Pulp Fiction

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Starring:  John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Ving Rhames, Bruce Willis, Harvey Keitel

In honor of Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming film Django Unchained, STMR is doing a retro review series covering Tarantino films.  We are kicking off the series with a review of Tarantino’s classic Pulp Fiction.   We know that is out of chronological order for his films, but we could not resist.  Pulp Fiction stands as one of the finest films ever made.  It flipped storytelling and filmmaking on its head, re-invigorated John Travolta’s career, catapulted Samuel L. Jackson onto the A list, and marked Tarantino as one of the finest directors of his generation.   So why not start with the best?

Pulp Fiction is told in a nonlinear fashion and has so many characters and plotlines that it literally cannot be put into a box.  The best way to describe the plot is that it centers around the Los Angeles crime scene and a legendary, almost Wizard of Oz like crime boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames).  Marsellus Wallace is a notorious crime boss in California and he dabbles in just about everything.  Wallace has two hitmen on his payroll Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson).  Vega and Winnfield are on an assignment to recover a mysterious briefcase for Wallace.  During the course of their mission, they commit murder (intentionally and unintentionally), have philosophical discussions about everything from the meaning of life to the significance of foot massages to the metric system, and encounter college students, small time criminals and even the Wolf (Harvey Keitel).

Vega also has an encounter with Marsellus Wallace’s wife Mia (Uma Thurman).  Vega is tasked with baby-sitting a very eccentric Mia Wallace for an evening.  Mia Wallace is a former actress turned bored wife of a crime lord, and she is used to getting what she wants.  Vega’s challenge for the night is to keep her entertained and alive—a challenge on both fronts.

The third major plot of the film involves another area of Marsellus Wallace’s crime life: gambling.  Marsellus Wallace pays boxer Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) to take a dive in a fight.  Wallace bets a substantial sum of money on Coolidge losing, and thus stands to make a fortune.  Coolidge has to make the decision whether to honor his deal with Wallace and betray himself, or win the fight and become Marsellus Wallace’s mortal enemy.

Pulp Fiction is a wild, unpredictable ride and there are so many great things about the film that it is difficult to know where to begin.  From the music to the dialogue to the clothing to the setting, everything is highly styled and well done.  Let’s start with the performances.  While everyone in the cast gives a stellar performance, John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson standout.  Their chemistry as criminal partners plays like an old married couple.  They riff off of each other in such a way that oftentimes you forget that they are cold-blooded killers.  Jackson is at time humorous, angry, reflective and menacing, and he delivers many of the film’s best lines with gusto. Travolta, on the other hand, is a little less analytical, but no less dangerous.  Travolta’s interactions with both Jackson and Uma Thurman are quite simply classic film moments, and have become some of the most recognized, copied and parodied images in film history. 

The real genius behind the film, however, is Quentin Tarantino.   The screenplay that he co-wrote with Roger Avary is intense, smart, fast and delivers on a number of levels.  Even with multiple viewings, it is impossible to catch every morsel that they’ve loaded into the script.  Their Oscar for best original screenplay was well-deserved. Tarantino revolutionized filmmaking with Pulp Fiction.  Not only did he skillfully direct a host of quirky characters, but he adeptly delivers a film with a nonlinear plot.  It is difficult to deliver a film that is out of chronological order but still fits together so succinctly.  Many filmmakers have tried to copy the Tarantino style, but in lesser hands, such attempts at edgy filmmaking have failed. 

Pulp Fiction earns a sober rating—drink water with this one as you will need to be alert and savvy to take it all in, and even then there will be something that you miss.