jackie Brown. (Credit: Jerod Harris/Getty)


May 17, 2024   6 mins

It was supposed to be the ultimate mic drop. For almost a decade — Quentin Tarantino has been touting his plan to retire after his tenth and final movie, The Movie Critic. It was, he said, “based on a guy who really lived but was never really famous, and he used to write movie reviews for a porno rag.” and in true Tarantino fashion it was set to star Brad Pitt, with John Travolta, Jamie Foxx and Margot Robbie rumoured to reprise their roles in previous Tarantino movies, in what would amount to a farewell to the entire QT “metaverse”. Sony was financing it. Cameras were ready to roll. The director was ready to go out on top. “Drop the mic, boom!” he said. “Tell everybody: ‘Match that shit!’” 

And, then, the same month Pulp Fiction celebrates its 30th birthday, the 61-year-old director abruptly announced that The Movie Critic was no more. Apparently crushed beneath the weight of expectation foisted on the project by its creator, Tarantino announced its cancellation. There was talk of endless rewrites for a script described as a nostalgic character study set in the seedy LA milieu, in which Tarantino first discovered the movies, featuring a character based on The New Yorker’s legendary film critic Pauline Kael, whose hold on the director — seems to have played a big role in Tarantino’s self-psych-out. 

Kael pops up in Tarantino’s recent book of film criticism, Cinema Speculation, more frequently than Alfred Hitchcock, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Sergio Leone and Steven Spielberg, and is the source of Tarantino’s much-vaunted go-out-with-a-bang-Butch-and-Sundance retirement plan. “I just don’t want to be an old-man filmmaker,” he has said, repeatedly, over the years “I want to stop at a certain point. Directors don’t get better as they get older.” 

The opinion was fully explored by Kael in a 1998 interview. “I do think directing is a young man’s game,” she told Modern Maturity, which Tarantino would have read about the same time he was recovering from the disappointing box office of Jackie Brown. “Directing is something people do best when they’re young, with the possible exceptions of Vittorio de Sica and Luis Buñuel. When you’re young, you use all your senses and have the devilry to do something new that will affect an audience deeply. Spielberg doesn’t do now what he did as a young man. He did crazy, goofy things. Jaws was a great comedy; in E.T., he let his childhood feelings inform the material in a direct way. But Hook was deadly, no child’s imagination left in it. Schindler’s List is a work of feeling, but planned feeling. Everything becomes safer and more extravagant as you get older.” 

Is this true? And even if it is true, should filmmakers be heeding it as closely as Tarantino evidently has? The collapse of The Movie Critic couldn’t have been more appositely timed, as news arrived of a herd of swansongs converging on Cannes this year, where Francis Ford Coppola (85), George Lucas (80) and Paul Shrader (77) — three luminaries of the New Hollywood, now in their late seventies and eighties — will be premiering films and collecting awards, Coppola with Megalopolis, Shrader with Oh, Canada, and Lucas collecting an honorary awards just for being George Lucas. This as Scorsese (81) announced his next two films, one about Jesus and the other about Frank Sinatra, and Clint Eastwood readied his 40th and final film, Juror no 2, for release at the age of 93. 

It is unlikely any of these films will catch the vigour of their respective director’s earlier work. There is a special bloom to a filmmaker’s first films, when even the most uncompromising of geniuses must be at their most charming to persuade financiers to part with their millions, and audiences to with their hard-earned cash. 

“If Spielberg’s first films were not Jaws and Close Encounters but Hook and The Color Purple, what rock would we currently find him under?”

The 25-year-old Orson Welles could talk a dog off a meat wagon when he made Citizen Kane. Terrence Mallick’s Badlands is as near perfect a film as he would ever make. David Lynch would never again manage the narrative economy of Blue Velvet. Audience preference for Woody Allen’s “early funny” movies became so pronounced that he even turned it into a gag in Stardust Memories. Not many would agree wholly with Kael’s dismissal of Schindler’s List, but a Spielberg top ten would largely comprise the astonishing quartet of films — Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET — made in his twenties and early thirties. 

The same goes for Scorsese, who has, in his recent films, come closest to essaying a “late” style — blunt, attenuated, much haunted by moral reckonings and regrets, shorn of the sometimes overwrought camera pyrotechnics of his youth. 

Success can be a bitch. After years of toiling like Sisyphus to get their foot in the door, the director starts to hear the word “yes” too much, where previously they heard “no”. The friction that fostered creative decisions disappears along with the discipline required to push open the gate posts, the charm required to win over an audience and the willingness to tell a story. They become an adjective — “Spielbergian”, “Lynchian” — and become much more conscious of effects that once came naturally. 

Here’s a good hypothetical to test the truth of Kael’s proposition: imagine a filmmaker’s fifth or sixth film as their first, and then try to imagine whether it launches the same legend. If Spielberg’s first films were not Jaws and Close Encounters but Hook and The Color Purple, what rock would we currently find him under? What happens to a David Lynch who starts with Lost Highway or Inland Empire? Or imagine that, instead of the double-barrelled blast of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Tarantino had kicked off with Kill Bill or any of the three-hour adrenaline-rush geek fantasies that followed, where blood the colour of raspberries spurts from severed arms and legs and the characters all sound like they have swallowed dictionaries  “To what do I owe this dubious pleasure?” Well, pardonnez moi.

Nobody in Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs or even Jackie Brown talks like this: they’re too hard-wired into contemporary street vernacular, the source of all that is most miraculous in Tarantino’s writing. No neophyte filmmaker would dream of inflicting a six-hour movie on an audience. With Kill Bill as his first film, what happens to him? He would still get the geeks, the fanboys, and maybe some of the box office, but not the critics, not the Palme D’or, nor the comparisons to Welles, and the outsized influence. 

The Hateful Eight is not a movie that upends the Zeitgeist, as Pulp Fiction did. At a recent 30th anniversary for the latter, Uma Thurman called it “probably the last film Quentin made that was on schedule, where he actually tried to make his days and make his weeks,” to laughter from the audience. 

It might behove him to pay more attention to critiques like Thurman’s than Kael’s. Tarantino has proven himself a perceptive critic — Cinema Speculation bested most of the writers who have written about his films — but you have to ask whether filmmakers should really be attempting to micro-manage their own legacy to the extent that Tarantino has. 

“I’m not sure that I would trust my own sense of the absolute value of a piece of work to know whether or not it should have been brought into existence,” Christopher Nolan told the ReelBlend podcast when Tarantino’s retirement plans came up. “I’m a big fan, as is Quentin, of films that maybe don’t fully achieve what they try to, but there’s something in there that’s a performance, or a little structural thing, or a scene, you know, that’s wonderful. And so, yes, I understand. I think I wanted to keep a sort of perfect reputation of something, but also kind of don’t want to take anything off the table.”

The irony is that the filmmaker Nolan describes — past their prime, but still showing flashes of the old genius — almost exactly describes his friend Quentin Tarantino, whose recent filmography requires exactly such panhandling for the good bits: the fight amid the breakfast cereal in Kill Bill, the Ku Klux Klan scene in Django Unchained. It’s hard not to hear a pang of mortality in the director’s attempt to stop the clock. Nobody gets to sit out the march of time unless they are John Travolta’s Vincent Vega, resurrected from a hail of bullets by dint of a miraculous flashback at the end of Pulp Fiction

Young punks tend to take advancing years badly have you seen Sean Penn’s updo recently? — but beneath Tarantino’s braggadocio would seem to be the knowledge, half-suppressed, that the cinematic flesh has long since started to sag. Film directing after a certain age becomes about leg strength. 

Oddly, Tarantino did once make a movie which acknowledged the weight of years with unexpected grace: Jackie Brown, the movie whose “failure” at the box-office Tarantino was reeling from when Pauline Kael called directing a young man’s game. In it, a 56-year-old bail bondsman, played by Robert Forster, helps and slowly falls for a 44-year-old air stewardess with a suitcase full of cash. 

Sitting down together in a sports bar, they discuss  how to quit smoking without gaining weight, their vinyl collections and getting old. “My ass ain’t the same,” she confides. “I’m a little sensitive about my hair,” he tells her with a crinkly smile. With its mellow, soulful groove, restrained pace and ruefulness about the passage of time written in the faces of its lead actors, the film offers a tantalising glimpse of the filmmaker Tarantino chose not to become. Maybe there’s a reason his swansong fell through — he has already made it. 


Tom Shone is an American film critic and writer. The updated version of his book The Nolan Variations is out now.


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John Murray
John Murray
6 days ago

Bit odd to miss out Once Upon A Time In Hollywood from late period Tarantino. It was bloody good, but perhaps that doesn’t quite fit the narrative being advanced.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
6 days ago
Reply to  John Murray

You know, I was just about to leave the exact same comment when I read yours. For me, OUATIH goes completely against the narrative: it has raw brilliance, but also big weaknesses. Sort of like a young director’s movies. And even if it might never be a ‘best’, there are scenes in that movie I reflect on all the time – just like Pulp Fiction.
The other one she misses is From Dusk Til Dawn. Made after Jackie Brown (which btw I loved), FDTD has the raw, goofy childishness of a first movie. Structurally, it’s a deliberate mess, broken in two parts by the sudden zombie apocalypse, but it’s soooo much fun to watch and the characters, particularly QT’s own one, are just so well written.

tom j
tom j
6 days ago
Reply to  John Murray

It was fine, but it’s not Pulp Fiction. The soundtrack, the script, the acting, the story, Pulp Fiction just burst on us like nothing we’d ever seen. I think the thesis is strong, and not just for QT.

Peter Wise
Peter Wise
6 days ago

Hitchcock is an obvious exception – he made nearly all his greatest films in his forties and fifties.
Tarantino should also have taken out a leaf out of Hitchcock’s book – if you’re going to be in your own movies, stick to a non-speaking few seconds early on.

Anthony Roe
Anthony Roe
6 days ago

Stanley Kubrick was the saddest and the most precipitous fall from grace. Not helped by incipient paranoia and OCD.
And Once Upon A Time in Hollywood a fabulous swansong.

Chris Hume
Chris Hume
6 days ago

For me, it was Inglorious Basterds that showed the best and worst in Tarantino. The opening scene where the terrifying SS man questions the milk farmer while the Jewish girls hide in the cellar was one of the most tense pieces of film I have ever seen. Christoph Waltz’s character treaded the line between campy and sinister perfectly. He then turns the film into a kind of cartoonish western-themed knockabout with stupid jokes and even a Samuel L. Jackson voiceover in blaxploitation style. It was a mess with a stupid ending.
Tarantino is obviously a great artist, but like most great artists he needs someone to tell him when he’s being ridiculous. Great writers have editors who tell them to cut ruthlessly, musicians have producers and collaborators who stop their genius spinning off into incoherence or self-indulgence. I think Tarantino could have used a less brilliant but more sensible partner to rein in his more outlandish instincts.
Of course, his success has been so massive that its clear the movie-going public disagrees, but I think he could have been so much greater.

tom j
tom j
6 days ago
Reply to  Chris Hume

Even that opening scene I found unconvincing.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
4 days ago
Reply to  tom j

I was never really a fan but IB made sure that I give all his work a wide berth.

Henry Olsen
Henry Olsen
6 days ago

Old directors aren’t at their best? Then why do Hitchcock’s acknowledged masterpieces – Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho – all come from when he is 55 to 60? Billy Wilder made Some Like It Hot and The Apartment when he was 53 and 54.William Wyler made The Best Years of Our Lives at 44 and Ben-Hur at 56.
If directing is NOW a young man’s game, it’s because our sense of what makes great movies has changed.

Geoff W
Geoff W
6 days ago

The only Tarantino films I’ve seen are “Reservoir Dogs””, “Pulp Fiction” and “Kill Bill.” I thought all three were mannered, pretentious crap seeking excuses for their tedious grindhouse violence.

Julian Garner
Julian Garner
6 days ago
Reply to  Geoff W

Stole the words right out of my mouth. Jack Brown was good, though. And, as someone once pointed out, his only film based on someone else’s primary source. Hmm.

Ralph Hanke
Ralph Hanke
6 days ago
Reply to  Geoff W

Hmmmm. It took me three quarters of Pulp Fiction to finally get the joke. But then it was hilarious.

Looking for deep meaning in film is fraught. It Happened One Night is no place to look for deeply philosophical insight. And yet, the hitchhiking scene provides us insight into socio-sexual roles that is really easy to access and so, perhaps, is better than any three hour lecture on the subject.

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
4 days ago
Reply to  Ralph Hanke

You can find philosophical insight almost anywhere. It’s not in *there*, it’s in *here*.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
6 days ago

I love Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Like all of QT’s movies I’ve watched it several times and will probably watch it a few times more. Perhaps he should be a ‘senior’ director by making lean character studies, like Schrader’s recent films which are dark and compelling.
Alternatively he could write paperback fiction. The novel of Once Upon a Time is really good.

Damon Hager
Damon Hager
6 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Once Upon was as good as anything QT has done, and it had more emotional depth than Pulp, which (brilliant though it was) was essentially cool, cynical fun.
QT puts more originality and sheer entertainment into one film than most directors achieve in a lifetime. And he really shouldn’t listen to Pauline Kael, who lionised Brian de Palma and dismissed Clint Eastwood.

Miriam Cotton
Miriam Cotton
6 days ago

Watching an interview with Tarantino about Once Upon A Time In Hollywood I realised that the intelligence and subtlety of his films were read into them by viewers, critics, and above all, his actors who extract nuance and depth where he neither intended nor saw any. His skill lies in story, pacing and plot – with good dialogue. But his intention for his films is relatively literal and superficial. Something their shock value and great acting tended to disguise. A lot of benefit of doubt has been given to him. But the films’ increasingly evident lack of substance has been harder not to see.

Fletcher Walton
Fletcher Walton
6 days ago
Reply to  Miriam Cotton

As an example of the depth of which he’s proven himself capable: True Romance‘s Sicilians scene, in which Hopper’s monologue subtly achieves at least three demonstrations of character or character motivation all under the cover of a speech that is still superficially very entertaining.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
6 days ago

It’s a bit like the dog chasing the car – everyone chases success, but not everyone knows what to do after catching it, especially if it’s caught at a young age. There is no class for learning how to deal with outsized expectations or going from unknown to household name. And there is definitely no class on how to make a graceful exit when one’s time has come.

Sean G
Sean G
6 days ago

I’m sorry, but Quentin Tarantino has never been a director worthy of consideration.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
6 days ago
Reply to  Sean G

Strong contender for stupidest remark of the day so far!

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
1 day ago

I can’t believe I just upvoted CS!

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
1 day ago

I doubt that age is the key characteristic. More important is being an outsider and having exhausted none of your creative juices.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
6 days ago

Tarantino was always weak postmodernism for nerd culture. Part of me suspects his pop odysseys gave rise of the ironic Marvel products of the last few decades.
However, The Hateful Eight takes its subject matter seriously and reveals that Tarantino works best within a chamber setting (Reservoir Dogs hinted at this)

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
6 days ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

Highly amusing to see a guy who calls himself Tyler Durden whining about “weak postmodernism for nerds”! You guys really don’t do irony, do you?!?!

Maximilian R.
Maximilian R.
6 days ago

I can see a change in tone and style over the years in many directors, but most of them whose work I follow still create absolute masterpieces. I consider the recent Mad Max movies to be better than the old ones. They gained in energy and richness in my opinion. I also relished the new Miyazaki and I thought Tarantino got better with age, too. His movies may not be as flashy anymore, not as attention-grabbing, but overall they feel wiser.

tom j
tom j
6 days ago
Reply to  Maximilian R.

The new Mad Max movies are slicker, but they lack the raw danger of the 1970s original.

Maximilian R.
Maximilian R.
6 days ago
Reply to  tom j

I can see what you mean, but I don’t see this “decline through age” that the article is talking about. Perhaps the old ones are richer in atmosphere, but the newer ones had me in awe with just how much was said between the lines. It’s mythology disguised as an action blockbuster, and I don’t see many young directors doing that as well as George Miller does at the moment. But hey, that’s just me 🙂

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
1 day ago
Reply to  tom j

Not to mention that spectacular Brian May soundtrack!

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
6 days ago

Of course we viewers are also aging! Spielt eine Rolle.

Dillon Eliassen
Dillon Eliassen
4 days ago

Michael Mann’s “Ferrari” captured some of the magic of “Heat,” “The Insider” & “Collateral” that had been missing from “Public Enemies” and “Blackhat.”

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
4 days ago

Is it true that directing is a young man’s game?
Let me start with Hitchcock, who’s held up by other commenters as a refutation to this theory.
When was the last time you watched a Hitchcock picture?
I watched “Vertigo” (1958) again recently, and it doesn’t hold up.
I think his last convincing effort was “North by Northwest”(1959).
Hitchcock’s popularity was of the times, certainly, but his work isn’t transcendent. I think this will be true of QT as well in the decades to come. And QT is far more polarizing than Hitchcock, Scorsese, DePalma, Coppola, Spielberg and Lucas combined.
Many of the New Hollywood school were given their chance during a time when upstarts were increasingly associated with box office success.
For example, John Frankenheimer (“The Manchurian Candidate”, 1962), Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby”, 1968), George Roy Hill (“Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid”, 1969) all paved the way for a paradigm shift in what was considered bankable. We can thank Robert Evans in large part for this.
But no matter how successful they are, most directors eventually succumb to commercial pressures.
So I would argue the decline isn’t a function of aging, but rather of a self-serving materialism motivated by financial gain and more so by the pursuit of cinematic immortality. They all want to be Orson Welles or Billy Wilder.
George Lucas has been making nothing but consumerist pablum since “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980). Star Wars became Teen Angst In Space in Fifteen (?) Chapters.
Spielberg has never made a film that wasn’t smugly self-aware of its commerciality. He revels in it. In doing so, he’s reduced Indiana Jones to nothing more than a licensing property.
Wes Anderson showed promise with “Bottle Rocket”(1996) and “Rushmore” (1998) but he’s demonstrated zero impulse control and has mostly made a career out of his own shallow technicolor masturbatory fantasies.
The Cohen brothers are a precision-guided exception to all this entropy, possibly because they counterbalance one another (but then the Wachwoski siblings shoot that theory all to hell).
No, the truth is that the nature of Hollywood is the same as the music business- which is, as Hunter S. Thompson said, “a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs.”
We should therefore just enjoy good directors while they last, and never lament the inevitable sellout and downfall.
As for Pauline Kael, she was nothing more than a troll with a good turn of phrase.

Paul T
Paul T
2 days ago

AGAIN a comment I didn’t recommend. Sorry Mr Murray I didn’t actually recommend you (although I agree and would have) before I got here and saw that someone else using my profile already has!

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
6 days ago

Predictions (and you people are nothing if not predictable!)…
Someone will say that Tarantino’s films are too violent and that there is too much swearing.
Someone else will say something dumb about how old John Wayne movies were better and why can’t we have those.
You know, stupid stuff.