Pulp Fiction is a 1994 crime drama directed by Quentin Tarantino, based on a script by Tarantino and Roger Avary. The movie also has elements of black comedy and neo-noir, but ultimately transcends genre to care its own unique identity in cinema. The movie is one of the most talked about films of all time, with many critics examining the film, attempting to figure out what it is trying to say and why audiences are so captivated by it. Is the film too over the top in its violence, and is that harmful to viewers? Is there ultimately any point to anything in the film? And what the heck is in that briefcase?
This is not an article seeking to answer any of those questions. Instead, I just want to shine a spotlight on the fact that we are still asking questions about Pulp Fiction over twenty years after it first hit theaters. Tarantino’s breakthrough hit is one that has left a mark on cinema and pop culture. It brought John Travolta back into the limelight and made stars out of Uma Thurman, Tim Roth and most famously Samuel L. Jackson. And despite a fair number of critics, it still stands as essential viewing for any dedicated fan of movies.
Pulp Fiction has been dissected by almost every movie critic out there, and if you want serious in-depth analysis it is easy to find. For the sake of not being a Wikipedia article and to not give spoilers for those who haven’t seen it, I want to talk about my personal experience with the film and what stands out about to me. While I had seen and heard bits and pieces of the movie due to its cultural impact, I didn’t see it until I was twenty or so. And I’m actually glad that it took me that long to see it; film was a love that I discovered in college when I took an “Intro to Film” class and got an opportunity to learn about things like cinematography, composition and editing. While I would have always appreciated the acting, the characters and the dialogue, I wouldn’t have been able to fully grasp what makes Tarantino’s films stand out visually.
For me, what stands out most about this film is the way the characters talk to each other, and more importantly, what they talk about. We are introduced to the two main characters of Vincent Vega (Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Jackson) driving in a car talking about Vega’s recent trip to Europe, and specifically, the differences in how McDonalds markets their burgers for the European Market. Again, I won’t get into specifics here; if you’ve seen the movie you know the joke and if you haven’t I don’t want to spoil it. Vega later talks to Uma Thurman’s character Mia Wallace, the wife of his boss, about her brief acting career. Neither of these topics have anything to do with the plot of the movie, but they stick with audiences because it is in these frivolous conversations that we grow to understand the characters and their relationships with each other.
If this seems like an odd thing to bring up, I suggest watching this movie directly after watching another of my favorite movies: Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). While that movie is my favorite Batman movie ever and has plenty of interesting themes, the dialogue is always driving the plot forward or blatantly psycho-analyzing the characters. While much of what is discussed is interesting, very little of it feels natural or organic. The characters are telling a story and that is all that matters. Tarantino is a director that understands that having characters that are both larger than life and very human is what anchors any good film. Pulp Fiction has some important plot points, twists and turns that drive the narrative. But the purpose of the plot twists is to put the characters into new situations where they can interact with each other and live their lives. That’s why they stick with us long after the movie is complete.
Pulp Fiction is also perhaps the best example of non-linear storytelling done well. There are a lot of movies that tell their stories “out of order” so to speak; there are times when it works (Christopher Nolan’s 2000 thriller Memento) and times where it is done so clumsily that it can derail a film (Man of Steel, for example). Pulp Fiction is carefully, meticulously constructed so that even when the film teeters on becoming confusing, we know enough the characters in the new situation that we aren’t totally lost. By the end of the movie everything comes together perfectly, and the film actually becomes more rewarding to watch the second time. With the benefit of insight into the characters’ lives, we find new layers in scenes that we couldn’t possibly know the first time we viewed the movie.
The last thing that stood out to me immediately was Samuel L. Jackson’s performance. While the shouting of a mangled verse from the book of Ezekiel is a moment that has become iconic, it is the re-visitation of this speech that really sticks with me. Sam is known for his charismatic and bombastic performances, but this quieter, more introspective scene may be the best acting of Jackson’s career. I really enjoy Jules’ arc as a corrupt man who finds his own version of faith and mercy, especially juxtaposed to Vincent’s cynicism and general apathy. On a larger scale, it impressed me that the themes of redemption and forgiveness were prevalent in a film known mostly for its violence. Those themes haven’t exactly been revisited by Tarantino in his other movies, and probably for good reason; he gets his point across well enough in this movie.
Pulp Fiction is not a movie that I would personally count among my very favorites, but it is one of the movies I respect the most. It is the definitive Quentin Tarantino film and one that deserves the legacy that it has. It isn’t perfect, but no movie is. In fact, I would argue that its the movies that overcome flaws that stand out most; it is more important to strike and emotional chord and challenge the audience’s perception of how movies can be made than to be a flawless, potentially lifeless film. And Pulp Fiction is anything but lifeless.