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The cinematic trademarks of Quentin Tarantino: The trunk shot

“I ain’t riding in no God damn trunk for no minute, man!” – Jackie Brown.

Unlike many filmmakers, you don’t have to see the credits to be able to tell if Quentin Tarantino has been behind the camera. Like all the best auteur directors, his movies are chocked with singular visionary tropes. Whether it’s Stanley Kubrick with his one-point perspective, Steven Spielberg with his dolly zoom, Hitchcock’s use of disorientating edits or a character trapped in a full shot caper crafted by the Coen Brothers, all the best directors have unique styles and shots that they can call their own and fall back on. One particular shot that Tarantino has used like no other is the iconic camera in the boot (or trunk for all you North Americans) shot. 

The first use of the shot comes from the 1948 film He Walked by Night. A car is pulled over during the pioneering scene, and the police inspect the murder suspect’s boot. On this occasion, the trick of the trade was to build suspense by hiding the contents of the boot from the audience for that little extra beat. It was used fleetingly in cinema thereafter owing to the fact that it is often difficult to fit a bulky film camera in the rear of a car. Thus, an art department usually has to recreate the shot, which can prove costly and time-consuming, particularly in the budding early phases of commercial cinema. 

However, one notable pre-Tarantino usage of the shot comes from George Miller’s 1985 movie Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, a franchise that we know Tarantino loves having declared Mad Max Fury Road the best film of 2015 and previously eulogising Miller’s earlier work on various occasions. Regardless of where the inspiration came from, Tarantino has propagated it profusely and made it his own. As the old saying goes, ‘good artists borrow and great artists steal’ – Tarantino is the self-declared master of artful theft.

It didn’t take long for Tarantino to work the shot into his movies. In his cinematic debut, Reservoir Dogs, we see the ‘trunk get popped’ to reveal a shot of Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) and Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) standing over the camera in an unashamed declaration of dominance. The domineering trio presides over the camera like giant sinister smiling bastards and diminish the audience down to the helpless soon-to-be tomb of the boot. The fate of the entombed policeman is about as hopeful as a tuna that has somehow landed in a lion enclosure – that much is already patently obvious – but having the giggling gangsters leering over him adds a viscerally sinister edge to his completely fucked situation. The other flipside of the shop is that initially, we don’t know what’s in the boot or what they’re laughing at, which not only adds tension but also imbues the follow-up cut of a hapless policeman – whose utterly Chernobyl’d face has clearly been besieged by the same haphazard treatment as the top shelf of a dwarf’s fridge – with a jet black sense of humour. 

Tarantino’s follow-up to Reservoir Dogs was the seminal masterpiece Pulp Fictionand once again, the boot shot was on display in its full glory on more than one occasion. However, the most notable deployment sees a departure from the Reservoir Dogs-style establishment of dominance in favour of a somewhat subtler subtextual narrative. This time the boot is opened to reveal Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) casually chatting and assessing their arsenal of weapons stored within the boot. The camera position lends the scene a voyeuristic feel which helps to impart the unmistakable message that these guys really don’t give a damn. The fact that the audience seems just to be eavesdropping in on casual chit-chat regarding what sort of man-killing machine is best to enter a potential shoot-out situation with drives home the message that violence is as commonplace in the lives of these men as football scores and tasty burgers. 

The Godfather of Gore seemed to make a meta declaration of his love for the shot in his next movie Jackie Brown, whereby the technique is not only deployed but discussed in detail by the characters. “I ain’t riding in God damn trunk for no minute man!” is the iconic rebuttal voiced by Beaumont Livingston (Chris Tucker) in response to Ordell Robbie’s (Samuel L. Jackson) plan for Beaumont to ride in the trunk and spring shotgun surprise when he later opens it. 

The shot has become ubiquitous throughout the luminous director’s career, to the point that Tarantino-philes now look out for it as keenly as ear-bending uses of the Wilhelm Scream’s. Where other filmmakers might worry that the technique has become a cliche that takes audience members out of the action, Tarantino has never been shy of revealing fiction with his unmistakable stamp. All great works of art bear the hallmarks of their maker. Tarantino’s continued use of such a specific shot is not only the thumbprint of a visionary but also a celebratory nod to the joy of making movies. 

You can check out a compilation of his boot shot highlights, below.