Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film Pulp Fiction is, quite frankly, a master piece of American Cinema. While the writer/director has been putting out consistent quality work since his 1992 debut “Reservoir Dogs”, there is a reason why Pulp Fiction is widely considered to be his best film. With it’s great characters and writing, subversive take on violence and deconstruction of the traditionally “macho” image of most mafia films, this more than earns it’s place in the American film institutes top 100 films of all time.
The film tells three separate but intertwined stories: The first deals with two Mafia hitmen, Jules and Vincent how were sent to collect an item from some low level goons who tried double crossing their boss, Marsellus Wallace. While the two are running this earn for their boss they are shot at from near-point blank range, yet neither one is harmed. This leads Jules to have an existential crisis, questioning both his faith and his choice of profession. The films second story is about Vincent taking his bosses wife, Mia Wallace, out for a night while Marsellus is away on business. While the night starts well it ends in chaos as Mia overdoses. Vincent is forced to find Mia help, going to his drug dealer who begrudgingly assists. The last of the films stories revolves around an aging boxer named Butch who was paid to throw a match by none other than the films favorite crime lord, Marsellus Wallace. However, one the night of the fight Butch ends up killing his opponent. Naturally this causes some conflict between Butch and Marsellus, but when the two men finally come to blows it’s hard to say either of them are truly “victorious”.
While each of the films three stories have their own main characters, Jacksons “Jules” I both the most interesting and the most clearly representative of the films major themes. As the film starts Jules and Vincent are on their way to collect an item from one of Marsellus’ cronies not knowing exactly how many people are in the apartment they’re headed into nor how well armed they are. Both men even state that they “should have shotguns” for the job. However, while the two men talk about being undermanned and possibly outgunned, the films tone is relaxed. The viewer watches as the two engage in work place gossip and light prodding at each other. Even once bullets start flying, the film treats the violence humorously, more akin to Saturday morning cartoons rather than a typical Mob movie. But when the movie ends Jules, believing he just lived through a miracle tries not to kill a man robbing the diner he and Vincent just so happen to be visiting. This scene is one of the most tense of the film. Two people have their guns aimed at Jules, and though he always has the upper hand, the viewer know that at any moment some one could snap and end the film in a blood bath. The viewer also knows Jules could kill both robbers with out a second thought or breaking a sweat. Yet the tension comes from Jules’ decision not too kill and the viewers wish to see him fallow through on it.
This is part of what makes the film so great. While the violence is always entertaining it’s rarely if ever suspenseful. The real suspense comes from an added grandiosity towards the mundane. For example, when Mia overdoes and Vincent takes her to his drug dealer for help, the viewer spends little time with Mia, but instead watch as the dealer and his wife argue. The stress of the scene and the viewers concerns are not with the woman slowly dying in the living room, but the couple quarreling. For another example, look to when Vincent shoots Marvin in the face. The cavalier attitude take towards the meaningless death on another person makes the scene funny and not something the view is not meant to give much thought too. However, when Vincent makes an off hand remark to Mr. Wolf, the man sent in to help clean up the mess, that’s when the scene becomes tense. That’s when the viewer is meant to start asking “what’s going to happen next”. This could be, in part, why the film is so highly acclaimed.
But an interesting theme and lampooning on the necessity of violence to sell movies wouldn’t mean much if the film making behind it wasn’t strong enough to back it yup. And here again, Tarantino shines. His script can be funny to the point of causing the viewer pain from laughing too much, but he also knew when to tone it back and allow from the darker moments to really shine. And while his use of racial epithets can seem like childish shock fodder, it’s arguable that these had a very specific purpose. Too many people confuse movies about awful people are being endorsements of their vileness. Look at Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Walstreet”, a movie showing that the American system is so broken that a man like Jordan Belfort could be as evil as he was and still not be penalized for it like he should have, and then look at the controversy surrounding the film where people complained that Belfort was portrayed too positively for an example of this. With Tarantino’s use of racist slurs it’s arguable that this is a constant reminder to the audience “please, laugh at the jokes I wrote, but remember that these are not good people”.
Aiding in the films production is that Tarantino plays both screenwriter and director, allowing him total control over the films content. It’s well know by now that part of Tarantino’s identity as a film maker is referencing pop culture, film in particular, and being able to dictate how each scene is shot offers him more room to move in this regard. Had he been limited to writing the scrip, the film could have been little more than an “R” rated “Shrek”, drowning each line in pop culture lingo as a wink to the audience. But as he was also the director, he was able to visually reference the films he loved and the film making style he is paying homage too as well. And as film is inherently visual, this adds more to the experience that simply repeating a line or referencing a well known peace of American culture.
And that is what makes Tarantino stand out as a film maker. His obsession with exploration era film and pop music is something an audience can only get from him. While Tim Burton’s obsession with German expressionism is similar, the differences in the era’s are reflected in what kinds of films these two men make. In the end, the best thing a film maker can do is give an audience a reason why they need to focus on their work. And Tarantino does this with ease.
My Grade: 10/10