Monday, March 12, 2012

100 Movies - No. 73: Pulp Fiction

73. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Crime, Thriller, 154 minutes
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis, Uma Thurman, Christopher Walken and Harvey Keitel

It's not easy to write about Pulp Fiction. The plot is deliberately non-linear and we follow several stories at once. The opening scene is set in a diner and we see two people discussing the virtues of robbing restaurants. The closing scene returns to that same diner and we see the result of their attempts as they interact with other characters we meet during the course of the story.

Crime is a recurring theme and part of the story focuses on Jules Winnfield (Jackson) and Vincent Vega (Travolta) as they carry out hits for their boss. We get to know these characters well, and that's one thing that makes Pulp Fiction great. Tarantino's dialogue is very distinctive. It's funny and true to life, but it also provides plenty of exposition and characterization. You will come away from Pulp Fiction feeling as if you know Jules and Vincent. Like any employee, they talk about things other than their job. Whether it's burgers, miracles, or foot massages, it's always entertaining.

Another thread follows Butch (Willis). He's a boxer who is paid to fix a fight, but he wins anyway. That means he has to go on the run.

One thing I like about Tarantino is the structure of his films. He regularly includes a scene immediately before a sequence to explain the motivations of the characters in that scene. In Kill Bill 2, remember how Beatrix was shown learning skills from Pai Mei immediately before her escape from the grave? In Pulp Fiction, Butch is given a watch. Christopher Walken's cameo is one of the funniest I have seen in any film. He explains how he and his father protected the watch and why it's important that Butch looks after it. This explains why Butch will risk death to return to his apartment and recover the watch later in his life.

A third story shows Vincent taking Mia Wallace (Thurman) out for the night. Her husband is likely to kill him if he makes a wrong move, so his night is filled with tension. The dialogue is at its best when the two talk in the restaurant. Tarantino makes some good observations, such as why we feel the need to talk about trivial things rather than enjoy the silence.

All of the characters are connected with each other. Butch will eventually meet Vincent and Mia's husband. Vincent and Jules will meet the robbers shown in the opening scene.

Perhaps the best story in the entire film involves Winston Wolfe (Keitel). He's a man who knows how to solve problems and he doesn't waste a second or expect anyone to deviate from his instructions. An unfortunate accident leaves Jules and Vincent in an awkward predicament. They have to dispose of a body and remove all traces of the incident. Tarantino even makes a cameo in this chapter as Jimmy.

Pulp Fiction will confound some viewers because it doesn't follow an established structure. A character might die in one scene and show up later in the film. The plot meanders all over the place and offers a glimpse into the lives of these colorful characters. It's not important what happens to them; it's more an exercise in style and mood. Pulp Fiction happens in an unfamiliar world.

The music and dialogue are vital ingredients in any Tarantino film and this one is no different. The actors have so much fun delivering his words. If you focus on Jackson, it's hard to imagine anyone else playing the part of Jules so well. Willis plays Butch in the same way. There are unlikely alliances, a Mexican standoff, shots of women's feet, shots from inside a car trunk and all the things you would expect from Tarantino.

I've heard people complain about the violence in Pulp Fiction, but there aren't actually many deaths and most of the violence isn't directly shown. One thing I should mention is the language. If you are sensitive to excessive swearing, this film might not be for you. But the swearing does fit the characters and it always feels authentic.

Tarantino's films are a lot of fun. If you have a sense of humor that's similar to mine, you might find it among the funniest material available on film. I grin my way through all his films and Pulp Fiction feels about an hour shorter than it actually is.

If you like Pulp Fiction:

I would recommend every Tarantino film; yes, I even like Death Proof. Pulp Fiction is very similar in feel to Reservoir Dogs, although it feels a little more developed. Steve Buscemi works well with Tarantino and it's worth watching the film just for the monologue explaining why he doesn't tip. As in Pulp Fiction, we see the various criminals in Reservoir Dogs talking about routine things. It's hard to love one film without at least liking the other.

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  1. Nice review. Tarantino is one of the best out there. This is his best cast. And I too like Death Proof!

  2. Yep. I may just see Django Unchained on Christmas Day.

  3. Picking a favourite Tarantino movie is hard! I'm a massive Kill Bill fan, but loved Inglorious Bastereds too. Pulp Fiction is clearly a classic, Resevoir Dogs as well. And, unlike some, I adored Grindhouse. See how tough it is? I can't even decide now!

  4. It's incredibly difficult for me too. Pulp Fiction is just my favorite, but Kill Bill 1 and 2 are the ones I watch the most. Jackie Brown and Inglourious Basterds are all in my Top 20. Reservoir Dogs and Death Proof are still great, but just below the level of the others. Tarantino might just be my favorite director ahead of David Lynch.