A while back, “Pulp Fiction” came up in a Side Piece I wrote where I ID’ed our most DIVISIVE movies. The MMC gives it 4 A+’s, yet it can’t even crack our Top 50. I was one of those dissenters, putting the movie at a C+ based off one viewing my sophomore year of college. After a second viewing through older and theoretically wiser eyes, did Pulp Fiction reach another level for me? Why yes, yes it did.
I can understand why I didn’t appreciate this movie in my youth. It does meander, but it meanders with a purpose. Mia Wallace herself puts it best when she says “Why do we feel it’s necessary to yak about bullshit in order to be comfortable?” We see this happen time and time again – fairly meaningless conversations intended to build tension or make us forget about whatever unsavory business is at hand. Vincent and Jules spend quite a bit of the movie talking about nothing, all in the name of building tension. The Vincent and Jules portions are easily my favorite parts of the movie – Samuel L. Jackson as Jules has already written his MMC acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actor. Quentin Tarantino is a master at building a scene where every character knows how it ends, but rather than getting to it, he fills the time with a meandering tension that captivates the audience and holds their attention. The scene where Jules and Vincent are retrieving the briefcase is a damn-near perfect scene. We have the predators calmly enter, essentially toy with their prey, and then, only when they are ready, unleash hell on the poor fools who betrayed them.
Every conversation in Pulp Fiction is like this. The scene is about everything except what is actually being said. Vincent and Mia at Jack Rabbit’s captures this very well, as both characters are consistently caught in awkward moments of silence. Vincent has to spend the entire time attempting to read Mia while remaining on his toes thanks to the specter of Marcellus Wallace hovering over the night. Mia is a very difficult character to draw any conclusion about. Is she happy with Marcellus? Is she happy in general? We don’t get much interaction with her outside of that evening, making it difficult to tell.
It’s mystery like this that Pulp Fiction delights in, almost to a fault. Yes, we all know the briefcase theories and whatnot, but it’s the mystery of individuals and relationships that I was drawn to. Vincent and Butch in particular intrigued me. We only see them interact twice. The first time is Vincent brow-beating Butch, and the second time is Butch wasting Vincent. Whatever bad blood already existed, there was enough for Butch to blast him to shit without a second thought. (Poor Vincent, nothing good happened whenever he was in the shitter. Put that book down sir!) Many of these mysteries were harmless, such as the briefcase, and seemed to be there just to annoy the audience and eventually provide endless fodder to theorizing. It’s a situation where it feels like the movie is a little to in love with itself. This sort of stuff irks me.
One other thing that irked me in my younger days was the movie timeline. The third story (The Bonnie Situation) occurs before the first two in the timeline, yet is held to the end. Why is that? Truth be told, I still cannot come up with a good reason for it. The best reason I can think of is that it allows Tarantino to flip from using foreshadowing to references we are already aware of or using a sort of reverse foreshadowing. For instance, Vinny in the bathroom is a clear callback to Butch killing him, but in the proper order, it would have been sloppy foreshadowing. So in a way, we wind up with a future event foreshadowing a past event. Maybe I just explained the reasoning to myself. I did really like starting with Pumpkin and Honeybunny and then hearing the conversation we had heard already in the background of Jules & Vincent’s conversation. Little touches like this can always be appreciated.
And the little touches are what Tarantino does best. I’ve never considered myself a huge Tarantino fan, but there are so many little things he does so well. The building of tension through conversation was already touched on. He always uses some interesting camera angles (I’m sure there’s a reason so many shots of Vincent in the Mia story were diagonal from the floor). He also uses quite a few really good long takes here. My personal favorite was walking with Vincent and Mia around the Jack Rabbit. I’m always impressed with the amount of coordination it takes to pull off a scene like that with so many people. It doesn’t exactly crack my top 3 long takes (Atonement, True Detective, Y Tu Mama Tambien are probably my current top 3), but it’s very impressive nonetheless.
Also impressive was damn near every performance. I’ve already talked about Samuel L. Jackson as the highlight for me. Everyone delivers though. The others that stood out in particular are Uma Thurman and, of all people, Eric Stolz, both of which were fantastic. Even Christopher Walken and Harvey Keitel, who were basically only in one scene each, were memorable and made the movie better.
Consider me a convert to the cult of Pulp Fiction. There’s so much going on here that 2.5 hours might not be enough. I wouldn’t mind seeing this get the mini-series treatment someday, but that seems unlikely at this point. I’m very happy I picked this movie now, because it was one I needed to see with a new perspective.
+ Masterful building of tension through distraction
+ Really not a bad scene in the movie
+ Tarantino at the top of his game
+ Every performance is great
- Maybe a little too in love with itself