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REVIEW: Pulp Fiction

I’m watching Pulp Fiction on my left right now and trying to find an appropriate quote to open this review. I don’t think my mom would approve me opening with “Everybody stay cool, this is a robbery!” “Any of you fucking pricks move, and I’ll execute every motherfucking last one of you!”. As it’s the first moment in this movie where Tarantino leaps out of the frame and grabs you by the throat, I think it’d make a great epigram. Also, I’m restricting myself to using profanity only in the context of what I’m reviewing. That’s why Shits & Giggles is okay to type but I can’t talk about how some friends and I played mailbox baseball for ████s and giggles.

See what I did there?

Pulp Fiction is definitely one of the great movies. Tarantino’s second feature had the great luck of being released in 1994. That was sarcasm. Nominated for Best Picture in 1994 were Pulp FictionThe Shawshank RedemptionForrest GumpQuiz Show and Four Weddings and a Funeral. I feel bad for Four Weddings and Quiz Show–they got so shafted. The good news is that American cinema finally awoke to the talents of Tarantino, Zemeckis, and Darabont. Bad news is that the second feature from a guy making independent features two years prior had to slip away with a nomination and nothing more.

Pulp Fiction is a loose movie. It’s talky. For the record, that’s “what I did there”. You can tell that it’s Tarantino’s stretching of his artistic legs. The movie has three protagonists, three separate, wholly contained stories welded together out of chronological order to form a traditional, happy-ending narrative arc. In this measure, it’s almost entirely the opposite of Reservoir Dogs. A sprawling black comedy set in the criminal underworld of Los Angeles, it stars men-on-the-comeback-route John Travolta and Bruce Willis along with then-unknown Samuel L. Jackson. Younger members of the audience will think that’s a joke.

The best analogy I can come up with is that with Dogs, it was like sitting down to breakfast with a friend who tells you the story of what happened to him last night. Pulp Fiction is a buffet brunch with everyone you know, all clamoring for your attention. Vincent Vega (Travolta) takes a mob boss’s wife out to dinner at a place called Jack Rabbit Slim’s. Butch Coolidge (Willis) has to deal with finding his father’s prized war watch while being hunted by the mob for refusing to throw a fight. Jules Winnfield (Jackson) has to deal with Marvin’s headless body sitting in his back seat. All three of these stories involve a lot more talking than they legally should. They also all have plot twists that come about after the stated plot of the story has finished. All of this adds up to a running length of over two and a half hours.

It’s to Pulp Fiction‘s credit that none of this is torture to behold. From the cinematography to the acting to the soundtrack, this is a very natural movie to immerse yourself in. Indeed it should be. The first person to bathe in this movie was Tarantino himself. You can tell that Quentin’s spent years, nurturing these characters through plot twists and conversations, obsessing over the settings and locations, crafting his ideal epic movie. Of course, this was only his ideal epic movie earliest on in his career; his definition of epic has since shifted twice with Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds. This movie is epic, don’t worry. Too bad about Kill Bill being split up; it would’ve been guaranteed a nomination.

You can see the confidence that Tarantino gained after the success of Reservoir Dogs on camera and in the script. Characters are now fully realized people, having conversations based not on a plot but based on how their personalities play off of each other. There are multiple scenes with characters discussing motivation. There’s a very memorable monologue from Christopher Walken about an hour in that could serve its purpose of introducing the watch in a sentence or less. Instead, we get a five minute monologue, brilliantly performed, directed and shot because Pulp Fiction isn’t about purpose. It’s about fun, talking, criminals and talky criminals having funny conversations.

Odd, then, that the cinematography is so much more purpose driven than it was two years prior in Reservoir Dogs. I mentioned frequently in that review that the shots here are much more evolved. That’s because this movie is so damn pretty for an independent film that it’s aesthetic value butts into other conversations. I see no shots that could be improved. I see quite a few that could be re-staged or re-lit, but I don’t think any change would be for the better. Conversations feel inclusive. The number of characters in shot and their position and distance from the lens inform you of what kind of conversation they’re having, how comfortable they are with each other and how comfortable we should be.

An ex-star and an unknown share several scenes together. I again credit Tarantino for seeing the potential in Samuel L. Jackson when he auditioned for Reservoir Dogs and reserving him for this movie. His chemistry with John Travolta is of the kind you wish you could see on screen between actors playing friends all the time. They talk about their troubles, they fight over dealing-with-headless-corpse policy. When their final conversation is being played out at the end of the movie, you’re deeply engaged in the characters, not just the men playing them. Bruce Willis has the unenviable task of carrying his section of the movie alone. Again, to his credit, he does it well. His section of the film is the first without any characters we’ve seen before in a narrative scene. He has a short conversation with Marcellus Wallace early on, but that’s more to establish Wallace.

Speaking of which, time out for amazement: Ving Rhames doesn’t suck in this movie. Watch the pilot for Aquaman, that’s Ving Rhames “acting”. This is Ving Rhames as a character. I’m surprised.

Lots of talk has been made of Pulp Fiction as Tarantino’s best film. I don’t really agree with that. It was nominated for Best Picture because Dogs went almost entirely unnoticed in America. I still hold that of his first three films, Reservoir Dogs is the one with the clearest purpose and the one that achieves its goals best. Pulp Fiction sets its sights higher and is thus judged accordingly. Sadly, making a movie you bathe in instead of watching flaws your movie somewhat. Let it be said, I still love Pulp Fiction. THREE AND A HALF STARS

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  1. Daniel Molloy
    September 9, 2010 at 3:59 am

    Good review! But to state the obvious, if you haven’t seen Pulp Fiction…

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