Revisiting Quentin Tarantino’s ‘True Romance,’ 22 years later

Quentin Tarantino has said that True Romance is his most autobiographical movie. Though that probably doesn’t mean Tarantino is constantly on the lam, weaving in and out of sting ops and shoot-em-ups, fundamentally I get that this film, in which a comic book store employee (Christian Slater) falls in love with a sex worker (Patricia Arquette) and together the two do their damndest to escape the smallness and sadness of their lives and flee to LA to enact a caper that involves insane amounts of guns and cocaine, feels like it must have mirrored Tarantino’s interior life during his early career.  Video store employees were basically ruined forever when one of their own became an A-list director. Tarantino was THE Cinderella story for dude nerds. He kind of still is. So of course, when he wrote something near and dear to his heart, that’s what he wrote about: A violent fairytale about a cinephile who has bought into the bullet-ridden masculine fantasy he’s been spoonfed by the films he loves so well, and is now living out that savage lifestyle on the largest of scales.

Recently, Film Independent’s Live Read (the brainchild of Jason Reitman, I covered the series excellent reimagining of Paddy Chayefsky’s Network last month) did a one-night-only remounting of the script, with Slater and Arquette reprising their original roles, Clarence Worley and Alabama Whitman, respectively. Comedy favorites filled out additional roles, Jason Segel, Keegan-Michael Key, Mark and Jay Duplass, Jon Favreau, J.K. Simmons, and Mae Whitman, among others. The event was fun as all get out, real talk, it was never NOT going to be fun to watch a bunch of beloved actors blitzkrieg their way through Tarantino’s blazing dialogue.

That said, this movie was made in 1993, by a white dude movie nerd for white dude movie nerds, and it was impossible not to feel uneasy watching a story unfold about the toxic masculinity that doesn’t seem to understand just how toxic it is.

At one point, Slater’s Worley, who subsists on a diet of comic books, martial arts movies, and Elvis music, delivers a monologue in which he explains why he loves “movies,” hates “films,” and how he defines the difference.

All the examples of “films,” everything Worley despises, feature women front and center, with the exception of Gandhi, a biopic about a person of color. And the “movies,” the art Worley reveres are all about white men who have little use for people who aren’t white men. Women are allowed to be girlfriends, if they are thin and white. People of color are allowed to be sidekicks and antagonists. But, according to Worley, who is possibly serving as a mouthpiece for early 90s Tarantino here, a movie is only worth watching if it’s the story of a white dude engaged in violence. Otherwise, it’s a dreaded “film,” about “unwatchable, unreadable” things, like females and feelings.

Yes, maybe it’s possible that Slater’s character just wants his films to be  larger than life, and that the kinds of genres he gravitates to have historically excluded women and people of color. Still, it’s notable that female-driven action films that movie-obsessive Worley would have certainly seen in the early 90s, like the Alien and Terminator franchises, were left off this short but revealing list. It’s possible that Worley is just an action-lover in a time when most action movies were white and male. It’s also possible that he has been brainwashed by the his beloved violent white dude movies, and his behavior in this film is the result of that indoctrination. Whether it was intentional or not, in True Romance, Tarantino shows just what happens when one buys into the violent male fantasy. A person becomes poison.

Is it a movie worth revisiting. Absolutely. It’s fun. It was fun in 1993, it’ll probably still be fun in 2093. But it’s also worth revisiting because of everything that is uncomfortable and disturbing about this movie, because of everything that’s not fun about “movies” as Worley defines them. We no longer live in an era in which movies can, in good conscience, prostrate themselves in front of the altar of toxic masculinity. They are either expected to criticize, a la Mad Max: Fury Road, a movie that shows what happens when the patriarchy blows the world to pieces and the matriarchy has to save the day,  or subvert a la the Hunger Games franchise, in which Katniss is both a warrior and a nurturer, an ace archer and a devoted sister, and thus creates a new kind of hero that embraces both the traditionally masculine and feminine. It’s not longer acceptable for an action film to revel in male-driven carnage because violence in movies is cool and fun why do you have to be a buzzkill and freak out about everything all the time, calm down, relax, it’s just pretend. It’s 2015 and audiences now demand more thoughtful takes on violence in film, or movies, or whatever you want to call them. And I’m grateful that a relic from 20 years ago can remind us of how much ground we’ve covered in the last two decades. With hope, we take the progress to warp speed in the next decades.

(Image via Warner Bros)

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