Pulp Fiction ****
One Liner Review:
A hit men movie that has fun exploring the lifestyle of these characters by mixing it with pop culture and creative and elaborate scenarios.
Full Length Analysis:
Pulp Fiction is known as a movie that changed the way all other crime movies would be made from then on. It’s the movie of a generation, merging gangster story lines with pop culture slang. These guys aren’t the Italian gangsters from the old country. They’re American, and damn proud of it. They embrace American culture and make pop references to TV, music, and anything else they can think of, and they do this every chance they can get.
Pulp Fiction is probably the first movie that turned inwards and had the characters comment on other movies, breaking down the wall that separates film characters from the audience. It did all this by having its characters be part of the general audience for American entertainment, and fellow movie watchers. Many other movies followed, such as Scream, two years later, making social commentary by featuring characters today watching and talking about films from the past.
These pop-culture references of Pulp Fiction were just one of many fantastic qualities about the movie. The most notable and distinctive feature is known to be the dialogue, mainly because we’ve never heard characters talk this way before. These guys might be on the road getting ready to kill someone, but their conversation talks about anything and everything else. They tell jokes and stories and make comments about what they’ve heard and what they think they know. And at no point do they stop to talk about what they are really about to do.
There is a unique and creative way to how writer-director Quentin Tarantino tells his story, completely out of order, with time jumping around and the narrative getting cut up and fractured. It’s a tool that makes a movie better, because you, the audience are being invited to play a game. Don’t just watch the story, but put the pieces together. Figure out what came when, and how it fits in. This quality of the movie ends up giving it a sort of fun, interactive experience feel.
The dialogue might be the most memorable feature of the film, but the non-linear storytelling is certainly the most revolutionary. We’ve seen plenty of examples before where the movie opens with a scene that will be featured again in the movie later on. It happens all the time these days, and it used to happen in the days before Pulp Fiction as well. Goodfellas, A Perfect World, Carlito’s Way. These movies all came before Pulp Fiction. It’s called bookending a movie, and it’s really not that big a deal. But movies do it for a very specific purpose. They use this quick introduction to get the viewer interested and curious, and knowing that they will find out what it all meant later on. Pulp Fiction doesn’t. There is no clue in the movie that we will ever see the characters that started off the film, again. So when we do come back to the diner and see the same setting that began the movie, we are suddenly surprised and excited because we know what’s coming and can’t wait to see how it comes together with everything else.
Aside from bookending the movie with the diner robbery scene, Pulp Fiction decides to explore the concept of altering the order of a story a little further. It doesn’t just stay at the ends of the film, but actually reworks itself inside. It shuffles around story lines and offers subtle clues to give us, the audience, an opportunity to play detective and uncover just how it’s all meant to work. Since Pulp Fiction, there have been countless exercises in taking this notion further, often to a point where an entire movie relies on the gimmick. Most of the time, we end up getting a cheap attempt to cash in on Pulp Fiction’s style. Memento is a rare example of a movie that does it right. That film has a unique narrative approach of telling it’s story backwards, which was completely inspired by Pulp Fiction, using it as a spring board to launch into something else creative and new.
But the thing that’s so beautiful about Pulp Fiction is that the fractured narrative, like the dialogue and pop culture references, are just one of a whole slate of movie elements that make this movie work. It’s a movie where there are no superheroes and everybody has real problems to deal with. If you’re Bruce Willis’ character, Butch, for example, you might have taken a bribe from a bookie, killed a man in a boxing match, and gone to hide in a motel room on the run, but you still have to deal with forgetting your watch at your apartment. Realistic problems. Similarly for Jules and Vincent, our two hit men, their big problem is caused by what is literally a bump in the road. How many times have you been in the passenger seat of a moving car, trying to write something, and the car hits a bump? Suddenly your writing doesn’t look so good. Tarantino took that simple idea just a little further by applying it to the world of hit men. Instead of pens, they are holding guns. Watch what happens when the car hits a bump.
The movie features three main stories, all of them intertwining with each other. And it opens outside of those stories with two characters that seem to have nothing to do with any of the rest of it. Of course that’s not the truth, as we see the two characters turn up again for a major part in the end of the film. These characters are Ring (Tim Roth) and Yolanda (Amanda Plummer), playing two restaurant robbers sitting in the booth of a diner. Ring tells the story of a man who held up a bank teller with only a telephone and someone important to the teller, on the other end of the line. After the story, he and Yolanda stand up with their guns and start screaming orders, holding the place up. The screen freezes and the loud, heart-pumping music that has now become iconic with this movie begins.
Suddenly we’re on a black screen and the huge letters of the title rise up into the air. The style of these letters is bright, loud, and intentionally campy and over the top. It’s the same style used in From Dusk Till Dawn, which was also written by Tarantino, and it is meant to announce this movie as something big, exciting, and very memorable.
This is actually just one of many ways that Tarantino tries to let us know or make us fully aware of how great his movie is. Another one happened in that diner scene just before this. Ring leaned in close to Yolanda as they spoke of robberies, and he said, “everybody always robs banks. Nobody ever robs restaurants.” The real restaurant robbery with these two characters doesn’t happen until the end of this movie, and so while we know that Ring is right and that we haven’t seen a restaurant robbery on film before, we also don’t get to appreciate why that is such a cool idea until much later on. There are, however, two other subtle lines of dialogue about how great this movie is, that come after the fact, and are therefore already backed up and supported by the time the audience hears them.
The first of these comes after Butch returns home to his girlfriend Fabian. He has just come from killing a hit man, confronting the crime boss he betrayed, and being kidnapped by two rapists who have a pet gimp. Butch says to Fabian upon seeing her, “This has been without doubt the strangest fucking day of my life.” And we know exactly what he’s talking about because we’ve seen every moment of it.
And then there’s Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules, sitting at the diner at the end, with Ring holding a gun in his face. Jules, refuses to hand over a suitcase, telling Ring, “I’ve been through too much shit today over this suitcase to just hand it over.” And again, we know exactly what he’s talking about because we’ve been there with him the whole time.
There’s probably a line somewhere in there too about the watch that got left behind with Butch saying something to Fabian, the girl he is with, like, “This watch has been through too much over the years to just leave it at my apartment.” After all, that watch gets a bigger back story, as told by Christopher Walken to a young Butch in flashback, than most characters get in most feature films.
Vincent Vega, the John Travolta character, is the other hit man who travels alongside Jules, and he’s also got a story of his own. His story, about taking out the boss’ wife for an evening of entertainment, is but one of the three stories of the film. Butch’s story about the boxing match and events that unfold as a result of it, make the second story. And then there’s the third story of Jules and Vincent together, which is really Jules’ story with Vincent as just a supporting player. That’s pretty clear from the way Jules holds up the men who robbed his boss while Vincent stands out of focus somewhere in the background. Another way we can tell that the Jules and Vincent story is really the story that features Jules as the main character, is from the way that they go to see Jules’s friend, for help cleaning up their mess. Jules leads Vincent to this house and even makes the call to Marcellus to get a man named the Wolf to come and help them. But there’s even a third reason why this is Jules’ story, and it’s the most substantial reason of all. At the end of the movie, Jules is the one who confronts Ring at the diner, while Vincent is off using the bathroom somewhere in another part of the restaurant.
Each of the three stories has an introduction that in no way indicates where the story will be going. Sometimes it’s as simple as Vincent and Jules riding around in a car making small talk about fast food names in other countries. Other times, the story ends up coming back to where the introduction started it off, but the path that caused the character to return there was completely unpredictable. Such is the case with the Vincent Vega-Mia Wallace story. The story begins at a sort of drug playpen, which is the apartment of dealer Eric Stolz’s. While the place is certainly trippy, it in no way gives clues that we will be headed to a place as out there as Jack Rabbit Slims. This Vincent Vega plot line will be an entirely drug induced story and begins at the dealers house with him presenting Vega with all different sorts of heroin. As he gets jazzed up about his presentation, he ends up talking exactly like writer-director Tarantino does, “now there’s nothing wrong with these two, but this one…”
The storyline that opens at this drug dealer’s house starts off with piercings and heroin and a discussion of the reasons why someone might get their tongue pierced. The reason offered is in order to increase the sensations and feelings of oral sex. These are clues that this will be a story all about feelings and sensation and exploring the id. It’s about mindlessly letting go. On his way out, Vega shoots up heroin and then goes for a drive. Tarantino presents the drive as more like a dream, or the most relaxing experience of cruising around the streets in a car as imaginable. We hear soothing music that includes the sounds of rolling waves and we watch, as Vincent is half-driving, half-falling asleep.
This is the only the beginning of how drugs will fit into the story. Vincent arrives at MIAs where she’s snorting cocaine while he makes himself a drink. Son of a Preacher Man plays in the background. This song represents the idea of having a moral upbringing and still being corruptible. In the case of Mia, she is not the wife of a crime boss, already starting out corrupted by snorting cocaine, but it is Vega’s heroin that brings her to a whole new level. Between the heroin Vega uses in the car, Mia’s snorting cocaine in the house, and now Vincent making himself a drink, the first portion of this storyline is filled with a variety of drugs. And it’s all getting us ready for what is to come.
The two characters arrive at Jack Rabbit Slim’s Diner and suddenly we are in the world of a restaurant, disguised as the ultimate hallucination trip. Inside the restaurant, they find themselves eating in a car, looking at a wait staff that includes Marilyn Monroe and Buddy Holly, and performing a dance on stage that’s good enough to win first place. The two characters fit right in with the mellow vibe of the place as Vega rolls a joint at the table, Mia snorts cocaine in the bathroom, and they sit in the car having relaxing conversations that are really about nothing at all. The car that they are sitting in is clearly meant to be symbolic of the spot where Vincent first shot up heroin earlier.
Similar to the opening of the drug story at Eric Stolz’s apartment, and the way you can’t tell from that where the story will be going or that a place like Jack Rabbit Slims might even exist, the other stories also lead to unexpected surprises. When Butch makes the deal to throw the fight, it seems that he would have to be crazy to actually win it, and then to kill the guy he’s fighting, as well. I like how Tarantino never shows us the fight, not even for a second, much like how in Reservoir Dogs he never showed us the robbery, only the aftermath.
Even if you do see Butch winning the fight coming, (there are, after all only two choices, he either wins or he loses), there’s no way to predict that the story will end up inside the basement of a couple of rapists. These guys find both Butch and the boss he made the deal with, Marcellus Wallace, then tie them up, unleash a guy dressed in leather known as the gimp on them, and then proceed to rape them. That sort of thing is the very definition of unpredictable.
And Tarantino uses the place not to show us how crazy a scenario he can come up with, but to give his two archenemies a situation where they might have to put aside their differences and work together to escape. Butch has the chance to leave, and leave his enemy behind, but he doesn’t. It’s the classic archetype situation where two archenemies team up, or are really friends. Tarantino loves comic books (he wrote all of the Silver Surfer dialogue for Crimson Tide), and he knew exactly what he was doing here.
And the moment of the decision to go back for Marcellus is handled with careful precision. Butch has the door opened, ready to leave, and he freezes. He thinks for a moment, then turns around and walks back inside. And once he reenters the store, Tarantino has some more fun with the choices he’s about to make.
Butch gets to choose his weapon. He looks over all the different tools, thinking of ideas, and even tries some of them out. He tries a hammer, a baseball bat, a chainsaw, and then finds a samurai sword. This choosing of weapons is just like a video game. Like a Legend of Zelda kind of thing where you go into a store and can buy whatever weapon you want. And the samurai sword that Butch eventually settles on has meaning too. Samurai warriors have a code. They weren’t afraid of death and they certainly weren’t all about saving themselves. By going back into the store to save his enemy, Butch is demonstrating samurai values, and so the sword makes perfect sense.
So Butch goes back down to the basement and slices through the first rapist as the man spins around. The other rapist moves away from Wallace, who stands up and walks over behind Butch where he picks up a gun. And then Wallace speaks, saying “step aside, Butch,” as if the two of them are old friends.
Now this whole thing, this bizarre rapist dungeon, this coming face to face with his archenemy, the big boss, is all because of a watch. The pursuit of the watch led Butch back to his apartment where he ran into and killed Vincent, and then on the street he ran into Marcellus (almost like two guardians in a video game.)
The watch is setup in an earlier Christopher Walken flashback scene from Butch’s childhood. It’s the scene that kicks off the Butch story so that we fade out on the face of kid Butch and then fade back in onto Bruce Willis as the Butch of today. When he presents the watch in the flashback, Walken goes into a long-winded monologue about the history of the watch. Tarantino has a little thing for putting Walken in only one scene and giving him a huge monologue to Deliver in that scene. Walken had only one scene in True Romance, which Tarantino wrote, and it was the greatest scene in the movie. While casting Walken in that True Romance role probably had more to do with the film’s director, Tony Scott than with Tarantino, Walken certainly handled Tarantino’s dialogue brilliantly in that movie to the point where Tarantino knew he would do justice to the watch scene in Pulp Fiction.
Walken tells his watch story about how it traveled throughout the army with different men who had to hide it so enemies wouldn’t take it away, and the story is so elaborate that it could make for a movie in itself. The same goes for many other moments throughout this movie. The story about the guy who gave Mia Wallace a foot massage and then got thrown through a plate glass window. Or the story Mia tells Vincent about the show she was going to be on with five foxy women hit men. There’s a black one, a Chinese one, and so forth, and each one has a specialty. Tarantino liked that idea so much that he took some form of it and made it into a whole other movie with Kill Bill. Those female hit men have code names and everything.
The story of that premise for a T.V. show that Mia tells Vincent about, goes right along with some of the other dialogue happening in this story. The scene of Vincent and Mia out on a date is filled with Seinfeld like observations that the characters share with each other as if they’re good friends. They talk about uncomfortable silences, about coming back from the bathroom and having your food there waiting for you, and in one moment Vincent asks Mia to promise she won’t get offended if he asks her something and she talks of how she can’t promise that because she has no idea what he’s going to ask and her natural reaction might be to get offended. These are fairly simple observations, and that’s the point. They are cool and calm thoughts that we’ve all had before.
Dialogue like this is all over the movie. It’s in Butch’s story, with the initial monologue Delivered by Marcellus Wallace to Butch about pride fucking with you. And what’s funny about that is that it is one of the two biggest monologues of the movie and both are aimed at Butch as he sits there being lectured. The other one is the Walken watch monologue. What is this saying about the Butch character? Considering that he never cuts the speaker off or interjects in any way, at any time, it is certainly saying that Butch is the kind of guy who probably has a lot of rage and has been keeping it all inside. He’s been lectured at ever since he was a kid and despite his boxing success, it’s still going on today in the exact same disrespectful kind of way. It’s at this time, as he sits here listening to Wallace (while Tarantino gives a shot that shows the back of Wallace’s head and Butch’s reaction as he listens,) that Butch is really thinking about what he will do. He’s realizing here that he has to start standing up for himself. And so he doesn’t say fuck pride like Marcellus tells him to, but he says fuck Marcellus, and ends up betting on himself, screwing Marcellus, killing his opponent, and walking off a rich man.
Between the monologues and the witty conversations, Tarantino’s most note-worthy accomplishment with this movie is his rich and honest dialogue. And the story that lays it on the thickest is the first story. The hit men story. Now, the way this story works is we see the first half of it, leave it to go to the other stories (the date with Mia and the Butch boxing story), and then reconnect with it for the final portion of the film.
But there are also some key segments interspersed throughout the film where Vincent shows up somewhere wearing a certain outfit or being in the background while something else is happening, and these moments help us keep track of where they might fall in the narrative storyline. They are like markers. So, for example, Vincent Vega dies in the Butch story. That’s the end of the line for Vincent which means any time we see him after this, it is a scene that really came before it in the storyline. When Vincent walks into a bar dressed in a volleyball t-shirt, at the start of the Butch story, we can tell by this clothing that it’s because he just left the diner, where he went after Jimmy’s house. Of course going to Jimmy’s house and leaving that diner don’t happen until the end of the movie. So first we see him in the clothes, then later on we see how he got the clothes.
The walking in with the volleyball shirt is actually like an intermission scene between the two halves of the movie, and specifically between two chapters. It comes right at the end of the first part of the hit man story, (after they accidentally shoot Marvin in their car), and it comes right at the start of the Mia Wallace date story. That works, because as it happens, Vincent is in all three stories. He and Jules are the stars of the hit man story, then he and Mia are the stars of their date story, and finally, he is killed in the middle of the Butch story. Tarantino wrote this movie to be like a novel of three different short stories where the same characters pop into each story, only sometimes a main character in one story would just be in the background of another story.
The hit man story is the one, which opens the movie, but unlike a James Bond film or any other movie that tries to use an action introduction to open the movie and throw us right into the world of the main character, Pulp Fiction disguises that it’s main characters are. It does open with the restaurant robbery, which gives us a little taste of the themes of the movie and what’s to come, but when we meet Vincent and Jules in their car, shortly after that, they are talking about every subject they can think of besides doing a job. They talk about pot, Amsterdam (where Tarantino was when he wrote most of this movie), the differences between Europe and America, the metric system. All kinds of little remarks that flow into each other. And we get to hear it all before we realize we are listening to a conversation between two hit men.
When they arrive at the sight of their job, they start talking about Marcellus’ wife, Mia, and this guy who gave her a foot massage and got thrown through a plate glass window as a result. The conversation is humorous because we know that Vincent will be taking Mia out in the near future. So this window story is a sort of setup for what could end up happening to Vincent if there’s a problem. And of course, there is a problem when Mia overdoses on drugs that were in Vincent’s pocket.
Vincent is in sheer panic as he speeds off to dealer Eric Stolz’s house, and we know why he’s in such a panic because we know that story about the foot massage. We know the guy who went through the window now has a speech impediment as a result. And we can just imagine what is going on in Vincent’s head, as he crashes his car into Stoltz’s house, trying to rush her to somewhere where she can possibly be saved.
Vincent and Jules stand in the hallway talking about that story of the guy who crossed the line with Marcellus’ wife and what happened to him, and they check their watches, realize that they still have time, and walk down to the other end of the hallway to continue their conversation. The camera stays right at the door and just turns to watch them at the end of the hall and listen in on their conversation. And the two of them argue two different points. Jules is arguing that it was messed up of Marcellus to throw a guy through a window, and Vincent is arguing that a foot massage can be very sexual. Neither one of these guys is in hit man, ready-to-kill somebody mode, and that’s part of what’s so funny about it.
And then the boys go in and find the young guys who ripped off Marcellus Wallace. The dialogue in this scene is threatening and funny. You can tell the Jules needed to have that foot massage argument just to get worked up enough to be ready for this. He spouts lines like, “Does Marcellus Wallace look like a bitch?” In that shouting, pissed off way, that only Sam Jackson can Deliver lines. Another one is, “What ain’t no country I’ve heard of. Do they speak English in what?”
Jules is the star of this story, as made evident by the amount of time Vincent spends off screen while the two of them hold up these guys. While Jules Delivers preachy-like monologues, even quoting text from the Bible, Vincent is somewhere in the back looking through cupboards. When we reconvene with this story later on down the road (at the end of the movie), Jules is the one in a heated conversation with Ring, while Vincent is again in the background of the restaurant somewhere, this time sitting on a toilet in the bathroom.
So the hit man story is really Jules’ story, the date story is Vincent’s, and the boxing match story belongs to Butch. That’s how the movie is divided up. And Vincent is really the character that appears in the other people’s stories the most, although Marcellus’ name certainly comes up a lot in each one.
As far as Vincent on the toilet in the hit man story, he actually spends a lot of time on the toilet throughout the film. And there’s a reason for that. In each of the three stories, he has a toilet scene. In the boxing story, he’s on the toilet while Butch goes through the apartment. When Vincent stands up and leaves the bathroom, he gets shot. In the Mia Wallace date story, Vincent goes off to use the bathroom when they get to her place while Mia goes in his jacket and snorts heroin (which she thinks is cocaine.) And then, of course, there’s the hit man story with Vincent on the toilet at the restaurant while Jules is front and center confronting the robbers. And even when it’s not Vincent who is using the bathroom, you better believe it’s him who mentions it. In the scene where he and Jules hold up the guys in the apartment, one of the guys runs out firing at them from another room and Vincent asks the guys still alive after that, “why didn’t you tell us there was someone in the bathroom?” This is Jules’ story and a story where Vincent says very little, but if there’s a line of dialogue that mentions a bathroom in it, that line will definitely be coming from him.
Why? What does all of this bathroom stuff mean? It’s simple. Vincent is a guy who loves the bathroom. He’s a guy who is easily uncomfortable, and sneaking off to the bathroom is his technique for getting away from it all. It’s how he takes a break. At Mia’s place, Vincent spends so much time in they’re that by the time he gets out, the music isn’t even playing anymore. That’s why in every bathroom scene he’s in, he is always sitting. He doesn’t stand because the toilet is his throne. There is absolute symbolism here, although Tarantino doesn’t bang you over the head with it, and many viewers who see this movie will come away not even remembering that Vincent had three different bathroom scenes.
There’s also a disrespect factor involved with Vincent. He, or other characters he comes across, will often show very little respect to each other, if any at all. Vincent and Butch are disrespectful to each other and they don’t even know each other. “Don’t call me friend.” And Vincent isn’t much better to Jules, sitting on the toilet reading a magazine while his Buddy sits at a table in the restaurant all by himself, waiting for Vincent to get back.
The disrespect characters in this world give each other is often very funny, but you have to be paying attention to pick up on it. Just listen to the way Harvey Keitel’s character, the Wolf, introduces himself to Jimmy. “You must be Jimmy. I’m Mr. Wolf.” In other words, “I’m gonna call you by your first name, but don’t even think about calling me by mine.”
Mr. Wolf views Jimmy as a pushover when he first meets him. Either this is the way The Wolf views everybody before getting to know them, or it’s because Jimmy is housing these two jackasses who just shot a guy in the head while he was in their car. Either way, as the interactions between the two of them go on, Mr. Wolf starts to warm up to Jimmy. Especially when Jimmy (played by Tarantino himself), comes to the Wolf with a problem about the linens they are using. All of a sudden the Wolf realizes this guy has some balls. Instead of linens, they start talking about oak. Instead of calling him Mr. Wolf, the man now tells Jimmy to call him Winston. And when the Wolf sprays down the two hit men with a hose a little bit later, it is Jimmy who stands right beside him cracking jokes about how idiotic these two look.
Mr. Wolf is a character that is meant to be the epitome of cool. He’s one of those characters that we get to hear about before we even meet him, with Jules and Marcellus on the phone with each other talking about him. “I’m sending the Wolf. You feel better now?” Marcellus asks him. “Shit,” Jules responds, “That was all you had to say.”
And then we meet the Wolf, taking the call from Marcellus, Delivering some great dialogue into the phone before hanging up. “It’s thirty minutes away,” he says. “I’ll be there in ten.” This guy is absolutely Mr. Cool, but Tarantino is smart enough not to make everything too easy for him. He wants us to see that this guy knows how to handle some bumps in the road. There’s Vincent asking him for a “please.” Then there’s Jimmy complaining about the linens. And then there are the two boys in the car having to roam around picking up pieces of brain. And throughout it all, The Wolf never loses his cool.
I’ve always wondered whether Mr. Wolf is really the same character as Mr. White from Reservoir Dogs. The same actor plays them both. All of the names associated with him start with a W, from Wolf to White to Winston. And this guy Wolf sends the boys off to Monster Joe’s Truck and Toe, claiming that Joe is an old Buddy of his. Now we never see Joe, but doesn’t it seem likely that Joe just might be the big boss Joe who puts the whole robbery together in Reservoir Dogs? On top of all this, it is well known in the Tarantino-verse that the Michael Madsen Reservoir Dogs character, Vic Vega, is a actually brother with the Pulp Fiction character, Vincent Vega. So clearly all of these characters exist in the same world. And look at how many of them are in both films. Steve Buscemi plays a waiter in Pulp Fiction. Tim Roth plays the guy who holds up the restaurant. Are these all the same characters, only long before they ever went to work for Joe and pull off the job in Dogs? Did Tim Roth’s character, Ring, give up on restaurant robbing after his enlightenment run-in with Jules and become a cop?
The suitcase in the hit man story is also a key element in this film. Just like the way we never saw the robbery in Reservoir Dogs, we never see what’s inside the suitcase in Pulp Fiction. It is clearly meant to be a McGuffin, which means something we don’t need to know the answer to, but only to know that everybody wants it. The glowing light when it opens is an homage to Kiss Me Deadly, the Mike Hammer film noir.
The Vincent-Mia date is also symbolic and is meant to represent a single, huge high. He starts at the dealer’s place, shoots up, and then ends back at the dealer’s place. Who knows if he ever really went anywhere at all, or if this was all just a huge hallucinogenic trip. After all, Jack Rabbit Slims is not a place you would expect to find in reality. And it’s not Mia who is the expert on the place, but Vincent, even though it is Mia who suggests going there. That’s because it is Vincent’s fantasy, not Mia’s. And then there’s also the way that the high goes from extremely great (winning first place in a dance contest), to really low, watching your bosses wife overdose on drugs that were in your pocket, and knowing the story of what happens to you if you mess with his wife.
The greatest filmed sequence in the movie comes when Butch goes back to his apartment for that watch and suddenly notices a giant assault rifle with a silencer sitting on the counter. Tarantino carefully structures every shot here to let you know exactly what the character is thinking and even to think the same thing we. The shot starts with Butch suddenly freezing in place with his eyes fixed on something. Then the camera pulls back to show us what he’s staring at. We see the huge gun resting on his counter. He picks it up, holds it, tries it out, and then we hear the sound of a flushing toilet. Butch’s head turns to the sound with an expression of disbelief on his face, as if to say, “There’s no fucking way that there’s a hit man in my bathroom right now who was sent here to kill me, and just happened to leave his gun right here on my counter.” Then we zoom into the door where the flush sound is coming from. The anticipation is now making our heart’s pound. And then the door opens and he fires. Those careful shots, to reveal a step-by-step depiction of what Butch was realizing, were just perfect.
Butch now leaves his apartment and I will never forget what I was thinking the first time I saw this movie. I was thinking Jules was just around the corner. He was planning to pop out from behind something and get Butch. Or at the very least, he was waiting in the car for Vincent and was going to see Butch. But he never appeared. Later on in the movie, Tarantino answered the question of why, when the narrative cut back in time to show Jules and Vincent sitting at a restaurant, and Jules announcing his resignation. The way Tarantino gave us that answer later on, to why Jules was not there in the courtyard, was kind of like a Paul Harvey, The Rest of the Story situation. It was a “here’s what you didn’t see earlier,” kind of scenario. We saw the first half of the hit man story. We saw the stuff after the hit man story, when Vincent got killed. And now, at the end of the movie, we got the second half of the hit man story. And that second half cleared a lot of things up (including the volleyball t-shirts).
In that end of the movie diner scene, Jules and Vincent sit across from each other at a table as Jules goes off on a rant about why is giving the job up. We, the audience, cannot recognize this as the same diner from the opening Tim Roth robbery scene, because in that early scene Tarantino never showed us the diner beyond their booth. It was all-strategic.
Now, sitting across from Vincent, Jules drops one pop-culture reference after another. There’s Arnold, the pig from the TV show Green Acres. There’s Kane from the TV show Kung Fu. And when he gets into a standoff with gunmen, Jules even brings up The Fonz from Happy Days. It’s so much, that at some point you have to ask yourself why Jules? Why is it all coming from the same character’s mouth and coming in the same scene? It’s because in this moment, Tarantino wants us to relate to the Jules character more than any other. He wants us to find some connection with this character through TV shows and say to ourselves, “this guy isn’t that different from us. He used to watch the same exact T.V. shows that we used to watch.”
And why is it so important that we relate to Jules here? Because he is the character who walks away from it all unscathed. He’s the guy who makes the smart decision. Vincent ends up dead. Before we knew that was his fate, we were right there with him, relating to him every step of the way. Tarantino even brought us into the bathroom with him at Mia’s house just to listen to him talk to himself, giving himself a sort of pep talk in the mirror. But now he’s dead, and Jules is the only one we have left.
When it was the Butch story, we were meant to relate to him as well. That’s what all of those great tracking, point-of-view shots were all about. There was the gun on the counter and then there was another weapon tracking shot where we followed his eyes as he spotted the samurai sword hanging in the store. We relate to Jules through T.V. shows just like we related to Butch through his seeing different weapons, and through Vincent from spending so much time in the bathroom with him.
And all three characters end up being heroes of their own story. All three end up saving someone. In the Vincent story, he saves Mia from her overdose. He actually resuscitates her and brings her back from the dead. The needle through the heart scene is unforgettable. In the Butch scene, he goes back and saves Marcellus from the two rapists. And in the Jules scene, our hero ends up saving Ring, because otherwise he would have had to kill him. “I’m buying something with this money, Ring. I’m buying your life.” That’s the trickiest saving of them all, and certainly the most unselfish. For that reason, Tarantino saves it for last.
The diner scene ends with our hit men tucking their guns into their pants and walking out. They wear their volleyball t-shirts and earlier in the movie we saw the scene that would follow this one chronologically when they walk into the bar wearing the t-shirts. That scene was the beginning of the boxing story (the bar was the meeting place for Butch and Marcellus.) Them leaving the diner are the ends of the hit man story. So the bar scene comes in between those two stories, but it is also a part of the third story, the Vincent and Mia story. That’s because it has Vincent go up to the bar and talk to the bartender and talk about how he will be taking Mia out. After that we get the date. And after the date story, we go back to Butch. So the volleyball t-shirt bar scene is the single scene that really connects all three stories.
Pulp Fiction is a true work of art. It tells three crafty stories, all infused with rapid-fire, witty dialogue. Then it has the ambitious creativity to break the pieces up and then shuffle them all around so that we can piece together their order as we watch the film. And in the process, mixed in there throughout, Tarantino gets in everything he could want, from the watch story monologue to a story that keeps coming up again about Marcellus throwing a guy through a window. First Vincent and Jules discuss it in the hit man story and then Vincent brings it up to Mia in the date story. Tarantino has created such a universe here that not only do the same characters appear in different stories, but also the same legends get retold in them.
This movie is so carefully constructed that it takes time out to examine the smallest details about its characters without dwelling on these details at all. There’s Vincent’s fondness for sitting on the toilet, Jules’ fondness for making T.V. show references, and Butch as a guy looked down on by the world, who knows he wants to use a weapon, but can’t decide which one. Every action or decision a character makes has a reason behind it. For example, when Zed (Peter Green) rings the doorbell to the rapists store, there’s a reason why he’s ringing the bell instead of just opening the door. He has the key. We see him put it in the lock to let him in. But he rings the bell before doing so just to announce himself. To make a big entrance. This is the guy who walks around with a giant Z on his keychain. He’s also the guy who uses Eeny-Meeny-Miny-Moe, a child’s game, to decide which person to rape first. He’s a child. This is the weird kind of shit that Tarantino has figured out. Even a character’s key chain makes a difference.
Pulp Fiction is Tarantino going all out. Reservoir Dogs was a warm-up exercise and a damn good one, but this movie is he pulling out all the stops. He mixes humor with violence and brutality. And every one of the main characters has both sides to his personality. Every character is brutal and every character is also funny.
There’s also the terrific soundtrack, which is just as brilliant as the rest of the movie. The “Girl You’ll Be A Woman Soon,” sequence in particular is so relevant to what is taking place before our eyes with Mia feeling almost like a child. Her being out with Vincent is like being out with her father’s friend and wanting to be taken seriously.
One thing that I will always appreciate about American audiences is that we embraced this movie. There are so many ways that this movie could have slipped through the cracks as a weird film that included rapists, heads being blown off in a car, and massive drug overdoses. And yet American audiences were able to get past all of that and concentrate on the characters and dialogue and way the story pieces all fit together. It didn’t even take a cult following to bring this movie to everybody’s attention and make it universally hailed. This movie was recognized for its greatness when it was fresh out of the gate. We knew it was something special.