In 1994, shortly after I turned 12, my father took me to see Pulp Fiction in the theaters. He and I had both been raving for weeks about how great the movie looked based on the trailers airing on TV, and the reviews that came out only confirmed what we both assumed: that this was one kick-ass, original movie.
When we left the theater, both of us were buzzing about what an incredible movie it was: it was stylish, violent, funny, philosophical, and something that neither of us had seen before. Considering that I was only 12, this wasn’t a stunning statement: that my then-45 year-old (and similarly movie-obsessed) father said the same thing was. He had been watching movies his entire life, from mainstream fare to science fiction to foreign films, and when he walked out of the theater that day, he proclaimed that this was one of the best films he had ever seen.
Now 23 years (come on, time, you’re killing me) later, having myself watched thousands of movies in the intervening years–and having become even more movie-crazy than my father ever was–I can honestly state that Pulp Fiction is a perfect movie. Would I bring my (completely theoretical at this point) 12-year-old son to see it, sight unseen? Depends on what kind of 12-year-old he was. I guess that’s what my dad figured, as well: although no genius, I was a remarkably well-read 12-year-old, and I guess he figured that if I could read 1000-page Stephen King books with no problem, I could probably handle some swear words and violence. And, it turns out, I could. In the process, he also provided me with a pretty great memory of the two of us experiencing a singular film together.
But the reason that I’m writing about it today isn’t because of my fondness of that memory but my fondness of the movie itself: when it came out in theaters, Pulp Fiction marked a tidal shift in American popular culture where R-rated movies about violent gangster protagonists could become huge hits; in the following years, a flood of Pulp Fiction rip-off and wannabe films flooded theaters to varying degrees of success, but none could match the cultural impact of Quentin Tarantino’s original ultra-hip film. Even Tarantino seemed to struggle to create a follow up to his game-changing feature film, eventually putting out the good (but not great) Jackie Brown in 1997. Since then, Tarantino has put out some fine films–the Kill Bill series or Inglorious Basterds perhaps being highlights–but he never matched his gigantic, medium-changing hit Pulp Fiction. And how could he? Even its trailer is better than most full-length movies:
Those are three of the coolest minutes ever put together to promote a movie. Then again, when practically every single scene of the movie you’re promoting is unbelievably cool, how could its trailer not be enticing? This is the preview that made my father and I both so excited to see this new, strange-looking, hyper-violent film; the worship it was garnering in contemporary reviews only whetted our appetites further. But now that you know the facts before the fiction, enough of the past as prologue and let’s consider what makes Pulp Fiction a perfect movie.
Pulp Fiction: A Perfect Movie
Perhaps the greatest cinematic trick Tarantino pulls in a film full of them is by having its plot unfurl in a nonlinear fashion. The opening scene–before the credits even roll–is of a couple talking over breakfast about their career, which happens to be robbery. They discuss the downsides of their job calmly, pausing for the waitress to refill their cups of coffee, and then decide to rob the very diner that they’re in. They say I love you to each other, kiss, and then like a switch was flipped, these two seemingly laid-back (if somewhat loopy) people jump up, whip out their guns, and announce that this is a robbery. The woman leaps on top of the table and exclaims, “Any of you fucking pricks move I’ll execute every motherfucking last one of you!” Her snarled face is caught in a freeze-frame, Dick Dale’s surf tune “Misirlou“ chops in, and the opening credits start up. And…that’s the last we see of these two characters for two hours.
Tarantino keeps his audience on uneven footing throughout Pulp Fiction: presented as an out-of-sequence triptych, where a seemingly minor character in one segment becomes the main character in the second, and the two robbers glimpsed in the opening sequence become catalysts of the plot in the latter half of the third segment. While he had done this sort of nonlinear plotting in his previous film, Reservoir Dogs, and would continue to use this device throughout his career, the way it’s employed in this film–one that seemingly resurrects one character from the dead in the third segment–makes the viewer follow the action on-screen that much closer, as they hope not to miss something that will end up vital later.
The style of humor in this film was also quite unique and another Tarantino signature: extreme acts of violence become sources of pitch-black comedy. For example: one of the more graphic scenes is hitman Vincent accidentally blowing the head off of a passenger in the backseat of Jules’s car; this leads into a segment where, awash with blood, they have to clean out the bloody mess from the back seat. Instead of horror, this is all played for laughs. The severity of having killed one of their accomplices is never mentioned again; human life holds very little weight in the universe of Pulp Fiction.
Portraying two vicious hitmen as human beings rather than purely evil entities leans hard on the anti-hero trope. In our introduction to them, they casually discuss Vincent’s recent trip to France and what they call Big Mac over there (Le Big Mac), Vincent’s upcoming night out with the boss’s wife, and then–when it’s time to do their job–Jules simply says, “let’s get into character,” and they go about their business of gunning down a bunch of slackers who stole from their boss. They are not flat, one-dimensional villains but the protagonists of the film: in fact, in an apparent act of divine intervention, one of them even comes to a new understanding that leads him to leave the hitman game at the end of the film.
Maybe these hitmen can be heroes in this film because nobody in the world of Pulp Fiction is innocent: between their crime boss, the crooked boxer who double-crosses him, the robbers at the beginning and end of the movie, Vincent’s heroin dealer, and Mia Wallace, the coke-snorting crime boss’s wife, nobody has clean hands. This is another unique aspect of this film: how your movie can be filled with ostensibly terrible people that the audience still ends up rooting for–or at least, not actively rooting against.
Maybe it’s because the rest of the elements of the movie are so cool: the soundtrack is a stellar mix of surf rock, funk, and old pop songs, all of which lend an almost lighthearted tone to the film; the cinematography spins and dashes and swoops around with these characters as they go about their nefarious business, keeping the energy high throughout; and every line coming out of these characters sound both natural and also very cool.
This film garnered some (justified) criticism that it glamorized a life of crime, but then again that’s also one of the strengths of the film: it’s very rare even today to find a movie that makes a life of crime seem cool, but Tarantino made the best one of them all. There’s even redemption for those that choose to find it: Jules took his surviving a volley of gunfire as a sign from God and retired; instead of letting the crime boss Marsellus continue to be raped and probably then murdered by a duo of hillbillies, instead Butch the boxer comes back to save him; in being let go by Jules instead of murdered, the two robbers even have a shot at redemption. There are even consequences: Vincent ignores the apparent miracle of not being killed even when fired upon at point-blank range and continues his work–consequently, he’s killed in the second segment. While it’s not exactly a moral movie, Pulp Fiction certainly does have some morals in place.
Another great trick the film plays on the audience is its own genre savvy–and assuming the viewer’s own familiarity with the crime and noir genres of film, they play spectacularly. By playing upon standard tropes and types (the charismatic hitmen, the boss’s moll, the crooked boxer), Tarantino upends them at every turn (the charismatic hitman Vincent is actually pretty incompetent on his own; the boss’s moll [his wife] is such a drug addict that she’ll take a sniff of any white powder she finds, even out of a relative stranger’s coat; the crooked boxer actually has a conscience and won’t let the man who put a hit out on him die at the hands of two sadistic rapists). This is what makes the film seem both familiar and also wildly innovative: we’ve heard this song before but the tempo and words are completely different.
Nothing is ever played straight in this film, which makes it exciting. While Jules and Vincent at first come across as rather affable–even toying with their intended victims in the first section by casually eating their lunch and drinking their soda–they are all business and cold-blooded killers when the time comes. Even though Vincent seems to be as calculating as Jules, on his own he’s somewhat of a doofus: he accidentally blows the head off of someone in Jules’s car, and when in an emergency situation where his boss’s wife Mia has a heroin overdose while in his company, he freaks out and rushes to his drug dealer’s house to try and fix the situation. Even the robbers are short-sighted, not taking into any account that somebody else in a crowded diner may also have a gun like them. Just like the nonlinear plot, characters, situations, and outcomes are unpredictable in Pulp Fiction, and in every scene the audience is lulled into a sense of security just before the next rug is pulled from under them.
It’s a film where a vicious hitman can have gunned down a slew of people in one scene and be gingerly dancing in his socks with a woman to Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” in a 50’s retro diner the next; where the concept of divine intervention for these two hitmen’s lives (for no apparent reason) leads one of them to show mercy to the robbers–whom he could have easily just gunned down–and leave his occupation; and where after nearly dying of an overdose, the next time we see Mia and Jules, she sincerely thanks him for a nice night out.
It’s a stylish movie about people who may be terrible, but that doesn’t get in the way of them having a good time or being normal human beings who bullshit and banter and think about the larger questions in life. Tarantino doesn’t make his villains villains but just like everybody else have quirks, blind spots, eccentricities, and all. They treat their bloody work like a dayjob, and when they punch the clock they go about the business of living life.
There’s something perfect in the clockwork that went into Pulp Fiction: that its sideways narrative locks into place by the end, and the viewer is left to piece it all together afterwards. But this never makes the film a chore to watch: in fact, you’re having such a good time throughout that the nonlinear narrative doesn’t even seem to be a detriment but just one more exciting element in a film full of them.
This is what makes Pulp Fiction a perfect movie: this imaginative, innovative, original, daring film already has it all figured out: you just need to do is watch it and puzzle it together and enjoy. And enjoy it you will. This audacious piece of work was written, edited, and directed with such sureness that it’s like being on a theme park ride: the audience doesn’t have to put any effort or work into enjoying it; the twists and turns and loops are built into the track for your enjoyment. Just strap in and ride the fast-paced, slick, unpredictable flick that is Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.