I don’t like having to review films as universally praised as Pulp Fiction. More so than any other films I feel as though I have to be more precise and spot on about how I view the film. The reason is primarily because that I’m not just reviewing any old film here, I’m reviewing a film that goes beyond just being of a high calibre. I’m reviewing a film that is considered one of the most influential and ground breaking of all time. I wonder if these days younger people coming to view Pulp Fiction will even be as impressed by it as people my own age were when it first appeared. The appearance and effect f Pulp Fiction on cinema in 1994 was the equivalent of someone taking a baseball bat to every trope, character archetype and contemporary story telling structure and wail on them until all that was left was the fragments that now formed something whole but entirely new. Part anthology tale, part crime caper, part dissertation on cinema history, Pulp Fiction is THE film of the 90s. Click my link to read me saying things that has been said a million times before.
It is not easy to give a plot synopsis for Pulp Fiction. The film is, of all the Tarantino films, the most jumbled in terms of it’s chronological order. The opening and closing scenes of the film are part of the same sequence both starting from different viewpoints and actually occurring pretty much in the middle of the films timeline. Yet the opening scene hooks you in in a similar way to the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs, it even takes place in a diner. The final scene also lends a sense of closure for one of the main characters and feels like a triumphant moment and a great place to finish a story. The final point of the films chronological story would also be a good place to end the film but early on we are introduced to Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L Jackson) and a large portion of the film is devoted to those two characters, so ending with them is the logical end point for the film. The structure can best be described as circular with the odd moment adding questions that will be answered later. For example, when boxer Butch (Bruce Willis) is accepting a bribe to throw a fight Vincent and Jules walk in to the bar dressed in shorts and dorky t-shirts, very unlike the cool suits they were wearing. That’s enough to make us wonder how they ended up looking like a couple of dorks when they were so cool a few moments earlier. Later we see the grisly events that lead to this change of clothes and the payoff is much greater than you’d likely imagine.
Lets get some of the general praise out of the way now before getting stuck into a few key scenes and themes. Pulp Fiction hits you in the head with a score so cool it could chill your glass of Coke and even create a few ice cubes out of the air just to plink into said glass. The film opens with Misirlou and as the titles vanish the sound of a radio station changing kicks in and a new song is played which then becomes the music being played on Jules’ car stereo. This small moment recalls the radio station heard throughout Reservoir Dogs. Sally Menke’s editing features some great moments and really showcases her skill to take a slow moment and make it fast in an instant, the best example being the moment Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) spots Butch at the traffic lights and Butch suddenly speeds away and crashes his car. The dialogue is silky smooth and loaded with character and charm. You feel Jules’ genuine interest in Vincent’s stories of life in Amsterdam, where he had been for 3 years, which informs his desire to leave LA and the eventual “moment of clarity” he encounters later in the film. Tarantino revels in placing the camera in inventive position that never risk being distracting , unlike how they often do in Guy Richie films. The entire film is beyond really, really good.
So, scenes and what they mean. After the opening diner scene we have a sequence involving Vincent and Jules heading to an apartment where they will retrieve a briefcase belonging to their boss Marsellus. In this sequence we not only learn their characters but also peek directly into the mind of Quentin Tarantino. The sequence begins with Vincent telling Jules all about his trip around Europe, regaling him with stories of Royales with cheese and the laws of pot smoking in Amsterdam. They arrive at their apartment a little early and decide to continue a conversation about the intimacy of a foot massage and Vincent’s upcoming duties to entertain Marsellus’ wife Mia (Uma Thurman). Before heading back to the apartment door Jules remarks that they should “get into character”, that character being a pair of scary heavies under the employ of the as yet unseen Marsellus Wallace. This sequence riffs on the 1946 film The Killers, which opens with two hitmen killing their target without saying a word. They arrive and kill. Here Tarantino suggests that killers such as these wouldn’t just arrive in silence, he ponders what killers such as them would discuss on their way to the hit. They probably know each other well, they’d probably just discuss normal stuff. Here we appear to see Vincent and Jules talking about random subjects, but each one of the subjects they discuss appear later in the film. When in the apartment Vincent retrieves the briefcase (which has the combination 666) and he opens it. We never see what’s inside the case but we see it’s near otherworldly glow. Vincent is transfixed by this glowing object. The briefcase and its content are pure MacGuffin but the also reference the 1955 film Kiss Me Deadly. After that Jules recites a phrase from the Bible to strike fear into his target before he kills him. This recalls Japanese series Kage No Gundan (Also referenced multiple times in Kill Bill Vol.1) where Sonny Chiba’s character would give damning speeches designed to incite fear in his enemies before slaying them. This isn’t just referencing for the sake of it. Every single nod enriches the film and every line of dialogue between them is important.
When we return to this scene later the repeating trope of scenes involving bathrooms comes up. When you watch this next pay attention to just how many times characters are seen in a bathroom. Nearly each trip results in something bad happening. Vincent makes 3 separate trips to the toilet in the film and each time he returns the situation outside has take a turn for the worse. I’m not entirely sure what significance the bathroom has for Tarantino but I suspect the idea of the world passing by whilst on the loo might be something to do with it. This (Faecal… sorry) matter has actually been debated by many people who believe that Tarantino is making some correlation between violence, shit and femininity. The last element being due to Vincent reading Modesty Blaise whilst on the toilet and it being shown on the floor next to his (SPOILERS BTW) dead body after being caught out by Butch holding an sub-machine gun. I think it’s all just part of his dry and occasionally dark sense of humour.
In a later scene Butch has had to head home to retrieve a watch that’s been handed down through his family from one generation to the next. This is after he not only doesn’t throw the fight he was paid to throw but ended up killing his opponent in the process. An event we do not see which recalls the unseen Jewellery store heist in Reservoir Dogs and in turn the works of Yasujiro Ozu. Eventually this leads to him getting into a fight with Marsellus in a shop and having the fight stopped by a shopkeeper with a shotgun. The shopkeeper knocks Butch out and takes both men into his basement and invites over a man named Zed (Peter Greene) who has some very particular ideas as to what to do with the two captives. What transpires involves ball gags, male on male rape and a gimp. Whilst Marsellus is at Zed’s mercy Butch breaks free and goes to leave the store leaving Marsellus to his fate. His conscience gets the better of him though and he picks a weapon to save his enemy from being buggered repeatedly in the arse. The picking of weapons is the moment I really like at this point in the film. Butch picks 4 weapons in a row, the first 3 being brutal, nihilistic choices and the final being one generally associated with heroic actions. He first picks a hammer, referencing The Toolbox Murders, and rejects this choice. Then he picks a Baseball bat, likely referencing the original 1973 version of Walking Tall, he rejects his brutal weapon also. He then picks a chainsaw, referencing Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Evil Dead 2 and Scarface, he again rejects it. Lastly he sees a weapon off screen, a Samurai sword. By accepting the Samurai sword Butch is accepting a more heroic role than he is used to. Marsellus is a man that wants to kill Butch for not throwing the fight mentioned earlier. Butch decides here to rescue the man who wants him dead as an act of altruism knowing there’s a good chance Marsellus will still want him dead for getting him into this situation in the first place. That short sequence of choosing a weapon is one of those rare moments in cinema where a weapon is a crucial part of a character and here it works beautifully.
The entire world of Pulp Fiction, and by proxy all Tarantino films, is obsessed with pop culture. Even a thug like Vincent is able to tell the difference between a Marilyn Monroe impersonator and a Mamie Van Doren impersonator in the retro Hollywood and Rock N Roll themed Jackrabbit Slims restaurant. If the theory that all of Tarantino’s films exist in the same universe is true then maybe this is understandable as in this world Adolf Hitler was assassinated in a cinema. An event that would likely create some sort of greater symbolism for the cinematic arts. But this is mostly down to these worlds existing inside the brain of a man that is a walking, living, breathing catalogue of film knowledge, nuance and obscurities. If there is any unifying world that Tarantino’s films exist in it is the world within his mind. By this belief we see that he is a film maker not just making entertainment for you, but also inviting you into his mind to see what he sees and feel the world the way he feels it. He’s a man that abhors violence in real life, many would say he glorifies it on film, but pay attention to how violence is depicted to whom. Those characters that are corrupt of evil get more painful and violent deaths. Those that are innocent or maybe don’t deserve to be killed generally do so in a bloodless manner. Except maybe Mr Pink in Reservoir Dogs, but he was a police informant and so was betraying the trust of the characters he was with. That said his death actually happens off camera, he just bled a lot on the way there.
Overall Pulp Fiction is an actual, bonafide, unquestionable masterpiece of cinema. It is and fully deserves to be regarded with the sort of reverence generally reserved for films such as the Third Man, Citizen Kane, Chinatown and Tokyo Story. It caused a wave of imitators and is a film that’s likely influenced the majority of Hollywood directors working today that have emerged since the dawn of the 2000s. What will be interesting is seeing how Pulp Fiction effects directors appearing 20 or 30 years from now, in a time where the work is able to stand out apart from the other materials present at the time as a film that is specifically the epitome of what we currently call modern film making. Yes it’s been nearly 20 years almost since it’s release, but it’s echoes are still heard in films today in a clear manner. It’s when those echoes soften and the true influence comes through on a more subtle level that we’ll truly see just how much an impact this can have on film makers who never experienced the era the film depicts. Pulp Fiction is a must watch film for any student of film and is also a damn entertaining, funny and satisfying piece of film for anyone that just wants to watch a film featuring excessive foot shots, darkly comic events and male on male buggery. Now, who doesn’t love those film tropes?