It Goes the Other Way, Too

illustration by Tony Stella

When True Romance, a lovers-on-the-lam crime film written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Tony Scott, was first released in 1993, nearly every review referenced Tarantino’s contribution. This was something of an anomaly: Modern film critics often assume an auteur bias, and are therefore prone to overlooking the work of screenwriters, but Tarantino’s singular voice—marked by gleeful profanity and unexpected meditations on pop culture—was impossible for critics to ignore. It didn’t hurt that Tarantino had made a name for himself a year prior, when his debut as a writer-director, Reservoir Dogs, met with praise on the festival circuit. Critics already viewed him as an auteur, and made a point of saying so. “True Romance was directed by Tony Scott, whose movies like Top Gun and Days of Thunder show an affection for boys and their toys,” Roger Ebert writes in his 1993 review. “But the film’s real author, his stamp on every line of every scene, is Quentin Tarantino.” Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers even suggested that True Romance succeeded in spite of Scott’s direction; in his review, he calls Scott’s hiring “baffling,” and credits the film’s success to “the true grunge of the script.” Travers and many others saw Tarantino and Scott as a mismatch. Contrasting Tarantino’s indie credibility with Scott’s history of directing big budget action movies like Beverly Hills Cop II, they fretted that Scott had prettied up a gritty story, betraying and perhaps even misunderstanding Tarantino’s intentions.

This line of thinking gained traction with the revelation that Scott’s finished film makes two major alterations to Tarantino’s script. While Tarantino conceived of True Romance as a nonlinear narrative like Reservoir Dogs, Scott’s film unfolds in a conventional, linear manner. More famously and controversially, Scott alters the screenplay’s original, brutal ending. In Tarantino’s version, the film’s protagonist Clarence (Christian Slater) dies in the arms of his beloved wife, a former call girl named Alabama (Patricia Arquette), after a drug deal goes spectacularly wrong. Scott, on the other hand, lets Clarence live and escape with Alabama to Mexico, where they raise a son. To some Scott’s ending felt like a Hollywood cop-out, and many Tarantino fans still try to imagine how the tougher, Tarantino-directed version of True Romance would have looked on screen.

Yet this tendency to view True Romance as a diluted Tarantino film does it a disservice. To revisit the film—as I do, not infrequently—is to be carried away by a rush of color and action and character, to gasp and to wince and to laugh oneself breathless. It is a great movie, and a unique one. Scott’s visual style is markedly different from Tarantino’s, but that doesn’t make him ill-suited to interpreting this script. While Tarantino famously favors long takes and often confines his characters in tight spaces where they can talk—think Reservoir Dogs, The Hateful Eight, or the tense, deliberately paced bar scene in Inglourious Basterds—Scott prefers quicker cuts and rarely allows his characters to sit still. In his hands, True Romance is dreamy, candy-colored, and fast-paced while still retaining the fresh, funny, strange rhythms of Tarantino’s dialogue and plotting. A good example of how Scott transforms Tarantino’s script comes when Clarence and Alabama meet up with a contact to set up a potential drug deal. In the screenplay, the scene takes place at a zoo, but Scott transplants it to a rollercoaster, with the characters screaming through loop-de-loops at the same time they try to finalize the deal. Tarantino’s scene is still there—the inexperienced Clarence still postures his way through negotiations with a squeamish actor named Elliot Blitzer (Bronson Pinchot)—but Scott gives it an extra shot of adrenaline (and finds some comedy too, when Blitzer inevitably gets sick from the ride). The film is full of moments like this, where Scott mounts Tarantino’s screenplay in his own distinctive style, with the result being maximally entertaining and not quite like anything else.

As useful as auteur theory is when studying and writing about film, it is also somewhat artificial; film is an inherently collaborative art form, dependent on the choices and gifts of a slew of people, not just directors but also screenwriters, actors, cinematographers, producers, editors, costumers, composers, casting directors, and many others. True Romance makes for a good reminder of that fact because so many artists left such notable marks on it. Nearly every supporting performance in the film feels like a miniature masterpiece—it contains the Christopher Walken-Dennis Hopper face-off you remember, as well as some brazen scene stealing from Brad Pitt. When the director’s cut of the film was released as a two-disc DVD set in 2002, it included three feature-length commentary tracks—one by Tarantino, one by Scott, and one by stars Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette—as well as a series of short commentary tracks from actors with supporting roles in the film, including Hopper, Pitt, Val Kilmer, and Gary Oldman. And while on the one hand that speaks to how awesomely extensive special features were at the height of the DVD era, it’s also a pretty good indication of how many people were making the countless tiny decisions that make this film what it is.

Ebert was right that Tarantino’s stamp is all over this movie, but it doesn’t belong solely to him. “It was weird when I first saw the movie because it was like looking at a big budget version of my home movies, or memories,” Tarantino told Graham Fuller in a 1993 interview. The film’s antihero Clarence, a geeky comic book store clerk who goes to kung fu triple features alone, is Tarantino’s obvious alter ego. “Clarence…is Quentin—dark, twisted, sharp and very sweet,” Scott writes in his foreword for Jeff Dawson’s book Quentin Tarantino: The Cinema of Cool. It doubtlessly would have been interesting to see Tarantino direct a film so firmly rooted in his own life, especially since he’s frequently accused of making movies inspired only by other movies, but the story makes sense in Scott’s hands too.

True Romance is about a lonely guy who spends a lot of his time dreaming about being larger than life. In the film’s first scene, Clarence is sitting in a bar, trying to pick up a date using a carefully crafted monologue about Elvis. (We know that it’s carefully crafted because he repeats it to Alabama later in the film.) Clarence explains that he loves Elvis because he’s “rockabilly: mean, surly, nasty, rude,” and unconcerned with anything except “rockin’ and rollin’, living fast, dying young, and leaving a good looking corpse.” “I’d watch that hillbilly and I’d want to be him so bad,” Clarence says. He later tells Alabama that his kung fu idol, Sonny Chiba, “ain’t so much a good guy as a bad motherfucker.” Clarence’s dreams are dominated by the badasses splashed across movie and TV screens and comic book panels, and when he makes the decision to murder Alabama’s former pimp Drexl (Gary Oldman), he’s also deciding to live out his tough guy fantasies. With an action movie veteran like Scott at the helm, the story takes on the oversized dimensions of a big-screen dream.

In his insightful book Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir, film critic Foster Hirsch writes that Clarence lives “in a twilight realm in which the real world merges with and is often overtaken by his fantasies.” And indeed, by the end of the film’s first act, Clarence has launched himself out of his scruffy reality and into the daydream world of action movies. In fact, after Clarence kills Drexl and accidentally steals the pimp’s massive stash of cocaine (he initially thinks he grabbed a suitcase full of Alabama’s clothes), Clarence and Alabama even ditch gloomy Detroit for sunny Los Angeles, where movies are made. There they meet up with Clarence’s friend Dick Richie (Michael Rapaport), an aspiring actor who puts the couple in touch with some Hollywood types who can afford to buy all that coke. The contrast between Clarence and Dick is telling: Dick aspires to be an actor, while Clarence aspires to be the flesh and blood version of his favorite movie tough guys. “We now return to Bullitt, already in progress,” he intones at one point, peeling out of a parking lot in his Cadillac. Later, when Clarence and his cohorts meet their potential drug buyer, a powerful movie producer, a projector splashes dailies from a Vietnam film across a wall, further collapsing the difference between life and the movies.

Tarantino’s version of the story, with its tragic ending, ultimately reminds audiences that being a movie-style badass who only cares about living fast and dying young isn’t really all that it’s cracked up to be. Like Reservoir Dogs, which demystifies its sharp-dressed gangsters by making them vulnerable, Tarantino’s screenplay finds the barrier between real life and tough guy fantasy more or less insurmountable. As with many stories in the noir tradition, the screenplay’s tragic ending also punishes the flawed protagonist for his transgressions. But Scott’s version of the story avoids punishing Clarence. Hirsch puts this down to the film’s dreamy tone: “The character’s odyssey unfolds in a kind of never-never land, and in a world where everything is an artifact, a nice kid can use guns with impunity. In love with action movies and pop culture and intensely aware of his status in a pop fiction, the hero remains unscathed by his brush with noir.” Hirsch’s “never-never land” reference feels apt, since Scott repeatedly refers to True Romance as a “fairy tale” on his DVD commentary track. He envisions an uncommon genre mash-up where film noir meets fairy tale, and a geek and a call girl can live happily ever after.

That’s not to say that Scott mistakes Clarence, the screwed-up comic book fan who decides one day to walk in the footsteps of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, for a traditional romantic hero. It was Scott who suggested that Slater watch Taxi Driver to get a better handle on Clarence as a character, and Clarence’s jagged edges are still there: in the scenes where he takes dubious advice from an imagined, gold lamé-clad Elvis Presley or in the moment where he turns suddenly and violently on Elliot in an elevator, it’s easy to remember that Scott sees Clarence as “dark” and “twisted” in addition to “very sweet.” Scott embraces Clarence’s naïve, likable qualities as well as his greedier, more vicious impulses. He knows that the characters that populate this story are more interesting for their contradictions, and thus leans into them. As Clarence’s mostly-absentee father Clifford, who dies trying to protect his son from gangsters, Hopper is at once noble and pitiful. Arquette’s Alabama is mostly adorable with her Farrah Fawcett hair and soft voice, but she is ferocious in the scene where she’s forced to defend herself against Virgil, a mafia henchman played James Gandolfini. In turn, Gandolfini finds weird pathos in Virgil, a guy who pauses his attack on Alabama to consider aloud the psychological toll of being a killer.

If this is a fairy tale, it’s often a grim one; there’s plenty of human cruelty and some nasty twists of fate, such as when Clifford’s bravura self-sacrifice is rendered almost immediately moot. The gangsters find a note indicating Clarence’s whereabouts only moments after Clifford’s death, and once the action moves to Los Angeles, Dick’s pothead roommate Floyd is happy to dispense privileged information to any gun-toting criminal who happens to drop by. His cluelessness acts as a biting counterpoint to Clifford’s selfless attempt to protect his son. Elsewhere, the film’s climactic shootout is infused with sadness and random bad luck—think of Michael Beach as Wurlitzer, a cop who catches a bullet just under his protective vest and quietly sits down on a sofa to die, or of Tom Sizemore’s Detective Nicholson, who absentmindedly forgets his vest altogether. Rather than misunderstanding Tarantino’s script, Scott revels in its tonal shifts and gnarlier moments, adding dashes of his own visual flair—such as the surreal rain of feathers that explodes from some expensive furniture and onto the bloodied characters during that final shootout.

The voiceover that opens True Romance (which, according Jami Bernard’s book Quentin Tarantino: The Man and His Movies, was added in a rewrite by Tarantino’s onetime collaborator Roger Avary) sets up an unusual mix of grit and romantic fancy. In it, Alabama says, “I kept asking Clarence why our world seemed to be collapsing and everything seemed so shitty. And he’d say, ‘That’s the way it goes. But don’t forget; it goes the other way too.’” That sentiment puts me in mind of another offbeat fairy tale, William Goldman’s novel The Princess Bride, which ends like this: “I’m not trying to make this a downer, understand. I really do think that love is the best thing in the world, except for cough drops. But I also have to say, for the umpty-umpth time, that life isn’t fair. It’s just fairer than death, that’s all.” True Romance isn’t a film that posits that life is fair. It just wishes its lead characters a fate fairer than death, and it’s easy to understand why.

Twisted as they are, Clarence and Alabama have underdog charm, perhaps never more so than in the scene where the pair sits on a ratty, abandoned couch near a runway at LAX while Clarence helps Alabama nurse her wounds after her deadly fight with Virgil. Clarence reminisces about growing up near an airport, poor and unable to go anywhere, and the two dream aloud about a future where they can they can go wherever they want and “see what TV in other countries looks like.” Much of True Romance’s appeal comes from its ebullient, postmodern love of low culture: its characters dress in animal prints, scarf down fast food, and worship rock and roll. There’s humor in all this kitsch, but there’s also an awareness that pop culture can be a lifeline, a way to dream big when your world is small. In the airport scene, we get just enough of Clarence’s background to fill in the blanks—when he felt trapped in one place, all those comics, movies, TV shows, and records were his salvation. For Scott, Clarence and Alabama’s story is one of love as a liberating agent—so powerful that it makes their trashy pop daydreams a reality. It’s a startling transformation, perhaps, but one the film’s concentrated air of strangeness and transgression ultimately permits.

In his foreword to Dawson’s book, Scott admitted that his decision to let the two lovers live was a consequence of his “weakness for romanticism.” But that romanticism isn’t misplaced: on his own commentary track for the film, Tarantino insists that, “The title True Romance is not ironic.” In both the original screenplay and the finished film, Clarence and Alabama meet more or less by chance, fall head over heels, and fiercely fight for and protect each other. Regardless of whether Scott chose Tarantino’s tragic ending, Clarence and Alabama’s story was always going to be an intensely romantic one. In Scott’s hands, the story takes on an appealing, bruised optimism. We’re presented a world of leering lowlifes, tough breaks, and shocking violence, because, well, that’s the way it goes. But at the last minute, it goes the other way, too—and I can’t say I mind.