Although it is has nearly three decades since Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction took the world by storm, winning the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and making the wunderkind video-store-clerk-turned-writer/director a cultural icon of cinematic obsessive-cool, it remains an audacious, confounding, and ultimately exciting American film. As wholly original as it is a copy of hundreds of films before it, it dares you to step out of the mundane and enter a colorful, exhilarating world that could only be Los Angeles seen through a camera lens.
As a modern tribute to the trashy excesses of a bygone era, it blazed a brave new trail through contemporary cinema, refusing to play by any rules and succeeding on every level against all the odds. On a purely formal level, Tarantino’s sophomore film is defiant in the way it manipulates conventional plot structure by twisting time to satisfy its own devices and make the impossible possible. It is an odd miracle how Tarantino could distort chronology so blatantly, yet finish with a product that is not only accessible to a mainstream audience (the film grossed well over $100 million at the domestic box office, an unheard-of feat for a non-studio production), but flows more smoothly than it would have had he told it in linear fashion.
The film tells a series of interlocking stories involving two hitmen, a boxer and his French girlfriend, a crime boss and his mischievous wife, a small-time drug dealer, a trio of wannabe criminals, two lovebird robbers, a high-strung suburban husband who makes great coffee, and a professional problem solver who attends formal cocktail parties at eight o’clock in the morning. Add to the mixture several heavy doses of comical violence, a lot of fascinatingly vulgar dialogue, and a mysterious suitcase, and all the elements—unlikely as they are—are in place.
The two hitmen, Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield, are portrayed by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, who play off each other with perfect timing and relaxed ease, carrying on intriguing conversations about the subtle differences between Europe and America (“In Paris, you can buy a beer in McDonald’s”), as well as philosophical debates about the nature of miracles and the relative significance of foot massages. One episode in the film involves Vincent taking his boss’s wife out while the boss is out of town. The boss is Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), an imposing crime lord, so you can quickly see why Vincent is so nervous about not offending his wife, Mia (Uma Thurman). Their date starts in a hip burger joint called Jack Rabbit Slim’s, an extravagantly brazen ’50s-style joint that includes more pop culture references than I could dream of listing. The night ends with an overdose and a frighteningly hilarious sequence where Vincent and his friendly drug connection buddy (Eric Stoltz) bicker incessantly about who is going to inject Mia’s heart with a six-inch adrenaline needle. The scene is alternately outrageous, hilarious, tense, gruesome, and touching—a neat summary of the film as a whole.
Another scene finds Vincent and Jules in the homely suburban kitchen of the high-strung Jimmy (Tarantino). Vincent has accidentally blown someone’s head off in the back seat of the car, and they have to get it cleaned up and out of Jimmy’s garage in an hour before Jimmy’s wife comes home. This requires the aid of Winston Wolf (Harvey Keitel), a.k.a. The Wolf. “I solve problems,” he announces on the doorstep. The whole sequence is completely ludicrous in its own bloody way, but it’s also hilarious in its playful inversion of power, with the two hitmen at the whim of a wormy suburbanite in his bathrobe.
Yet another sequence involves Butch (Bruce Willis), a boxer who double-crosses Marsellus. Through a series of contrivances, Butch and Marsellus wind up meeting on the street the next day (this involves the story of Butch’s infamous gold watch, something you have to hear from the mouth of Christopher Walken to believe). After an ensuing fight, they both wind up in the clutches of two hillbillies and their leatherfreak slave, lovingly referred to as the Gimp. The whole sequence verges on the surreal as the unexpected keeps popping up right before your eyes.
Yet, despite all this outrageousness, Tarantino keeps a remarkably firm grasp on the material, even as it threatens to spin completely out of control. Pulp Fiction is so remarkable because it walks to the very edge of chaos, but never falls over. It isn’t afraid to mix the past and the present, the vulgar and the religious, the logical and the supernatural, or the comic and the violent. Tarantino draws studiously from his personal well of cinematic obsessions, whether it be blaxploitation films, horror comedies, European art oddities, or film noir, and he even references his own nascent cinematic universe by casting actors familiar from his 1992 debut film Reservoir Dogs (Tim Roth, Harvey Keitel, and Steve Buscemi) and giving Travolta’s character a name similar to Michael Madsen’s character in the earlier film. He leaves questions unanswered (For the love, what is in that glowing suitcase!?!?), but affirms in no small way that evil is punished and there is room for righteousness in our deeply flawed world. The film allows for maximum effect without every quite destroying itself, and Tarantino’s mastery of that daring kind of cinematic dangerousness alone makes it, hands down, the best film of that year and arguably one of the best films in recent memory, the kind that truly alters the course of cinema history. A whole generation of filmmakers has been chasing it ever since.
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Overall Rating: (4)
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