Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Written by: Quentin Tarantino (screenplay)
Starring: John Travola, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman and Bruce Willis
It’s hard to weigh the merit of a movie like Pulp Fiction. Quentin Tarantino’s bloody chat-fest had a sudden and immediate impact on the landscape of American film, yet it’s still young in the eyes of the art form. It is a classic like all those old movies you associate with that word (some of which it references), yet it’s filled to the brim with sleaze.
Pulp Fiction forges its story of fragments of other movies, most of which wouldn’t have made it past the cutting room floor. There are heated exchanges about fast food in Europe, riffs on the sexual nature of foot massages and lengthy discussions on what a television pilot is. All of those happen in the first scene that hit men Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules have together.
After a similarly chatty opener where two lovebirds decide to rob a diner, these two hit men banter back and forth. Much has been made of the highly stylized dialogue, so much so that these types of conversations have earned this director his own label: “Tarantinoesque.”
A lot of the conversation about Pulp Fiction is about the dialogue, and yes, it is some of the best written vulgar poetry in movie history. What many fail to realize, though, is how it is woven so seamlessly into the narrative. The conversation Jules and Vince have about Quarter Pounders with Cheese in Europe is brought up tauntingly when they arrive at their marks’ apartment. Their talk of foot massages is a segue to Vince’s sort-of-date with Mia (Uma Thurman), his boss’ wife.
One of the chief complaints I hear about this movie is that it has no purpose, that it exists for its conversations. It is true that these degenerates talk way more than your average movie character, but their dialogue isn’t wasted. Tarantino finds absurd topics of conversation, and has them approach them from different angles to either further the plot or further the character. If in no other way, it subscribes to that typical formula of screenwriting.
Though it partially redefined American independent cinema with innovation, most of Pulp Fiction’s game-changing happened at the box office. With a budget of only $8 million, this film turned a profit of over $100 million in domestic returns and reached $200 million worldwide. Americans actually bought into this violent, revolutionarily weird vision. It marked the success of a genuine auteur at both the commercial and philosophical level.
In addition to narrative, Tarantino also approaches his philosophy in a roundabout way. The underlying themes of Pulp Fiction are guilt and redemption and how each of the protagonists in the three separate stories deal with them. All of the characters are motivated by guilt, selfishness or compassion in one form or another.
Those are all fairly common motivators for many movie characters, but these ones seem to have no end-game. They are presented with a series of rapid-fire decisions and forced to act on them. It’s as simple as Vince deciding the extent of his participation on his date with Mia and as complicated as Bruce Willis’ Butch to pull the trigger when he realizes someone else is in his apartment. He could make off with his prized gold watch undetected, but this other man is there to kill him, and doesn’t that mean he should die?
Butch’s middle segment is the most wildly separate from the other chapters because of its tone and his placement in relation to the criminal world. He is an outsider to Marsellus Wallace’s (Ving Rhames) organization; a boxer being paid to throw a fight. Of course he does the opposite and collects on the disrupted collective wisdom of the bookies. He flees the boxing match to meet up with his fiance Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros), but not before his eccentric cab driver (Angela Jones) can chat him up about killing men.
Butch didn’t just disobey Wallace’s instruction to throw the fight, he killed the other boxer. His violence is a result of his broken pride, and it’s used to hurt (like Wallace said it would) but mostly just other people. Tarantino intricately folds Butch’s intial choices over themselves, and then magnifys them with even more violent outbursts. He gets to choose if the intruder lives or dies, but that is a gateway to his most important choice: if Wallace lives or dies.
In the movie’s most notorious and bizarre segment, Butch and Wallace are taken prisoner by a couple sadistic rapists. They were pursuing each other in a clumsy chase after a chance encounter, and instead of police intervention, the Confederate-flag wielding business owner takes them hostage when they burst into his store.
We in the audience feel the same surprise when the movie abruptly cuts from two knocked out bodies to a secret dungeon where they are tied to chairs and ball-gagged. Tarantino is in complete control of this sequence, and exploits audience expectation until its brutally medieval compromise between Butch and Marsellus.
Though Wallace isn’t in the movie nearly as much as his employees, he is the connecting dot of every character, and the cause of most of the moral dilemmas. Vince needs to decide if pursuing Mia is worth the wrath of his boss, who is said to have thrown a man off a balcony just for giving her a foot massage. Thankfully, her drug overdose prevents him from having to make a choice about that, and also leads to the most suspenseful shot injection in movie history.
Travolta is the main character in Pulp Fiction if there even is one. Tarantino is credited with reviving his career with this fantastic role, though Blow Out still remains his best film performance. The real powerhouse performance comes from Samuel L. Jackson, who belches fire and brimstone as Jules. His crisis of conscience at the end is a wonderful yin to the fire-breathing yang of his earlier scenes. Jackson captures a soul in crisis whose time to get out isn’t too late.
Pulp Fiction is full of a cast of colorful supporting characters. In fact, you could argue that every character is a colorful supporting character. From Harvey Keitel’s wonderfully rapid fire body disposer nicknamed ‘The Wolf’ to the pair of robbers (Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer) that bookend the movie, Pulp Fiction burns in your memory because its characters are impossible to forget. Its grimy visual style borrowed New Wave techniques to help create a newer one, and its foulmouthed ripple effect has inspired countless film buffs to try and copy Tarantino’s formula, but to no avail (yet.) As it turns out, Tarantino is the only one who can successfully copy Tarantino.