Pulp Fiction changed the way I watched movies. I was 23-years old when it came out, and I was about 2 years away from moving to Los Angeles. At the time I thought that I was pretty learned in the ways of cinema. That’s the beauty and curse of youth; you’re not yet old enough to know what you don’t know. I knew very little of this film going into it. In fact, it wasn’t even on my radar until I read a review of it in the paper the day it came out. Based on that review, I went to a matinee and saw it with about 3 or 4 people in the entire theater. I was blown away. In fact, I was so blown away that I went out and told all of my friends that they needed to see this movie, and I dragged many of them to it. In all, I think I saw it 5 or 6 times in the theater, and by the sixth time, word of mouth had spread and the theater was packed. Pulp Fiction was a phenomenon and the prototypical 90’s movie. It was brutal and funny. It was violent and articulate. It was unmerciful and uplifting. This is a film that on the surface looks very clearly like one thing, but when you look under the surface you realize that it is another thing entirely. It’s a film with depth, breadth, wit, and wisdom, and it is one of my top 5 favorite films of all time.
Why it’s essential
Pulp Fiction is a film fan’s film. In the nearly two decades since its release, I’ll admit that some of the shine has come off of its director Quentin Tarantino as a film maker. Pulp Fiction was the second film he directed, following up Reservoir Dogs, plus he wrote the screenplays for cult classics True Romance and Natural Born Killers. He hasn’t really changed his style a whole lot since then, so the same motifs that made these films seem so edgy in the 90’s have now become somewhat stale. Don’t get me wrong. I’m still a huge fan of Tarantino, and he’s never made a film that I’ve disliked. Also, Inglourious Basterds is another BSsential that I’ll write about in upcoming weeks. However, the in-your-face edginess, the violence, the unapologetic drug use, and the eloquent but potentially offensive dialogue that allowed Pulp Fiction to burst on to the scene and announce that film making would be forever different didn’t evolve with the times. We’ve now become so desensitized to those motifs now that they’ve become either stale, or worse, cliche. Tarantino’s last couple of efforts suffer from that, I think, and even though I liked Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, they were not at the same level of his best work.
But Pulp Fiction announced Tarantino’s arrival in grand fashion. When people think about it, I think they generally look at it as a violent film with witty dialogue, but it is so much more than that. Don’t forget that Tarantino won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and was nominated for Best Director. The film was nominated for Best Picture, and should have won, as I articulated here. This is a film that defied convention in almost every way imaginable. The subject matter was edgy, if not downright taboo. The story was told in an unconventional and non-linear way that would have had story traditionalists up in arms. There were no, and I mean no relatable characters in this film. Everyone was either a murderer, a gangster, a thief, or some other sort of reprobate, and yet, we engage with these characters and root for them. But here’s the thing about Pulp Fiction that a lot of people miss. This is actually a morality play where everyone gets some sort of comeuppance, with one very important exception.
In order to prove that point, let’s go on a trip through the film. It opens in a coffee shop where Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) sit in a booth and Pumpkin complains about how hard and dangerous it’s becoming to continue to rob liquor stores and he doesn’t want to do it anymore. Honey Bunny asks him the alternative, and he has the idea of robbing restaurants. The staff is very unlikely to want to risk their lives to save the owner’s money and taking the wallets of the customers will add to the take. Honey Bunny is ready to start right now, and Pumpkin yells out for everyone to be cool, this is a robbery, and Honey Bunny tells everyone to anti up, or she’ll execute every last one of them.
That takes us through the opening credits and we then fade up on Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent Vega (John Travolta) driving in their car with Vincent, who just returned from Amsterdam telling Jules of the subtle differences between Europe and the United States. They get to their destination and enter an apartment where Marvin, their contact is waiting, and Brett (Frank Whaley) and Roger (Burr Steers) are sitting eating breakfast. The tension is palpable as Roger admits to them where the missing case is. Vincent collects it and tells Jules that they’re good. Brett tries to talk their way out of it, and Jules shoots Roger without batting an eyelash. He then recites his famous passage from Ezekiel 25:17 before he and Vincent unload on Brett, gunning him down in cold blood.
Abruptly we cut to a a bar and a close up of Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis), a washed up prize fighter who is being talked to by an off screen Marcelus Wallace (Ving Rhames), who is convincing him why he should take a dive in the fight he’ll be in later. Butch agrees as he takes a wad of cash from Marcelus and then heads over to the bar where Vincent is waiting to meet with Marcelus. Vincent insults Butch a couple of times before Marcelus calls him over, leaving Butch standing there agape.
Vincent has agreed to take Marcelus’s wife Mia (Uma Thurman) out and show her a good time while he’s not around, but he’s had to convince Jules and others that it’s not a date. Before going to pick her up, he goes to meet with his drug dealer Lance (Eric Stoltz), who sells him some of his best heroine. High as a kite, Vincent arrives at Mia’s house and a note left on the door invites him in and to poor himself a drink. Mia watches him on closed circuit TV while she snorts a couple of lines of cocaine. She then has Vincent take her to Jack Rabbit Slims, and there is a mild connection and attraction between the two of them that increases after they win the Jack Rabbit Slims Twist Contest. Vincent takes Mia home, and while he’s in the bathroom, she discovers the heroin in his jacket pocket. Thinking it’s cocaine, she lines some up and snorts it, causing her to immediately OD. Vincent emerges from the bathroom and discovers her. Seeing she’s nearly dead, he rushes her to Lance’s house, and tells a reluctant Lance who she is and the consequences waiting both of them if he doesn’t help. Lance has an adrenalin shot that Vincent plunges into her and she miraculously is revived. Vincent takes her home where she tells him the bad joke that she told on the one pilot she worked on before going into her house. Vincent blows her a kiss and is off.
We cut to a dream sequence where Butch remembers Captain Koons (Christopher Walken) meeting him when he was a young child and telling him of a gold watch that his great grandfather bought before going to World War I. He handed it to Butch’s grandfather who fought and died in World War II, and the watch was passed to Butch’s father who died of dysentery in a Vietnamese POW camp after hiding the watch up his ass for three years. Koons then hid it in his ass for two years and is here now presenting it to Butch. Butch’s young hand reaches up and grabs it, waking present day Butch from his nap. Butch is in the locker room, dressed for his boxing match. Rather than throwing the fight, Butch kills his opponent, having taken the action on his status after word got out that he was throwing it, and costing Marcelus his profits. Butch gets to his motel where his girlfriend Fabienne is waiting, and they talk of their plans to get away. The next morning, Butch can’t find his watch. Fabienne is sure she packed it, but then has to admit that she didn’t.
Frustrated and angry, Butch has to return to his apartment for the watch. He parks a couple of blocks away and sneaks through the back alleys of the neighborhood. He gets into his apartment and finds the watch. Thinking he’s in the clear, Butch throws a couple of toaster pastries in the toaster, then sees the automatic weapon on the counter. Then he hears the toilet flush. He picks up the gun and Vincent opens the door. After a long beat, Vincent shoots him dead and leaves. In his car waiting at the light, Marcelus is crossing with donuts and coffee. They see each other and Butch rams through him, but crashes into another car going through the intersection. When both men come to, Marcelus starts shooting at Butch, who limps down the street, eventually ducking into a pawn shop. Marcelus enters, but Butch has the drop on him, tackles him to the floor and starts beating him. He grabs Marcelus’ gun and is about to shoot him when we hear the click of a cocking shotgun. Maynard the owner of the shop knocks him out and calls Zed, telling him that the spider has caught a couple of flies.
We next see Butch and Marcelus strapped to chairs with red balls blocking their mouths. Zed shows up and chooses Marcelus to do first, they drag the chair into another room and start raping him. Butch manages to get untied, and knocks out the Gimp that Maynard had taken out of a trunk. Butch runs upstairs and is halfway out the door when he looks back and hears Marcelus being tortured. He looks through the drawers and finds a hammer. Then he sees a baseball bat. Then he sees a chainsaw. Finally he notices a samurai sword and takes it downstairs. As Maynard is distracted and turned on by Zed’s raping of Marcelus, Butch sneaks up behind him. Maynard notices him, but too late, and Butch stabs him before holding Zed at bay. As Zed is distracted by Butch, Marcelus has Maynard’s shotgun and shoots Zed in the balls. Butch and Marcelus work it out and Marcelus tells Butch never to tell anyone about this and to leave town. Butch leaves Marcelus standing over a mutilated Zed, and he heads for the street. Stealing Zed’s chopper, he picks up Fabienne and the two of them escape.
We then go back in time to Jules reciting Ezekiel 25:17, but we’re in the bathroom where another gang member is hiding. After they kill Brett, he bursts into the other room with his gun blazing, but he somehow misses Vincent and Jules. They give him a look and shoot him dead. Jules believes this to be a miracle, but Vincent is skeptical and an argument ensues. Jules won’t let them leave until Vincent recognizes this as a miracle, which he reluctantly does. In the car the argument continues with Marvin sitting in the back seat. Vincent, gun in hand, turns to talk to Marvin and his gun accidentally goes off, shooting Marvin in the face. Needing to get the car off the road, Jules calls his friend Jimmie (Tarantino) and they park the car in his garage. The problem for Jimmie is that his wife is due home soon, and they need to solve their problem fast. Jules calls Marcelus who sends over Mr. Wolf (Harvey Keitel), who basically tells them to clean the car. He also has a way to dispose of the body.
With that problem solved, Jules and Vincent decide to go get breakfast. They sit in a coffee shop, continuing to argue over whether or not what happened to them is a miracle. Either way, Jules decides he’s out of the business, and has seen that he has a higher calling. Vincent tells him he’s going to the bathroom, but they’ll continue this conversation when he’s out. While he’s in there, we see Pumpkin and Honey Bunny calling out that this is a robbery. The other customers are barely able to control their panic, but Jules calmly holds his gun under the table and his wallet in the air. When Pumpkin comes over to him, he demands to look in the case. Jules shows him then disarms him and puts his gun to Pumpkin’s head. Honey Bunny comes over to help, but Jules calms them down, and has Pumpkin sit across from him. He tells Pumpkin that he can’t have the case, but he lets him take the $1500 from his wallet. He then recites Ezekiel 25:17 to him and gives a couple of interpretations of it before letting him and Honey Bunny leave. Vincent suggest they get out of there and Jules concurs.
That’s the end of the movie, and Jules is the only character who gets no comeuppance. He rather has a literal come to Jesus moment, and makes the conscious decision to leave the murderous life behind, and he’s the only one who doesn’t have something bad happen to him in this film. All of the unrepentant bad guys do to varying degrees. Vincent gets killed by Butch. Mia OD’s and barely survives. Butch crashes his car and gets severely beaten and kidnapped. Marcelus gets beaten and raped. Jules, presumably, gets away.
Now don’t get me wrong by my phrasing. I don’t consider this a religious film in the least, but it is, as I said before, a morality play. The one guy in the film who walks away from the lifestyle is shown to have found peace. He’s shown to have discovered that there’s more to life than being a gangster or a hitman, and he’s happy to have discovered the change. What’s more, he’s unfazed by Vincent’s taunting of him about it. That thematic element makes this film very deep, and provides it with a message that is easy to overlook because of all of the other noise going on in the film, but once you see it it’s there loud and clear.
The other thing to remember with Pulp Fiction is what it did for the actors in it. This film essentially launched the careers of Jackson, Rhames and Thurman. All of them had been in other and resurrected the careers of Willis and Travolta. Jackson was recognizable at that point and had been seen in films like Jurassic Park, Patriot Games, Menace II Society, Goodfellas and others, but Pulp Fiction made him a bonafide star. The same could be said for Uma Thurman, who had been in films like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Dangerous Liaisons and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, but Pulp Fiction made her a household name. Pulp Fiction also revitalized the stagnant careers of both John Travolta and Bruce Willis. Remember that aside from the Look Who’s Talking movies, Travolta had been unable to even get arrested in Hollywood for about a decade. Willis was coming off a string of box office and critical busts, and it looked like his career was clearly waning. Pulp Fiction put both of them back on the A-list, and neither one of them has looked back since
Overall, Pulp Fiction is a film with deep story and thematic component that is highly entertaining and has some of the best dialogue that has ever been written. If it’s been a while since you’ve seen it, or if you’ve never seen it, don’t let the violence or disturbing subject matter scare you away. It’s actually not gratuitous in the least, but is important to the telling of the story and the presentation of the story’s message. This is a film that is worth seeing and essential viewing for any fan of the movies.