WFTB Score: 18/20
The plot: The intersecting lives of a couple of hoods, their intensely laid-back boss, his reckless wife, the washed-up boxer paid to lose a fight and possibly the most hapless robbers in history.
For enforcers Vince and Jules (John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson), anything can happen in the course of a day working for Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). For example, Vince might be obliged to entertain Marsellus’ wife Mia (Uma Thurman), an evening that quickly turns from teasing frustration to terror when Mia mistakenly snorts heroin. Or Jules might miraculously survive being shot at whilst recovering a mysterious package, causing him to question his purpose. Or both of them might have to rely on the cleaning services of ‘The Wolf’ (Harvey Keitel) when Vincent proves to have a twitchy trigger finger. Others have tales to tell, too: when fighter Butch (Bruce Willis) wins a fight Marsellus paid him to lose, he and girlfriend Fabienne (Maria de Madeiros) become fugitives, though he can’t possibly predict where his day will go when he attempts to retrieve a prized watch. And when Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer’s amateur bandits hit on the bright idea of turning over coffee shops for easy cash, they can’t possibly predict how bad an idea it is to attempt to separate Jules from his wallet.
Simply because of its purpose, the dialogue of most films is profoundly unrealistic. Nobody’s really as sharp as Rick in Casablanca; nobody’s really as ‘confused’ as Nigel in This is Spinal Tap. And nobody really uses language as caustically, as glibly, as punchily as the cast of Pulp Fiction. For all of its other qualities – and it has many – the film’s dialogue is what elevates it from a run-of-the-mill collection of gangster exploits to a modern masterpiece. Like the films above, examples are too numerous to mention, though I particularly like “I shot Marvin in the face” (which shouldn’t be funny, but is) and Jules’ explanation of what his wallet looks like (I won’t go into it here, but the swearing is both monumental and impressively inventive). Tarantino’s trick is to intersperse moments of action and violence with the characters chatting about the most mundane things; while this might sound dull, it humanises and fleshes out characters who could otherwise appear monstrous or alien. It helps, too, that the stories Tarantino and Roger Avary have written are satisfyingly gritty and sordid*: if we didn’t know anything about gimp masks before Pulp Fiction, we certainly did afterwards.
Pulp Fiction’s fractured structure is another trick that works spectacularly well. By rights, chopping back and forth in time, so that someone we’ve seen being shot in one section is back with us in the next, should be a jarring experience. However, it works brilliantly, allowing the film to have explosive and shocking moments while still giving characters the exits they ‘deserve’. It may be a cheat, but it’s a damn effective one. While Tarantino isn’t averse to gimmickry and homages (there’s a shot that exactly mimics Psycho, and no doubt tons of other film references that I’m not aware of), Pulp Fiction is directed fairly unfussily, Tarantino’s most obvious contribution coming from the wonderfully eclectic and always appropriate soundtrack. Jungle Boogie is an early highlight, Dusty’s Son of a Preacher Man another; but my favourite is Urge Overkill’s version of Neil Diamond’s Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon.
Of course, directors can do little without good actors, and Tarantino can count himself incredibly lucky with his cast for Pulp Fiction, and especially Samuel L. Jackson’s breakout performance. Jules is an engagingly cool dude, albeit one capable of a terrifying homicidal rage; in Jackson’s hands, he’s also fascinatingly complex following the ‘miracle’ and his subsequent epiphany. That said, it would be careless to overlook Travolta’s contribution to the partnership and the movie as a whole – call him unlucky, or reckless, or whatever you like, there’s something endearing about Vincent’s resentment at being blamed for things that are completely his fault (Travolta, having been unfashionable for most of the previous decade, temporarily became hot property again). Uma Thurman, who has been pretty terrible at times, finds the right level of self-amusement in Mia and, to be fair, does the traumatic stuff really well; Bruce just has to be Bruce to be good, though he does more, showing great tenderness and scary anger in his relationship with Fabienne and always keeping us guessing about whether or not he’s a good guy. I should also mention Ving Rhames, who takes Marsellus’ reversals of fortune with a calm voice, though you can tell there’s one hell of a wallet description waiting to bust loose. Keitel is simply class. It’s fun, too, to see other actors as you might not expect to see them: Rosanna Arquette, Steve Buscemi.
Which brings us to the few elements that are less than brilliant. Tarantino as actor will never be a particularly compelling screen presence; I wasn’t convinced that his Jimmie belonged in the film’s world of gangsters and lowlifes, though Quentin makes life hard for himself by trying to roll with Keitel, Travolta and Jackson all at once. As director, Tarantino could surely have trimmed his famously long scenes ever so slightly: Butch’s lengthy walk to his apartment, for example, or Vince’s tour of Jack Rabbit Slims. In fact, I’ve never actually been able to watch Pulp Fiction without pausing it halfway through (which might say more about me than the movie) – luckily, there’s a natural intermission immediately before Christopher Walken’s superb cameo, which makes the start of ‘part two’ a highlight.
Tarantino’s critics have argued with some justification that the director’s tropes – the knowingly mundane dialogue, the long scenes, the record-collection soundtrack – are repeated mindlessly from one film to the next, making him something of a one-trick pony. Nevertheless, when it’s used as successfully as it is in Pulp Fiction, and pulled off by actors in the blistering form of Travolta and Jackson here, it’s one hell of a trick.
NOTES: I won’t go on forever; I just wanted to mention the scene of Butch trying out weapons of escalating offensiveness. It’s both a nod to Tarantino’s beloved exploitation films and a lovely bit of non-verbal comedy.