Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Modern Classic Movie Review: Pulp Fiction

As a special treat to celebrate my 100th movie review posted to this site (I've actually written more than 100, but they haven't all been posted here) I decided to write a full length review of the film that got me interested in film in the first place.

Additionally, over the next few weeks I will post, in pieces, the full analysis I did on the film several years ago. Keep your eyes open for that starting this week.

It’s amazing to me that after roughly twenty viewings from beginning to end plus an exhaustive shot-by-shot study of it, there are still moments in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction that make me smile, chuckle or even downright surprise me: The Wolf’s smile of appreciation for the delicious coffee served up by Jimmy; Mia Wallace’s tomato joke to break the tension after an intense scene. Incredibly, watching it again for this review, I even pulled out something new that I had never picked up on before. And it wasn’t even a minor detail, but one that ties into one of the major themes of the film.

Pulp Fiction was the film that turned me on to cinema. It was really a perfect storm of events that brought it about. It was released and I saw it when I was 16, an age at which I was undergoing monumental shifts in my approach to the world. I can’t discount that fact when considering my opinion of the film. If I’d seen it at age 12 I wouldn’t have gotten any of it. If I’d been 25, perhaps I would have already been too jaded to enjoy it fully.

Tarantino made the film on the wave of independent success his earlier film, Reservoir Dogs. Miramax studio gave him a larger operating budget and he was able to cast bigger stars like John Travolta, whose career was hugely resurrected by his performance as Vincent Vega; Samuel L. Jackson, who became a serious Hollywood star following this; Uma Thurman, only 23 at the time of filming, but well-known for minor romantic comedies and thrillers; and Bruce Willis.

His screenplay is divided into three stories, all preceded by a title card. First there’s the story of the hitman (Vincent Vega) who has to take his boss’s wife, Mia (Uma Thurman), out for the evening while her husband, Marsellus (Ving Rhames), is away. There’s the story of Butch (Willis), the aging boxer paid by Marsellus to throw a fight which he does not throw, and his adventure to retrieve his gold watch. Finally there’s two hit men, Vincent again and Jules (Jackson) in a messy situation that needs a quick solution.

The three separate stories are all intertwined and not told linearly. One of the beauties of it is that each story could stand on its own as a short film and in a way that’s what they each are. But that each story adds a further dimension to the others is part of what makes the film much deeper than what many view as a too clever by half gimmick. The non-linear progression is not simply a gimmick, but rather an essential aspect of the film’s narrative. Without the reconfiguration of time, the story simply is not the same. There are aspects of character development that only work out of chronological order. Not to mention, the fates of two key characters would take place at odd points if the film were presented chronologically. As it stands, both those characters are alive at the end of the film, but one would otherwise be dead. The other reaches an important life decision in the closing scene which would have happened in the middle.

Tarantino is a screenwriter well-known for his pop-culture reference inflected dialogue. It doesn’t come as highly stylized as other writers, which affords it the advantage that it sounds very much like the way most people talk about trivial nonsense. Maybe Tarantino characters all talk a bit like the writer himself, but isn’t there some truth to the fact that most of us have very similar ways of talking about these things, at least in the words we choose if not in the rhythms and cadence of our speech?

Pulp Fiction really has two major themes working for it. One is redemption. That is the redemption of both Butch and Jules in very different ways. Jules, after witnessing what he believes to be a miracle, decides to make a transition in his life, which leads eventually to his attempt at redeeming another man.

Butch, having made a deal with Marsellus to throw a boxing match, double crosses him by winning the match, but not after having laid a slew of bets around with bookies who knew about the fix. He just wants to retire to a Pacific island with his newfound cash and his Sugar-pop sweet girlfriend, Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros). Of course Marsellus wants to hunt him down to get his revenge and their mutual animosity leads them to the single most bizarre incident I can recall seeing in a major Hollywood movie: a foray into the cellar of a shop owned by two men straight out of Deliverance.

This is another one of the marvelous aspects of Tarantino’s screenplay. There are these abrupt shifts in narrative. One minute we think we’re watching a revenge plot and the next moment we’re in hell with two redneck rapists. The same happens in the first of the three stories. Just at the moment when we think Vincent is about to make a serious mistake with Mia, something completely unexpected happens, leading to one of the most harrowing experiences I’ve ever had in a movie theater – the famous adrenaline shot scene. I attended a screening that had a man scrambling up the aisle apparently sick with nausea, I presume. Although it may have been something more serious the way his friend followed behind calling for help.

It’s easy to classify these sudden shifts in narrative as little more than a way of toying with the audience. There may be something to that, but I believe (and this ties into the second theme) that he’s playing with audience expectation. Further than that, there’s evidence in the film that he’s also trying to say something about perception. The film contains two scenes that are each presented at two different moments in the film, thus tying together different stories. There are subtle differences each time we see them, which may be chalked up to continuity errors, but what we’re really looking at is the same event from a different perspective.

Travolta and Jackson are truly magnificent in their roles, each duly nominated for Oscars, as was Thurman. But the spaces are filled out with great actors in minor roles: Eric Stoltz is a drug dealer who may have supplied Jeff “Dude” Lebowski’s wardrobe; Rosanna Arquette is his 18-times pierced (every one of them with a needle – forget that gun) wife; Steve Buscemi shows up as a Buddy Holly impersonating waiter; Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer are a loving couple who decide on a whim to rob the diner where they’re having breakfast; Harvey Keitel as problem solver Winston Wolf; Frank Whaley; Peter Greene; and of course the great Christopher Walken, called upon to deliver one of the greatest monologues ever written for the screen. The thing about that monologue is that I can’t imagine any other actor performing it nearly as well or as convincingly as Walken.

Pulp Fiction ushered in an era of copycat film makers trying to capitalize on the hip cool world of Quentin Tarantino. He had many imitators for several years, but even without films such as Go or Two Days in the Valley which self-consciously emulate his style, the film has subtly influenced countless film makers in the nearly 17 years since it won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Who says a story has to be told linearly? Novels were playing with disjointed time long before Tarantino came along and the beloved Casablanca has one of the most famous flashback sequences in film history. Nothing can touch Pulp Fiction for sheer audacity, good fun and real commercial viability. Forrest Gump may have taken the Best Picture Oscar that year, but if I had to bet, I’d put my money on Tarantino to be the one whose film is talked about more often after fifty years.


  1. 100 reviews? Congratulations!!! On to the next 100 and to infinity and beyond...

  2. Thanks for sharing the review,It is the best film of 1994,and of this decade.According to me one of the coolest things about pulp fiction is its many links to other pleasures.