Pulp Fiction re-examined

The most influential movie of the 1990s merits another watch.

Pulp Fiction, released in 1994, was only the second directorial effort from Quentin Tarantino, whose other popular works include Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds, and last year’s Academy Award-nominated Django Unchained. Pulp Fiction’s enduring originality owes a lot to the strong foundation that its screenplay provides. The dialogue crackles with life. In fact, it is so entertaining I believe you could even successfully adapt it into audiobook format.

Tarantino’s idea for the movie was not as complicated as it seems. He took three relatively cliché plotlines: two hit men carrying out their boss’s dirty work; a mobster taking his boss’s wife to dinner but not being able to do anything with her; and a boxer, who is supposed to throw a fight, doing anything but that, and running from the mob because of it. Instead of just showing the audience the basics of these plotlines, he thought about what it would be like to hang out with all of these quirky characters before and after their respective plot requirements had been fulfilled. Then he put all these characters in the same city, cunningly interweaved their lives, and made the chronology double back on itself. Now there’s a movie for you.

Morality is a subtle but persistent theme at work here. The moral choices the characters are faced with and how said choices affect them is worth pondering long after the final credits have rolled. At one point in the film, two characters are faced with the same choice and go different ways. One of the characters ends up dead, seemingly through a kind of fluke, while the other finds redemption. 

Frequent complaints about Pulp Fiction stem from the onscreen violence it portrays. Yes, there are violence, blood, and guts, but none of these are ever as important as the consequences that follow. In arguably the goriest scene of the entire film, one character accidentally shoots another in the face while in a moving vehicle in broad daylight. Blood coats the car’s interior. Little bits of I-don’t-even-want-to-know-what find themselves lodged in the surviving passengers’ hair. Yet because the camera cuts away from the violence to the reaction of the other passengers, this scene almost always prompts the biggest laugh in the whole movie. Is violence funny? Nope. Accidental death by firearms? Certainly not. How about the new situation the characters are thrust into? Absolutely. And Tarantino wastes no time in getting to the consequences, either.

The screenplay of Pulp Fiction is one of the best ever written, and I say that without any hyperbole, intentional or not. The characters and situations depicted are so sharply drawn that punch lines aren’t even necessary for a laugh, yet there are laughs scattered throughout. A number of conversations that take place in the movie, particularly those held between the two hit men played by Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta, seemingly serve only to delay and build action. However, Tarantino almost always employs these conversations as part of a greater method. For example, a well-known discussion regarding the implications of a foot massage sets up dramatic groundwork for a later sequence in the movie. Furthermore, a character’s explanation of the plot, which would be deemed superfluous in any other movie, is in one instance used to establish the personality of a new character.

Pulp Fiction is entertainment of the highest calibre, a timeless original work that hasn’t aged a day in nearly twenty years. If you haven’t seen it, make a note to do so at your earliest convenience. If you have, know that your appreciation for it can only grow.

Austin Landry is the president of the Classic Film Society.

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