Quentin Tarantino’s The Movie Critic and its connections to the work of Paul Schrader

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Abandoned in April, Quentin Tarantino’s The Movie Critic would have contained some fascinating connections to the work of Paul Schrader, including the 1977 thriller, Rolling Thunder. Ryan takes a look.

Before its abrupt cancellation in April 2024, The Movie Critic was planned as filmmaker Quentin Tarantino’s tenth (and final) movie. First mentioned in 2022, it sounded, at least from Tarantino’s description of it, like a fitting companion piece to 2029’s Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood. It would have been set in the 1970s, not long after the late 60s setting of that earlier film; it would also have seen Brad Pitt reprise his role as taciturn stuntman Cliff Booth.

Perhaps the most intriguing element of The Movie Critic, though, was how it would have riffed on the 1970s movies Tarantino obsessed over when he was still a teenager. A key example is Rolling Thunder – a 1977 revenge thriller directed by John Flynn and originally written by Paul Schrader.

Rolling Thunder’s importance to Tarantino and The Movie Critic became clear at the Cannes Film Festival last year. That May, the filmmaker put on a Directors’ Fortnight special screening of Rolling Thunder – a relatively obscure movie he’d previously championed at length in his 2022 book, Cinema Speculation.

“I’ve been pushing the respect for this movie for a long time,” Tarantino told Deadline’s Baz Bamigboye, “And we finally got it.”

As Tarantino sat sipping juice on a hotel terrace, he recalled seeing Rolling Thunder on a double bill with Enter The Dragon, and how he was impressed by its “combination of character study and action film.”

William Devane (left) and a young Tommy Lee Jones (right) in Rolling Thunder. Credit: StudioCanal.

What Tarantino didn’t mention at the time was that he’d already approached Paul Schrader and asked for permission to “shoot the original script ending of Rolling Thunder for his film Movie Critic” as the screenwriter himself later put it on Facebook.

Schrader had originally written Rolling Thunder earlier in the 1970s, around the same time he wrote the script for Taxi Driver, which Martin Scorsese brought to the screen in 1976. Like Taxi Driver, Schrader’s original draft of Rolling Thunder is raw and angry. Its title is based on the code name for aerial bombing operations in the Vietnam war, and also signposts the film’s menacing tone. The script introduces Charles Rane, a US Air Force veteran who, having spent years in a prisoner of war camp, returns to a home country he barely recognises. His son is no longer a toddler; his wife has started a new relationship with a local cop, and wants a divorce.

Things take an even darker turn when a gang of robbers breaks into Rane’s home and steal a cache of money given to him in a homecoming ceremony; Rane’s wife and child are killed in the attack, and Rane is brutally tortured and left for dead. Having narrowly survived the attack, Rane plots his revenge, eventually tracking down the culprits to a bordello in Juarez, where a bloody shootout takes place.

The filmed version of Rolling Thunder, rewritten by Heywood Gould (The Boys From Brazil, Cocktail), tones down the harshness somewhat. The concluding bloodbath Schrader came up with is closer in tone to the nightmarish ending of Taxi Driver, with both villains and bystanders killed with icy abandon.

Devane’s arm mysteriously grows longer after he’s gained a hook for a hand, but we’ll gloss over that. Credit: StudioCanal.

Rane is also a less sympathetic figure than the one played by William Devane in the finished film; Schrader depicts him as pro-Nixon and rather more politically incorrect than his screen incarnation. Devane, who at the time was considered a rising star, had Gould rewrite the script, softening the character and adding several monologues which the actor largely abandoned.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see Rolling Thunder’s influence on Tarantino. It’s a pulp thriller, but there’s a seriousness to its depiction of a war veteran numbed and broken by his experiences. Its tone is cynical, but there’s a spark to the characters and dialogue, particularly in the movingly lop-sided relationship between Rane and a 30-something bar worker, Linda. Then there’s the violence, which, although less withering than in Schrader’s script, is still extraordinarily harsh in places.

The scene in which Rane is tortured – his hand is forced down a waste disposal unit – and his family killed was considered so extreme that test audiences stormed out in protest. Twentieth Century-Fox, which initially produced the film, was perturbed enough that it insisted the sequence be toned down. Producer Lawrence Gordon refused, and Rolling Thunder was eventually released (uncut) by American International Pictures.

It’s likely that Tarantino would have been quite gleeful had a film of his been greeted with this kind of reaction; certainly, the provocative violence in his debut Reservoir Dogs didn’t hurt his own reputation as an up-and-coming filmmaker in 1992.

Another distinctly Tarantino-esque element can also be found in Schrader’s original Rolling Thunder script. On page 22, only a few lines before Rane’s life is violently derailed, the protagonist visits a drive-in theatre, and sits in his Cadillac as the X-rated film Deep Throat unspools on the screen. There, Rane notices a shadowy figure staring at him: a “young punk” wearing an army jacket.

“Those who have read another script of mine titled Taxi Driver will recognise this young man,” Schrader wrote. “His name is Travis Bickle.”

Taxi Driver
Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle (though not necessarily Robert De Niro might have made a cameo in Rolling Thunder had it been shot exactly as written. Credit: Columbia Pictures/Sony.

It’s a quiet echo of Tarantino’s own habit of forging connections between his screenplays, whether it’s Pulp Fiction’s Vinnie Vega being a relation to Victor ‘Mr Blonde’ Vega in Reservoir Dogs or the repeated appearances of brands like Red Apple Cigarettes or Big Kahuna burgers.

Tarantino would, according to The Hollywood Reporter, have brought this interconnectedness to its natural conclusion in The Movie Critic, with ‘movie within a movie’ segments that “could bring back some of the stars of his earlier work to reprise their iconic characters.”

The common thread that would tie all these movie references together also has a vague connection to Paul Schrader’s work. Back at Cannes last year, Tarantino explained that the movie critic of his film’s title was loosely based on a real writer – “a guy who really lived, but was never really famous, and he used to write movie reviews for a porno rag.”

There has been a bit of speculation over who the real-world movie critic Tarantino describes might be. World of Reel, for example, suggested it could be William Margold – a writer for, among other things, the defunct adult entertainment magazine LA XPress. Tarantino is such a fan of Margold that he’s written several reviews of his own in the critic’s style, adopting the pseudonym Jim Sheldon.

“He wrote about mainstream movies and he was the second-string critic,” Tarantino told Deadline of the writer that inspired him. “I think he was a very good critic. He was as cynical as hell. His reviews were a cross between early Howard Stern and what Travis Bickle [Robert DeNiro’s character in Taxi Driver] might be if he were a film critic.”

There’s that Schrader connection again. (Interestingly, Schrader was himself a movie critic before he broke through as a screenwriter, and Taxi Driver was loosely based on his own fractured mental state in the early 1970s.)

Rolling Thunder simmers until its violent climax, which, while not as nihilistic as the script, was pretty startling for the time. Credit: StudioCanal.

The Movie Critic would therefore have given Tarantino free reign to both celebrate his favourite films, writers and directors, and rewrite history in a similar fashion to his earlier Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood and Inglourious Basterds. Schrader told French outlet Le Monde in 2023 that “Quentin will insert extracts from films from the 1970s. And he will also make his own versions of films from that era.”

Given that Tarantino planned to re-stage Rolling Thunder’s ending as originally envisioned by Schrader, we can only wonder what else he had in mind. His book Cinema Speculation talks at length about such films as Dirty Harry (1971) and Deliverance (1972), while those ‘Grindhouse mini-reviews’ he wrote as Jim Shelton cover more obscure movies like Target Of An Assassin (1977) and Death Force (1978). Perhaps at least a couple of these would have featured in The Movie Critic in some way, perhaps with an appearance from Cliff Booth here and there.

As perfect as The Movie Critic might have sounded as a capstone to Tarantino’s filmmaking career, though, it’s unlikely we’ll ever get to see it. After almost two years of talking about it, and even reports that it was set to begin filming later in 2024 or early 2025, Tarantino pulled the plug on the project for reasons unclear. It’s been suggested that other projects have drawn his attention elsewhere, or that he’s feeling a modicum of pressure over his self-set goal of “going out on top” with the best film he can muster.

There is some small hope that The Movie Critic will happen, though. The California Film Commission, a department which offers tax incentives to filmmakers shooting in the state, still listed The Movie Critic as an “active project” in April of this year, and had granted the production $20m if it went ahead. According to The Hollywood Reporter, a source at the commission said, “We’ve not been notified by them about dropping or pulling out or anything.”

Tarantino has form when it comes to dropping projects and then returning to them – just look at The Hateful Eight, which he almost abandoned when the script leaked online, but later shot in 2015. Given how steeped the project is in Tarantino’s personal history and interests, there’s still an outside chance, then, that The Movie Critic – and its homage to Paul Schrader’s Rolling Thunder – might one day happen.

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