Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece of postmodern pulp cinema burst off the screen in 1994. His second Directorial film, it was made for just $8 million but went on to take over $200 million at the box office becoming one of the most financially successful independent films of all time and has since become one of the most critically successful films as well. Nominated for seven Oscars and winning one for Best Original Screenplay, Pulp Fiction has found its place in cinema history as one of the greatest cult films of all time and reinvigorated not only the fortunes of some of its cast but made Hollywood sit up and take notice of small time, independent cinema.
Tarantino often makes use of a non linear storyline but here it is not so much non linear as circular. Pulp Fiction features three interconnecting storylines which are sometimes told from different angles and always out of sequence. The effect is that it builds the story as the film progresses in quite a different way to a traditional narrative but one is never lost of confused. The script is amongst the best if not the best I’ve ever seen and is dense, meandering and full of great dialogue and pop culture references. It is a joy to listen to and the tremendous cast deliver each line with great aplomb.
Pulp Fiction begins in the same way as Tarantino’s Directorial debut Reservoir Dogs. Both movies open with a conversation in a diner. Immediately the dialogue grabs you and takes you with it at gun point. The scene features Tim Roth, alumni of the Director’s first film, discussing robbing banks and liquor stores with his girlfriend. Roth, an Englishman, is given some terrific dialogue which despite being penned by an American is spot on. The opening credits soon follow and also adhere to a similar theme as Reservoir Dogs. Dick Dale’s Misirlou plays over the titles and the song has since become synonymous with the film.
Pulp Fiction is set in L.A. and focuses on the operation of crime boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). Wallace takes a back seat through most of the movie but gets his moment around two-thirds in. The central characters are two of Wallace’s gangster employees Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson). The two of them are seen deep in conversation throughout the film, discussing everything from the significance of a foot massage to why the French don’t use the term quarter pounder to quasi-religious and spiritual experiences. Jackson’s dialogue especially is incredibly well written and I could listen to him articulate it all day. The character and performance have since become iconic. Vega is less charismatic but more laid back than his partner. He has a temper though and is quick to look for confrontation. The character rescued actor John Travolta from a career threatening downturn and bought him back into the limelight. Both actors received Academy Award nominations and Jackson won a BAFTA. A third actor received an Oscar nomination and that was Uma Thurman. Her nomination is more of a surprise to me than the others but her performances is nonetheless very good. Thurman was used for much of the promotional material despite being a secondary character and like so much else; the poster of her lying on a bed has become an iconic image.
Bruce Willis rounds off a cast of A-List stars as Butch the boxer. Butch is ordered to take a dive by Marsellus Wallace but instead wins the fight in a more than convincing manner before going on the run with his girlfriend Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros). Butch and Fabienne’s dialogue and arc are just as great as the rest of the story and their plight feels incredibly realistic. Willis was coming off a string of box office failures but his participation helped to beef up the budget to $8 million. He went on to make several million dollars from the movie with subsequent participation rights. In addition to the central characters there are notable cameos from Christopher Walken in a touching but hilarious scene featuring a watch and Harvey Keitel as Wolf, a fixer who gets Jules and Vincent out of a sticky situation. Tarantino himself gets a sizeable cameo as usual.
One of my favourite parts of Pulp Fiction is seeing Vincent walk through Jack Rabbit Slims, a diner which feels like looking inside Tarantino’s brain. It has a 50s vibe and has movie star waiters and waitresses in addition to an Elvis impersonator singing and booths crafted from old cars. I’d give anything to have a play in that set. The restaurant was one of the most expensive sets constructed for the film, coming in at $150,000. The money is well spent though as Tarantino creates a pop culture Valhalla which plays host to another iconic scene, the Twist competition in which Vince and Mia partake. Picking favourite scenes from Pulp Fiction though is like picking a favourite finger. They’re all just as welcome and vital as each other. Other highlights though include the extended scene in which Wolf ‘cleans up’ and Jules’ verse reciting shooting.
As well as being characteristically violent, Pulp Fiction is also really funny. Much of the humour comes from the violence such as Jules’ and Vincent’s near miss, the Bonnie situation and the toilet/pop tart shooting. Much of the action actually descends from Vincent’s bowels, if I can put it like that. Vega is seen to use the toilet three times and each time he is on the throne something major happens. A Tarantino-esque device of an accident driving the plot is also apparent. In Reservoir Dogs the botched robbery drives the film; here it is partly an accident in a car. Hiding something from the audience is another device that Tarantino employs over and over again. Pulp Fiction’s golden briefcase is perhaps the most famous example of this.
It is impossible to talk about a Tarantino film without mentioning the soundtrack. Pulp Fiction’s is amongst his best and employs the usual blend of famous and obscure tracks pulled from various genres. Here Tarantino makes use of surf-rock, soul, pop and rock and roll to form the backdrop to a beautifully shot movie. Pulp Fiction’s bright colour gives it a Technicolor feel which kind of makes its ‘modern day’ setting unimportant. In a way the film is ubiquitous and feels both modern and dated. Despite being contained in a small part of L.A. the film feels like an epic which is in part down to its visual style but also its run time. At two and a half hours, Pulp Fiction is looonng (a bit like this review) but unlike some of the Director’s later work it doesn’t feel it and the length is well judged.
I don’t have a bad word to say about Pulp Fiction and it is probably my favourite Tarantino (although I haven’t seen Jackie Brown for a while, my traditional favourite). It is an example of masterful detailed storytelling, great acting, wonderful design and is unsurprisingly one of the best regarded films in recent history.
- Tarantino wrote the part of Pumpkin for Tim Roth but the studio wished to cast Christian Slater or Johnny Depp. Tarantino got his way.
- Samuel L. Jackson's Bible verse is mostly made up and doesn't feature anywhere in the magic book.
- Roger Avery co-wrote the script with Tarantino but was given a 'story by' credit instead of 'written by' in order to further publicise Tarantino's role. Avery, who also co-wrote Reservoir Dogs and True Romance was recently released from prison following a conviction for manslaughter.