A Project for Better Journalism chapter

A Look Back: Pulp Fiction (1994)

In 1994, a trailer made its debut, featuring piano music as a narrator read text that slowly crawled up the screen. It was the winner of the Best Picture award at the Cannes Film Festival. The movie advertised first appeared like a soapy arthouse film based entirely on performances by middle-aged men. But suddenly, gunshots pierced the screen, and rock music started playing. Within a few seconds, there were cars, guns, hot chicks, and Bruce Willis. Quentin Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction, which recently reached its 20th anniversary on October 14th, was unlike anything being produced at the time. And, right from the beginning, one thing was crystal-clear: this movie was something special.

Describing Pulp Fiction’s plot is not exactly the easiest thing to do, because it doesn’t have one plot; it has three. The film is split into three segments: Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife, The Gold Watch, and The Bonnie Situation. The first segment follows gangster Vega (John Travolta) as he is asked by Wallace, (Ving Rhames) his boss, to take his wife Mia (Uma Thurman) out for dinner while he’s briefly in Florida. The second, The Gold Watch, follows a boxer named Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) as he tries to escape after winning a match he was supposed to lose, and runs into the last person he wants to see: Marsellus. And the final segment, The Bonnie Situation, follows Vega and his partner, Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), who get into a bit of a bloody mess after leaving an apartment. To make things more confusing, the three stories are interconnected, and told out of order.

The best part of the movie is undoubtedly the script. Quentin Tarantino, who directed, wrote, and briefly acted in the film, is one of the best dialogue writers in the film industry. In any other writer’s hands, the script could’ve made the movie incredibly boring. But with Tarantino, who writes incredibly witty, pop-culture-reference-filled, and surprisingly natural dialogue, he was able to craft a screenplay that is the film equivalent of the Bible.

The film has so many great quotes it’s impossible to count. My favorite is “Hamburgers! The centerpiece of any nutritious breakfast.” It’s wonderful to see how in each story, what starts out as a simple situation explodes into an enormous problem. (Fun fact: Something bad always happens whenever Vincent Vega goes to the bathroom)

Another thing Tarantino does well is take the separate stories and have them connect in ways one wouldn’t expect, such as having characters who heavily feature in one story briefly show up in another. And when the movie is over, it’s a lot of fun to try to put the scenes in chronological order. (But for those who are too lazy: 4, 2, 7, 1, 8, 3, 5, 6.) It is very clear to see how with this one film, Tarantino has become one of the most well-known filmmakers of the past 25 years.

Another great part of the movie is the impressionable performances. Every single role in the film is perfectly cast, with not one actor appearing out of place. Before Pulp Fiction, John Travolta had hits with Saturday Night Fever and Grease, but a string of lesser films following those lessened his star power. His role as Vincent Vega immediately put him back on the map as a pop-culture-referencing hitman who continually has to get himself out of a bad situation.

The most iconic character in the movie is undoubtedly Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules Winnfield, another hitman who is basically Tarantino’s update on Shaft. (He can even quote the Bible wrong and make it sound cool- most of his “Ezekiel 25:17” monologue is made up.) Before this, he’d made a few films that suggested he was an actor to look out for; Pulp Fiction confirmed it. The part was even written specifically for him.

Then there is Uma Thurman as Mia Wallace, the woman Vega is tasked with taking out for dinner, who seems to enjoy her seductive dominance and likes toying with him. Before Pulp Fiction, Bruce Willis rose to stardom with Die Hard, but then made a series of underperformers. In this film, his role as boxer Butch Coolidge brought him back into the spotlight, effortlessly evoking the fifties-stars that influenced Tarantino’s writing. Unsurprisingly, three of the film’s cast members secured Oscar nominations: Travolta, Jackson, and Thurman. Though the film was nominated for Best Picture, it ultimately lost to Forrest Gump, which angered more than a few Fiction fans.

Another great element of the film is its depth. At first, Pulp Fiction is a very entertaining film. But after that initial viewing, one begins to notice Pulp Fiction is more than it seems on the surface level. The film is sprinkled with layer upon layer of references, hidden jokes, hidden meanings, and just so many little details that can generate hours of analysis. (In Tarantino’s previous film, Reservoir Dogs, Tim Roth played the character Mr. Orange. In Fiction, he plays the role of Pumpkin.) The discussions that can ensue from this film warrant repeated viewings, where one can notice something new each time.

There is even a theory that says a briefcase in the film contains Marsellus Wallace’s soul. The combination is 666, or the “number of the beast.” When the devil takes a person’s soul, he supposedly removes it through the back of their head, and Marsellus has a bandage on the back of his neck. A soul is supposedly the most beautiful part of a person, and a glowing light always emanates from the briefcase when opened, and Pumpkin remarks, “It’s beautiful.”

On top of that, the movie’s soundtrack is top-notch. Containing mostly surf rock, the film is filled to the brim with great songs expertly edited so they’ll be stuck in your head long after the movie finishes. (The highlights are Dick Dale’s “Misirlou,” Link Wray’s “Rumble,” and the Revels’ “Comanche.” Unfortunately, the soundtrack album doesn’t include every single song, but they are on YouTube.

That said, this movie is not for everyone. There are aspects of the film that will turn some people off. Although the violence isn’t everywhere, it is pretty violent when it is present, despite sometimes being played for laughs. There is a large amount of profane language, and the frequent use of the “N-word” will offend more than a few people. There is even an intense scene where a character gets sodomized.But this just shows how the film isn’t afraid to defy peoples’ expectations and take some risks. The movie gets part of its excitement from its unpredictability that will unapologetically throw many curveballs towards the audience.

Pulp Fiction is an amazing movie. Despite some offensive subject matter in places, there is no denying that the film is an entertaining 154 minutes that is fun to watch and analyze. Its tremendous script and iconic quotes and characters make this worth revisiting time after time. It is easily one of the best films of not only the past 25 years, but also of all time, it is without a doubt a 10/10 movie.