“Pulp Fiction” Movie Review

Alright, since Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino’s 9th and potentially penultimate feature, is being released later this month, I decided it would be a great opportunity to look back at a couple of my favorite films of his. I highly doubt I’m the only cinephile to come up with this idea, but it gives me an excuse to talk about some of them. This neo-noir black comedy premiered at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the prestigious Palme d’Or despite protests from certain filmgoers. It was later theatrically released in the United States on October 14th, 1994, following a length festival run and huge word-of-mouth among critics. It managed to gross $213.9 million at the worldwide box office against a budget of $8 million, far more profitable than the average indie film at the time. It’s marketing campaign and awards season glory, including an Oscar win for Best Original Screenplay, went on to have a fundamentally huge impact not just on independent cinema but the film industry at large. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, the story was originally conceived as a short by the director and his longtime friend Roger Avary, but it later evolved into a feature with an anthology trilogy. A couple of scenes that made it into the final product were originally intended for Tarantino’s earlier screenplay True Romance. Producer Lawrence Bender originally set it up at TriStar Pictures, who dropped the project after being horrified by its depiction of drugs and violence. The script was later brought to Miramax and the Weinstein brothers, who immediately bought the rights to it, making it the first feature film Miramax ever financed. The film follows various interwoven stories concerning criminal figures in Los Angeles over a couple of days. These include two philosophical hitmen debating retirement, a violent washed up boxer on the run from a mob boss, a Bonnie and Clyde-esque couple holding up a restaurant, and said mob boss’ wife going on a turbulent night out with one of his men. And to make things even more enticing, all of these vignettes are presented out of chronological order, so characters float in and out at various moments. I feel like I shouldn’t have to emphasize how deeply impactful this film has been on the world cinema over the last 25 years. Hell, even the poster for this film has already become a staple of college dorm rooms and cinephile apartments everywhere. Even if you only have a casual or passing interest in movies, this film will always make its way into your orbit one way or another. I was extremely curious to see how well it would hold up on this rewatch, especially after developing his craft further over the years to come. Would it seem obsolete and amateurish compared to the director’s later works? As it turns out, quite the opposite; even after making 8 feature-length movies, Pulp Fiction unquestionably remains Tarantino’s magnum opus. Under most circumstances, no film should be able to keep an audience’s attention through conversations about foot massages and a 5-dollar milkshake. But one of Tarantino’s best weapons has always been and continues to be his masterful ability to write dialogue that feels both cool and natural in his characters’ mouths. He uses these extended diatribes about trivial subjects both to help characterize the individuals on-screen and subtly hint at their interpretation of certain events in the story. Speaking of story, the decision to split the narrative up into different chunks and rearrange them all out of order is kind of an ingenious idea. I’m fairly confident that if this film were told in chronological order, it would not have become nearly as successful as it is now. But thankfully, Pulp Fiction feels like one of those old magazines with different crime stories- unexpectedly interwoven in a really graceful and organic way. Another one of the director’s specialties is getting the perfect actors for various roles and really pushing them to do their best. Two prime examples are John Travolta and Bruce Willis as Vincent Vega and Butch Coolidge, a bumbling hitman and runaway boxer, respectively. Both of these men’s careers were in a rut and yet somehow Tarantino was able to resurrect them by making these two interesting and unpredictable in nature. Another huge standout for me is Uma Thurman as Mia Wallace, wife to an intimidating local mob boss. Even as the literal face of the movie on most of the marketing material, she’s surprisingly in the movie prominently only for one segment, “Vincent Vega and Marcellus Wallace’s Wife.” Despite this, she still leaves a huge impression as a cocaine-addicted aspiring actress who just wants to have fun night out, especially during a dance sequence to “Son of a Preacher Man” by Dusty Springfield. But let’s be honest here, people: it’s Samuel L. Jackson in his star-making turn as Jules Winnfield that really brings the movie to a homerun. The first of several collaborations between the actor and filmmaker, he clearly relishes the role as an efficient hitman who comes into a spiritual crisis. It’s perfectly easy to see why Tarantino wrote the role specifically for Jackson, particularly when he recites a passage from Ezekiel before offing a victim: “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides y the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.” He’s had many great roles since then, but this will always be his defining role. And on a purely technical level, Pulp Fiction demonstrates Tarantino’s early prowess behind the camera. Many below-the-line team members had previously worked with the director on Reservoir Dogs, including cinematographer Andrej Sekula. His anamorphic cinematography creates a wonderful and diverse canvas with a beautiful film stock that leaves no grain. The camera almost always seems to know exactly to keep a focus on and a number of scenes are done in long takes. This is leveraged by the late Sally Menke’s fantastic editing job. Every single scene and shot is cut together to the director’s incredibly specific vision, giving us just what we need to see. It also manages to be a punchline for certain scenes featuring pitch black humor and mystery. Whether it’s the golden gleam from a McGuffin-like briefcase or the sudden cut from a guy accidentally getting shot in the face, the movie juggles a handful of tones that are beautifully interwoven. There is no original score for this film. Instead, we’re treated to a diverse and appropriate soundtrack full of songs from different eras. Starting and ending with surf rock interpretations of various songs, every selection is so obscure yet perfect for the moment. My personal favorite is Neil Diamond’s “Girl You’ll Be a Woman,” another little dance sequence for Mia Wallace. I don’t know how he does it or where he finds these songs, but the director always picks the right track for whatever scene it’s used in. And of course, with such a big, influential film like this, there came a wave of imitators in its wake. You know the types I’m talking about: fast-paced, dialogue-heavy movies with witty criminals as the central characters where violence is often used as a punchline for the humor. And yet, no matter what, none of those are ever able to measure up to what this film did because it simply did all of that right. Pulp Fiction is a cleverly written and highly rewatchable watershed moment for cinema across the board. While he’s made several other great films since this one’s release, Quentin Tarantino will always have to measure his filmography to this early masterwork. The characters and dialogue will far outlast any of the filmmakers and actors involved in this project. It’s rightfully become one of the quintessential films to watch as part of becoming a cinephile alongside Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Star Wars, and more.

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