Should I Watch..? Pulp Fiction
What's the big deal?
Pulp Fiction is a comedic crime drama film released in 1994 and was both written and directed by Quentin Tarantino in only his second outing as a director. The film is mostly comprised of three interconnecting stories, told out of sequence, involving numerous criminals in and around LA, a boxer planning on ripping the mob off and a mysterious briefcase. The film is meant to be reminiscent of pulp crime magazines popular in the mid-20th century such as Black Mask and is shot in a heavily stylised fashion. The film's ensemble cast include John Travolta, Samuel L Jackson, Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis, Christopher Walken, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Harvey Keitel and Ving Rhames. The film was an instant success, both critically and commercially, with many critics citing the film as Tarantino's masterpiece. Not only did the film win the 1994 Palme d'Or at Cannes but also received seven nominations at the Oscars (winning one) and became one of the most influential films of the entire decade. Despite being a relatively modest independent production, the film went on to earn more than £213 million worldwide and remains highly regarded to this day.
What's it about?
The film is made up of three stories that interconnect with each other on some levels. The first story involves two mobsters employed by LA crime boss Marcellus Wallace to retrieve a briefcase from some minor criminals. Vincent Vega, recently returned from Amsterdam, and Jules Winnfield soon locate the briefcase but complications arise in the extraction.
The second story concerns boxer Butch Coolidge, a fading fighter who accepts a payment from Marcellus to take a dive during his next bout. But Butch has one eye on the future and on the night of the fight, it emerges that he has absolutely no intention of playing fair. The third and final story involves Marcellus' wife Mia who is being entertained by Vincent while Marcellus is out of town. After a night out at a themed restaurant, things take a dark turn when Mia accidentally overdoses on heroin, leaving Vincent no choice but to call up his dealer Lance for help...
Samuel L Jackson
Jody, Lance's wife
Maria de Medeiros
Fabienne, Butch's girlfriend
Quentin Tarantino *
Release Date (UK)
21st October, 1994
Academy Award Nominations
Best Picture, Best Actor (Travolta), Best Supporting Actor (Jackson), Best Supporting Actress (Thurman), Best Director, Best Editing
What's to like?
For a film that has become so widely praised, parodied and discussed over the years, it's difficult to know where to start for anyone who has yet to see the film. The first thing that hits you is the sheer magnetic charisma Travolta and Jackson bring to their roles as Vincent and Jules. In any other film, these two hoodlums might be the bad guys but here, they're just two dudes in an undercover, illegal line of work. They don't talk about their business but what they did on their holidays and gossip about mutual acquaintances. They are as normal as you or I and like almost everyone else in Pulp Fiction, they feel like real people instead of characters. Tarantino is brilliant at this, something I feel he isn't given enough credit for.
As the film winds on, the sheer class is the film is inescapable from the out-dated but very cool soundtrack full of surf rock and timeless classics to the level of performance every cast member brings to the picture. Thurman is as good a femme fatale as you'll ever see in a role she was born to play, Rhames is every inch the bad man Marcellus needs to be while Willis as the plucky pugilist trying to rip the mob off (traditionally, the hero of such movies) is a violent, ill-tempered bully. The cast is faultless from top to bottom - even Walken's cameo is memorable and genuinely funny.
Ah, yes - the comedy. The film isn't a laugh-a-minute ride through LA's criminal underbelly but the script provides each and every role the opportunity to entertain the audience with snappy one-liners, seemingly improvised ad-libs and moments of (at times) brutal, bloody slapstick. For a film that lasts way over two hours, it never drags that much and at no point does your attention wander. The film's chronology might mean that you have to watch it twice but that is part of the film's mission. It's supposed to jump around and play with your expectations so characters reappearing in different clothes, locations or even coming back from the dead should come as no surprise. As an aspiring screenwriter myself, I will be content with writing something a fifth as good as this film.
- The script was reportedly turned down by Columbia TriStar for being "too demented". It later found its way to Harvey Weinstein at Miramax who instantly took a shine to the material. It would be the first film Miramax fully funded with a project budget of $8.5 million.
- The wallet belonging to Jules in the film actually belonged to Tarantino himself. The inscription is a reference to the theme tune to Shaft, the 2000 remake of which Jackson would go on to appear in.
- When Jules flips the table over in front of Brett, the action was improvised on the spot. Frank Whaley's reaction was 100% genuine and the scene was shot in just one take.
What's not to like?
Surely, you must be asking, even I couldn't criticise a film that I openly admit to being one of my favourite films of all time? Well, you'd think so but even I have to admit that there are one or two things I would have changed. The middle section of the film featuring Butch's watch and the hellish basement belonging to Zed did feel much less engaging than the first and final parts. As good as Willis is as Butch, the role doesn't engage with you on the same exciting levels that Jules, Vincent and Mia do in the opening scenes. Indeed, Butch only really becomes an interesting character with his last line of dialogue as he feels reborn, as though he's an entirely different character.
There are also moments when the film's continuity gets in the way. There are two occasions when the film overlaps with itself - in the diner during the robbery and in the apartment with Brett. Both times feature slightly different editing, enough for it to be noticeable at any rate. Tarantino has stated that this is to show different perspectives of the scene but I don't buy that. I can easily forgive Tarantino for the slip-ups (if that's what they are) because they don't exactly ruin one's enjoyment of the film. Lastly, I'd have liked a little more characterisation for Maria de Medeiros' role of Fabienne, the doey-eyed innocent bewitched by Butch's one-dimensional machismo. I admit, this will have slowed the middle portion of the film down even more so again, I'm happy to state that such changes are personal. I've never watched Pulp Fiction and wished that things were different so I guess there's really little to complain about.
Should I watch it?
It won't be to everybody's taste, that's for sure. It's violent, disturbing and peppered with the sort of language that would make soldiers blush. But one cannot deny that Pulp Fiction is a masterclass in film-making - it's entertaining, inventive, engaging and unforgettable. With a supremely able cast, first-rate soundtrack and Tarantino directing like a little boy on his dream job, the film is rightly recognised as one of the best films of all time. What else is there to say?
Great For: film students, mature viewers, unexpected laughs
Not So Great For: children, squeamish viewers, hillbillies
What else should I watch?
It's a shame that Tarantino has never quite matched the standard set in only his second film, meaning that his career to date has always seemed overshadowed by it. For my money, Tarantino has not yet made a bad movie but the likes of Death Proof and The Hateful Eight feel a long way short of the stratospheric heights seen here. The problem, in my opinion, is that Tarantino seems content to make films that satirise or even parody the genre they are set in. Take World War 2 action thriller Inglorious Basterds which has a strong comedic streak running through it and a fairly loose grip on actual historic fact.
Probably the two films that match the indie-style and lo-fi production of Pulp Fiction are the films that came immediately before and after it. Tarantino's introduction to the world, the incendiary Reservoir Dogs and the Blaxploitation tribute Jackie Brown, still have the feel of indie movies and feature little in the way of action scenes or special effects. They feel small-scale but epic enough in terms of characterisation and story-telling and for me, these are the things Quentin does best in all his films.
© 2017 Benjamin Cox