Released in 1994, Quentin Tarantino’s second film was a critical and commercial success. Considered by many to be his magnum opus, it featured an all-star cast, out-of-chronological-order storytelling, and the intoxicatingly snappy dialogue that we have all become accustomed to. The interweaving storylines provided a multitude of iconic moments and made Pulp Fiction itself, an iconic moment in cinema history.
What Pulp Fiction Means to Us
Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction are among the most devastating one-two punches any director has ever made. When Tarantino hit the scene, it felt like a boxer stepping into the ring, challenging every other heavy weight in the room and then utterly destroying everyone fool enough to to step up. To Hollywood’s credit, they quickly realized it was smarter to just quietly rip him off, then even try to compete. He directed three movies and wrote two others, each of which was a critical darling and commercial hit that was beloved by everyone. Accept me. I didn’t get Tarantino at first. I thought Natural Born Killers was pretentious, From Dusk Till Dawn ridiculously cheesy and his the directorial efforts massively overrated. I liked them fine enough but I just didn’t see what the big deal was. I remember thinking after watching Pulp Fiction for the first time, “this is it?” I was blown away by how not blown away I was by it. The performances were all great, the characters were memorable, the soundtrack was filled with bangers and the dialogue was *chef’s kiss* but I kept waiting for that scene that was going to tie it all up in some satisfying bow but it never happened. It took me about the eighth rewatch of Jackie Brown (and that’s not an exaggeration, I would rewatch his films multiple times trying to crack the code) till it finally dawned on me – I was waiting for the plot to kick in instead of just hanging out with the characters.
Since his films unfold in their own rhythms, the plot happens when it happens. That’s not to say nothing happens in his films or that they’re filled with a bunch of art house bullshit to pad the length but that his focus is on crafting the best version of a hang out film possible. He wants you to soak in his universe, get to know his characters to such a degree, that you’ll be ok watching them do anything and then he’ll start getting to the plot. Most films aren’t told out of order or trust their audiences to keep up and because of this, I wasn’t used to it, so I rejected it. They didn’t adhere to the “rules”, so it took me awhile to realize that wasn’t a bug, it was a feature. Sometimes when you’re a true innovator or game changer, it may take time for everyone to adjust to the new road they just paved. I had loved his films all along, I just thought I didn’t because it’s hard to rate the new. Once I figured out my problem was, I gave Pulp Fiction yet another rewatch and then finally, it clicked for me and it’s been one of my favorite films ever since.
In 40 years of watching movies, Pulp Fiction stands out as an experience unlike any other. I don’t remember exactly how old I was; I’m sure younger than I should have been. Before watching it, I mostly knew John Travolta as Danny Zuko from Grease, and Samuel L. Jackson was that computer guy in Jurassic Park who got eaten by a velociraptor. I had a vague understanding that drugs were a thing and that there was brutal violence in the world. Up to this point, though, I was a fairly innocent kid who had mostly experienced what I knew of the world through reading and PG-13 movies. Watching Pulp Fiction was incredibly shocking in many ways (duh). It was more fucked up than anything I’d seen. And that was completely fascinating.
Obviously a couple decades later, I’ve seen plenty of terrible things in movies and on TV, so Pulp Fiction doesn’t pack quite the same punch in that regard. But I’m not sure a week has gone by in 13 years of marriage that my husband or I haven’t quoted it in some way. The diner scene lives rent-free in my head more often than I should admit to anyone, as does Christopher Walken’s soliloquy about the watch. The poetry of how neatly the disordered plot threads come together still blows my mind. It was one of the first movies to show me that I wasn’t the only one with a dark sense of humor — and that I had much further to go in embracing it.
One of the first things that comes to mind when thinking about Pulp Fiction is the dialogue. It’s a high point in the interweaving stories and gives the film a unique flavor that had rarely been seen before. Yet when you break it down, most of the time the characters aren’t sharing Shakespearean levels of dialogue. There is a little bit of philosophizing, especially when Jules has his epiphany, but the real beauty lies in the mundane conversations the characters have with each other.
Listening to Vincent and Jules talk about quarter-pounders and their equivalent French names is fascinating. As was their discussion about the politics of a foot massage. Or when Butch and his muse Fabienne discuss potbellies and how attractive they are. Vincent and Mia ramble on about a range of topics, from what a TV pilot is, to uncomfortable silences and extortionately priced milkshakes. It’s something that other Hollywood films were afraid to show. Everyday conversations that real people would actually have. They might not have moved the plot forward, but what they did do was give you an insight into who the characters really were. And when something explosive actually happened, it felt really explosive. Considering Jules and Vincent have their conversation about continental burgers just before they planned to murder a group of people makes it stand out even more.
It seems like such an easy thing to do, but the fact that this style has rarely been replicated with success would say otherwise. The conversations feel fresh and embedded in the culture of the time. In Pulp Fiction Tarantino didn’t have to rely on action or special effects. You don’t need those things when the vast majority of your dialogue is so compelling.
Curse of the Bathroom
When Vincent Vega needs a toilet break in Pulp Fiction, brace yourself. A recurring theme is his use of bathrooms and more importantly, what happens when he leaves one. After his date with Mia, he visits the little boys’ room, mainly to give himself a pep talk. To try and motivate himself into going home, and not do anything he would regret. When he leaves the bathroom he finds Mia in a comatose state. Covered in vomit and blood, she has accidentally snorted some of his heroin, believing it to be cocaine. Another scene has Vincent taking a bathroom break in the diner. While he is in there a robbery is initiated and carried out. He reemerges into a multi-gun standoff that he then has to get involved in. And last but certainly not least, while searching for Butch at this apartment, unfortunately for him he needed to use the toilet again. Only this time when he vacates, he is met with Butch holding a semi-automatic machine gun. After the pair seemed to form an instant dislike for each other earlier in the movie, it was only ever going to end with Vincent’s demise.
Something dramatic always happens when Vincent goes to the toilet, and although it’s not always fatal, you know something crazy is about to go down. It’s a small, seemingly irrelevant issue throughout the movie, but it’s another example of how Tarantino pours attention into every little detail.
The contents of the briefcase have been a much-debated subject over the years. The only clue we get during the film as to what is inside is the holy aura and light that is given off when the case is opened. To achieve that glow, the briefcase was fitted with a light bulb and had a battery inside. But the camera never shows its contents. Some people think it’s a simple answer. Gold or diamonds, something of high monetary value. The fact the diamonds could be from the heist in Tarantino’s previous film Reservoir Dogs, adds a bit of fun to the theory.
The code to unlock the case (666 – the number of the beast) provides more questions than answers. One of the theories linked to it is that all of the evil in the entire world is kept within the case. Another outlandish theory is that it contains Marsellus Wallace’s’ soul. Maybe he sold it to the devil, had a change of heart, and now wants it back. He does have a plaster on the back of his head throughout the film so maybe that is where his soul was removed. It’s fun to speculate, but I’m not buying it.
Tarantino tried to put the debate to bed, revealing the briefcase functions as a “MacGuffin,” nothing more than a plot device used to push the story forward. It’s simply whatever the viewer wants it to be. It might be a boring answer, but I’m more than fine with that.
Pulp Fiction helped redefine independent American filmmaking. A movie with a budget of only $8 million grossed over $213 million worldwide, showing that independent films had to be taken seriously by major studios. It gave a green light to experimental directors who wanted to do something different. It has influenced dozens, if not hundreds of other movies, with its ultra-stylized violence and quippy dialogue. Roger Ebert even called Pulp Fiction “the most influential film of the decade”. It popularized nonlinear storytelling and reinvented the careers of a number of the actors involved.
Beyond everything else, it truly announced Quentin Tarantino as one of the greatest directors of his generation.
Have you seen Pulp Fiction? What did you think of the film? Got a fun fact or piece of trivia on the making of the film? Share it in the comments below!