PULP FICTION (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
PULP FICTION’s violence, non-linear structure, retro soundtrack, pop culture references, and overall hip factor are what have lingered in the collective memory, but revisiting Quentin Tarantino’s film twenty years after its debut is to rediscover a work whose maker is deliriously in love with the cinema and words. Although peppered with allusions to plenty of films and television shows, such verbal and visual citations are seasoning for the main course.
PULP FICTION is built upon monologues and conversations whose profane musicality engages the characters in lingual dances. Discussions revolve around mundane but humorous things as the differences between fast food item names in the United States and Europe, the intimacy of a foot massage, and the cowardice involved in keying a car, but the actors savor the rich language as though performing Shakespeare.
Told out of sequence, the interconnected stories focus on the criminal underworld in Los Angeles. Gangsters Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) procure a suitcase for their boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) but face obstacles delivering it. Boxer Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) wins a fight he promised to throw but risks skipping town safely by returning home to get a cherished keepsake. At his boss’s request Vincent takes Marsellus’s wife Mia (Uma Thurman) out on the town knowing that a previous acquaintance who got close to her paid a serious price.
Tarantino’s reputation for presenting graphic violence, especially early in his career, exceeded what actually is seen on screen. Perhaps more than anything else, his ability to get a rise out of audiences with what they think they saw, paired with the skill of editor Sally Menke, may be the greatest demonstration of his talent. The notorious scene with the adrenaline shot to the heart never shows the needle being jammed through Mia’s breast plate. The discussion leading up to the act; seven tightening close-ups, including one of the dripping needle; a wide shot of Vincent bringing his arm down; and a thump as Mia jerks awake in close-up give a vivid impression without depicting the forceful injection.
Tarantino’s adeptness with humorous dialogue and mise en scene shouldn’t overshadow his handling of actors. This was Travolta’s comeback role, and he gives a performance that finds him charming and funny, not to mention the delightful moment when PULP FICTION pauses to recall his cinematic past by having him do the twist with Thurman. Jules is probably Jackson’s defining role. He’s playing more than just an intimidating enforcer. Jackson is fearsome when he’s marking his territory and bellowing Jules’ corruption of a verse from Ezekiel. He’s amusing shooting the breeze with a friend and co-worker who he likely thinks he’s a bit smarter than. As the film’s femme fatale Thurman displays her strength with how she lures Vincent into her domain and flirts aggressively without being too obvious for anyone who might be observing them.
PULP FICTION wielded massive influence and imitators, yet watching it again for the first time in years it still seems fresh. Those who tried to duplicate it took all of the wrong lessons.