Pulp Fiction (1994): United States – directed by Quentin Tarantino
Rated R by the MPAA – contains constant profanity, some graphic violence, mature themes and dialogue, and some graphic drug use
Pulp Fiction has been regarded as one of the 1990’s premiere films for quite some time now. After Quentin Tarantino blew up the independent film world with his fast talking characters in Reservoir Dogs, he followed it up with another “independent” film, Pulp Fiction. The $7 million budget and host of huge stars seemed to make the independent label ridiculous, but the point was that smaller studios were now able to pump out quality material that could compete with the big Hollywood studios. It signaled a change in the way the film system worked.
In the years since, numerous college kids have latched onto the film, often enjoying the frequent profanity and absurd, sudden violence. The first full-sized poster I bought in college was of Vince Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson). The movie is often quoted and analyzed, particularly the gold-glowing contents of the briefcase. But this, too, is just a MacGuffin, like much of the plot. Pulp Fiction prefers its characters to its events and its dialogue to its actions.
The movie is as good as the hype, and deeper and more complex than most college-age kids would likely realize. Watching it again several years later allowed me more insight into what Tarantino had in mind. The plot is still almost superfluous, but it is never uninteresting. It is a little hard to sum up briefly, as it concerns three primary stories whose characters and events intersect in odd and unforeseen ways. Vince Vega and Jules Winnfield are hitmen and general handymen for the mysterious Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). For much of the film they are pursuing a briefcase some low-life hoods swiped from Marcellus. In another story, Vince is tasked with taking Marcellus’s wife, Mia (Uma Thurman) out for an evening, providing her company and a good time while Marcellus is away. Finally, there is the story of a boxer, Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis), whose final plan is to stiff Marcellus and not throw a rigged fight, running away with his girlfiend, Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros), after the fight.
Tarantino takes these stories, lifted stylistically from the pages of pulp novels, and tells them with a dialectical brashness that would be in line, cinematically, with L’âge d’or (The Age of Gold) [review here] and Breathless. It seems that he throws all of his ideas on screen, and then chips away at it. But instead of leaving what the audience expects, he leaves what most other filmmakers would discard. He leaves the quiet moments, the times between the actions when the characters are making small talk. He leaves conversations about foot massages and quarter pounders, pot bellies and miracles. He leaves in conversations about the act of talking, how people talk and how silly it is at times. The charm of the film lies in how truthful and unique the characters and dialogue is. The speech about the importance of being able to be with a person without speaking resonated with me for years after I first saw the film.
There is also a great deal of random and obscene violence, ranging from a hilarious scene where a head is accidentally blown open to a disturbing scene involving a couple of rapist rednecks. But the violence has a point, and in the case of poor Marvin’s (Phil LaMarr) head, the film lingers on the aftermath much more than the act. The cleanup is long and arduous, requiring the skills of The Wolf (Harvey Keitel). The immediate consequences of violence are shown; amusingly, to be sure, but nevertheless honestly. In the case of the rape in Zed’s (Peter Greene) dungeon, Butch finally finds redemption by providing salvation for another character. Jules, too, is an interesting character. A near miss (several of them, actually) during the briefcase rescue convinces him of the existence of a higher power, some being or force that has a plan for his life. He finds his salvation by having faith, not by deeds, like Butch, and in the end manages to survive where other characters are either ravaged or dead.
The visual style is relatively unimportant to Pulp Fiction. There are some remarkable shots, such as when the camera follows Jules and Vince to their hit, down multiple hallways as they discuss Vince’s upcoming “date” with Mia. It pulls back as they decide to wait, letting the conversation continue in another hallway as it waits patiently for them to return. Generally speaking, though, the camera exists to let the characters talk. It stays out of the way so the all-important discussions can continue undisrupted.
There is a lot of comedy in Pulp Fiction, and some have complained that much of the laughter comes from the ridiculous violence. It is funny, given that even the violence is not as the audience might expect. It is often sudden and graphic, shocking in its jarring effect. The way the characters react to the violence is what makes it funny. “Man, I shot Marvin in the face” is still an amusing line, because it is exactly the opposite of how someone would normally react.
Tarantino’s devil-may-care sensibilities are generally what make Pulp Fiction a bona fide classic. His groundbreaking style, an amalgamation of much of the cinema that preceded it, combined with his acute sense of snappy and interesting dialogue make it a wild ride, and one that won’t be quickly forgotten. For sentimental reasons (Pulp Fiction being the movie we watched when I first asked my wife out) and technical and cinematic reasons, Pulp Fiction will always remain one of my favorite films.