The truth is, you’re the weak, and I am the tyranny of evil men. But I’m tryin’, Ringo, I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.” – Jules Winnfield
There are undoubtedly people somewhere in the world, even here in the USA, who have never seen Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. There may even be some who, having heard about the violence and language in the movie, have made it a point not to watch it. But no one can consider himself a true cinephile if he hasn’t seen Tarantino’s breakthrough movie from 1994, any more than if he has never seen Casablanca, Psycho, or 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Pulp Fiction is just such a landmark film. Following hard on the heels of Tarantino’s first effort, Reservoir Dogs – maybe the best first film since John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon – Pulp Fiction premiered at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, where it walked away with the prestigious Palme d’Or. Later that year it was nominated for seven Academy Awards, and snagged the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, an honor that comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with Tarantino’s masterful handling of dialog.
In the twenty-plus years since, Pulp Fiction has spawned more critical analysis (and out-and-out speculation) than any other film of its era I can think of. It is not my intention to add to that analysis here; I just want to share my enthusiasm for this movie, and to encourage anyone who hasn’t seen it to give it a try.
So, what is it about? Briefly, Pulp Fiction tells four interrelated stories, beginning with the story of Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, two small-time thieves we meet in the first scene. Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) have decided that robbing bars, liquor stores, and gas stations, their primary stock in trade, has become too risky. “Restaurants, on the other hand,” theorizes Pumpkin, “you catch with their pants down. They’re not expecting to get robbed, not as expecting anyway.” Inspired by this reasoning, the two of them decide to rob the coffee shop where they have just finished their breakfast.
The second story concerns Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), two loquacious denizens of L.A.’s underworld on a mission to retrieve a mysterious briefcase belonging to their boss, Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames).
Their mission is successful, after a fashion, and when they deliver the briefcase to Marsellus, we meet Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis), a boxer to whom Marsellus is offering good money to throw an upcoming fight.
Butch and his girlfriend Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros) are the main characters in Story No. 3. They are looking forward to a major change in their fortunes, one that could mean a move to Mexico or Bora Bora.
Finally, we have the story of Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s wife. Marsellus has asked Vincent to take his wife Mia (Uma Thurman) out for the evening while he, Marsellus, is out of town. Despite some initial awkwardness, their dinner goes very well, as does the dance contest that follows. But, to paraphrase the late, great Yogi Berra, “The evening ain’t over ’til it’s over.”
These four stories are woven together in masterful fashion by Tarantino, and sequenced in a way that continues to challenge viewers more than twenty years after the film’s release. Every single member of the cast delivers a performance that stands the test of repeated viewings, but three deserve special mention: Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta are simply extraordinary, and Bruce Willis will never give a fuller, more subtle, or more credible performance.
I have some parting questions for those who have already seen Pulp Fiction. What happens to all these people after the events of the film? For example, what happens to Jules Winnfield after he renounces the gangster life and decides to just “walk the earth”? Whom does he meet, and what adventures does he have? What happens to Pumpkin and Honey Bunny after they leave the Hawthorne Grill? If I had been in Pumpkin’s place during his confrontation with Jules, I might have felt as Jules does after the events in Brett’s apartment: like I had dodged a bullet. Does Pumpkin feel the same need that Jules felt to take his life in a completely different direction?
I know these are unanswerable questions, but I think about them anyway, which strikes me as a testament of sorts to Tarantino’s uncanny ability to bring his characters to life. I invite the reader to share his or her thoughts on these or other pulpy matters in the Comments section below.