Review: “Pulp Fiction” (1994)

Quentin Tarantino may be many things — perverted, profane, whipsmart, cocky, a little too enamored with his own cleverness — but subtle he is not. He’s not even in the ballpark. Matter of fact, if that ballpark blew up, he wouldn’t hear the sound for another three days. Nah, Tarantino’s a guts-glory-chicks-and-explosions kind of director, and that imagination of his? In the name of Le Royale with Cheese does it dream up some wild-n-twisted trips.

Mark “Pulp Fiction” down as one of the wildest. Every nanosecond of this humdinger’s 154 minutes contains something warped/crazy/effortlessly cool to behold: philosophical discussions about foot massages, the nature of miracles and a gold watche that has been places no watch should go; murders both coolly calculated and comically accidental; a frightful drug overdose; kinky sex (think S&M with an Alabama drawl and a gimp); and, last but not least, a sinfully delicious $5 milkshake. Random as this catalogue seems, Tarantino’s film is far more scattershot. The action doesn’t adhere to a simple timeline; instead, there are three stories that run parallel, then smash together, then diverge only to reconnect in ways that boggle the mind upon repeat viewings. “Pulp Fiction” is a genius noir/gangster combo that keeps us guessing. Guess long enough, though, and patterns start to emerge from the madness.

Sort of. Since Tarantino makes it nearly impossible to understand how these stories pool into a cohesive ending, let’s tackle one beast at a time. First, there’s “Vincent Vega and Marcellus Wallace’s Wife,” the tale of L.A. hitmen Vince (John Travolta) and Jules (a perfectly cast Samuel L. Jackson) heading to do a job ordered by their loose-cannon boss Marsellus (Ving Rhames). Since Marsellus recently threw a guy out a high-rise window for giving his wife Mia (Uma Thurman) a foot massage, Vince has the jitters about taking her out on the town. His plan is simple: “Chew my food with my mouth closed, laugh at her fucking jokes, and that’s it.” Of course, trouble has a tendency to follow Vince, so things don’t go that smoothly.

Smoothness doesn’t much like Butch (Bruce Willis) either, which we discover in “The Gold Watch.” A talented boxer with a sweetly innocent girlfriend (Maria de Medeiros), Butch shovels some dirt on his own grave by winning the fight Marsellus paid him to throw. But his neat double-cross turns messy through a series of freak coincidences, the most interesting involving two pawn shop owners who plumb forgot to pack their manners (not to mention their morality) when they left the Deep South. “The Gold Watch” leads into “The Bonnie Situation,” a conclusion of sorts where Tarantino himself shows up as Jimmie Dimmick, a pal of Jules who begrudgingly agrees to help him clean up an accidental hit (“my gun went off! I don’t know why!” insists the a brain matter-spattered Vance) with help from Winston Wolf (Harvey Keitel). What’s on Wolfe’s business card we can’t be sure, since the terse mystery man only offers “I solve problems” as his job description.

It’s offhand comments like these that demonstrate one of Tarantino’s greatest strengths: revealing character traits with one or two stray lines of dialogue. He’s a student of human nature, and he knows the ways people fill time by arguing over whether foot massages are sensual or wondering what cheeseburgers are called in France (see above). And yet everything these characters say tells us something about themselves or the story. Christopher Walken, in his lone scene, delivers a howling-good speech that seems like comic relief, but the subject — the gold watch — comes back into play. Jules spouts a nonsensical version of Ezekiel 25:17, but it reveals his own moral code. Thurman, who finds jumpy loneliness in Mia, parlays a terrible joke about tomatoes into a real connection with Vince. Haphazard though they seem, these lines are the threads that knit everything together.

What else dazzles about “Pulp Fiction”? There’s the abundance of lurid violence — much of it comical (including an uncomfortably funny rape scene), some of it truly shocking, none of it gratuitious. Jackson and Travolta are one hell of two-man team, while Willis registers a pulse and Eric Stoltz has wit to burn. Ultimately, though, it’s the manic, fearless force of Tarantino that makes “Pulp Fiction” a sweet, sweet joyride, indeed.

Grade: A

19 Responses

  1. About two years back, not long after starting my blog, i sat down to watch this again witht ther intention of writing about it.

    Know what jumped out at me more than anything else? How amazingly well it is aging!

    The story seems to take place in an age all it’s own – there really aren’t many clear cut indicators of when it is set or when it is filmed. That, and the dialogue bereft of hip references ground it in a way that has kept it fresh for fifteen years now.

    Compare that to another QT script from the same year – NATURAL BORN KILLERS – which now feels like it was dug out of an early 90’s time capsule.

    Great post – “a sweet joyride” couldn’t be more accurate.

    • Interesting. I blogged a few months back on how well Natural Born Killers has aged. I didn’t like it when I first saw it but really enjoyed it when seeing it again recently. As for Pulp Fiction, great film I watched a few weeks ago in preparation for my soon to be posted QT blog, I loved it when I first saw it, nothing has changed.

      • I agree. I wrote about NBK as well and I think it took society 15 years to fully catch up (or down, considering what the film says about us) to its message.

        I think Tarantino is, for all the rampant fanboyism surrounding him, one of the most misunderstood and underrated writer-directors around. This is partially his own fault, as his knack for self-promotion means that the director himself makes his pitches as simple and direct as possible: “It’s a spaghetti Western about killing Nazis!” “It’s a jidai-geki set in the anime present!” “It’s all the female blaxploitation movies we just don’t get anymore!” All true, yes, but his enthusiastic mimetic referencing belies some of the deeper meanings. The character development of Pulp Fiction is astonishing, its non-linear narrative creating a dramatic irony in which we see the paths Jules and Vincent choose before the divide — between quitting the job and surviving or staying in the game and dying — is even brought up. It has as much subtle character growth and insight as Inglourious Basterds — with its juxtaposition of Nazis wildly applauding a film in which Americans are mowed down with IB’s actual audience largely doing the same when the roles are reversed moments later — has to say about the self-destructive and corrupting nature of revenge.

      • When I re-watched it a while back, I couldn’t help but think how we’re still hungry for violence and scandal (maybe even more so)…but how the medium has changed so much in ten years.

        You don’t get that sort of trashiness in mass quantities on network TV like we used to…now it’s much higher up the dial, and *ahem* online.

  2. hated it the first time i saw it, but like a good album it has aged well. has Ving Rhames ever done a bad film? oh yeah, Striptease. and Mission Impossible 2. damn.

    • That scene with Marcellus and the rednecks? It belongs in some sort of Top 10 Kinky Sex Scenes list.

  3. Probably one of the greatest films to ever be made. Tarantino is such a genuis!

  4. This movie is great. It does have its flaws, but it’s a fun ride. It’s tremendously quotable. It has memorable character and the soundtrack is fucking awesome.

    • Someone described “Inglourious Basterds” as a mess of a movie that played by its own rules. I think this applies to “Pulp Fiction” as well — loud, technicolor, lurid fun.

  5. Never ever gets tiring after always watching it!

    • That bit with the watch kills me every time. Sometimes when I’m sad I just flash back to that scene and I feel better. I really should send Christopher Walken some kind of thank you card for that.

  6. [...] do. Quentin Tarantino’s world doesn’t work that way. Think back to 1994’s “Pulp Fiction,” where Pumpkin and Honey Bunny share a congenial pre-robbery breakfast, or to last [...]

  7. How can you not love Vincent Vega (Travolta in Pulp Fiction)…am I right?His new role in From Paris With Love looks cool, even if the name sounds like a James Bond rip off…

  8. ["There’s the abundance of lurid violence — much of it comical (including an uncomfortably funny rape scene), some of it truly shocking, none of it gratuitious."]

    How can a rape scene be funny?

  9. I have meditated myself cross-eyed trying to envision “Pulp Fiction” as a chronological movie. Best I can tell, the bar scene with Butch receiving his payoff Wallace would be the beginning, and Butch with girlfriend hopping on the chopper with the line “Zed’s dead baby, Zed’s dead” is the final scene. Curious if anyone else has tried to do this as well. The one thing that really threw me for a loop was Vincent Vega strutting out of the coffee shop looking so cool, when he is destined to meet his end sitting on Butch’s toilet reading reading Modesty Blaise.

    • Way to go, Ken, figuring out the timeline — you’re light years ahead of me. I tried for a long time after I saw it the first time but gave up because it hurt my brain. If I recall, I came to some conclusion like yours, though I still had some unanswered questions.

  10. [...] “Pulp Fiction” (full review) — It’s got John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson as hitmen, a [...]

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