#3 in my Ranking of Quentin Tarantino movies.
Much like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction works so well because of its structure. In Tarantino’s freshman effort, he used the out of time elements to break up the one set monotony and provide lighter tonal moments here and there. In Pulp Fiction, it’s used at the behest of thematic material, and I think it works on a whole different level.
It’s sort of an anthology film, but the three sections a little too interconnected to just lay it like that. They’re connected through a similar set of characters that appear in, or are talked about, in all three, but also with the common theme of choice in the face of fate.
In every story, from the dual framing devices (the café and the shootout over the suitcase) to the three main stories, characters are presented with inflection points in their lives, and they chose to go one way or another. Vincent Vega has come back to Los Angeles from several years as “the man in Amsterdam”. One of his first tasks is to take his mob boss’s wife, Mia Wallace, out for dinner, to provide her with company while her husband, Marsellus Wallace, is out of town. There’s an connection between them that caps with them both dancing in a twist contest in the wonderfully grotesque nostalgia restaurant Jack Rabbit Slim’s. Vincent refuses to take the next step, though. We’re not quite sure if Mia would go to bed with Vincent (the way she talks about her husband demonstrates her fidelity towards him), but her willingness isn’t the point. The point is Vincent’s desire to make a move. He feels it’s within the realm of possibility, but he refuses to take that step.
Of course, he never really gets the chance because Mia has found Vincent’s stash of heroin and snorted it, which was simply too much for her system and she began to overdose. This leads to the most famous scene in the movie where Vincent has to puncture Mia’s breastplate with a six inch needle in Vincent’s drug dealer’s house. It’s a great moment of tension with a fantastic shock.
Taking a step back from that description of the first major third of the film, I think we can see in microcosm why Pulp Fiction works so well. We have fantastically written characters. We have an exploration of the central theme playing out dramatically. We have some spectacle in the form of the needle episode. It’s a marvelous combination of entertainment, character work, and strong thematic material wrapped together extraordinarily well.
The second third deals with Butch, a boxer we saw talking with Marsellus Wallace in the first. This also takes place after the third section. Butch has agreed to throw his fight, but he used the quasi-public knowledge of the agreement to cleanup on the odds and win big by winning the fight. He’s prepped and ready to go, talking lightly with his girlfriend Fabienne as they spend the night in a hotel talking about the nature of attractiveness (really, her desire for a pot belly), and make fun of each other. He’s set for life, and he knows it, but something’s wrong. His father’s watch is missing, left behind at the apartment. Christopher Walken actually started the story with a telling of the history of that watch (the famous ass watch scene), which he delivers wonderfully. It also sells the importance of the watch to Butch so that when he suddenly loses his cool and decides to brave what should surely be certain death to get it back, we get it. It makes sense. He has to go get it. There’s no other choice. He goes back, gets it, gives Vincent a chest full of led from Vincent’s own gun, and then accidentally happens across Marsellus Wallace as he drives away.
There’s fate again, presenting Butch with a situation where he has a choice. After a car crash and a limp-filled foot chase, the two end up trapped in the basement of two perverts (one a cop) who proceed to rape Wallace. Butch uses his opportunity to escape and has another choice. He could leave, scot free, or he could free Wallace. He does the right thing, grabs a samurai sword, and cuts down the perverts (and their gimp with a solid punch to the face). Wallace returns this favor by letting Butch go. They will break ties and have no more to do with each other.
The third is where the thematic material comes out most and comes to the best conclusion. Even though it happens before the rest of the movie, the path that Jules follows and how he ends the film is the culmination of the ideas flowing through it. We pick back up with Vincent and Jules in the apartment with the briefcase. An unknown gunman jumps out and fires, emptying his gun in their direction but hitting nothing. After the darkly comic episode where they have to clean up brains from the back of their car, Vincent and Jules settle down in the café that started the film as Jules talks about their miraculous escape and how he plans on facing that with the rest of his life. Vincent considers it a freak accident, but Jules sees it as a sign from a higher power. He’s been given an opportunity and a choice, and he’s going to take a new path in response to it. He demonstrates that new path by allowing the robbers from the beginning of the film to leave with their lives.
Thinking back over the rest of the movie, we realize the order of events as they played out chronologically and discover that Vincent died after the ending of the movie, at Butch’s hands. If Jules had kept on his path without diverting it, ascribing the freak gun event as mere happenstance instead of a sign, Jules might have died there too. The universe reached out to both Vincent and Jules, and it was only Jules who read the sign correctly to run off to be like Caine from Kung Fu.
So, sitting back, what is Pulp Fiction? First, it’s a story that’s told out of order chronologically but is arranged in a way that heightens its emotional and thematic impact. It’s very well acted, filled with wonderful conversations between well-drawn and interesting characters. It’s dotted with great moments of excitement, the kind you expect from a good time at the movies. It’s an entire package of entertainment, thematic weight, and great characters.
No wonder it made such a splash.
Netflix Rating: 5/5
Quality Rating: 4/4
Originally published here.