#5: Pulp Fiction (1994)

Writer/director Quentin Tarantino followed up his attention-grabbing debut Reservoir Dogs (1992) with the yet more ambitious Pulp Fiction just a couple of years later. But when I say ambitious, I don’t mean a blockbuster-scale production. In actual fact Pulp Fiction was filmed on a modest budget, the actors agreeing to work on a capped wage until profits came in. It’s always amusing to look back in hindsight at actors and studios turning down films which later became classics and/or critical successes. Hence, it’s amusing to think of the studios etc. who turned down this project, but if you stop and think, it’s remarkable that Miramax took the risk of making this the first film they’d financed by themselves. That’s because Pulp Fiction is nothing short of ambitious: in its content (gratuitous in most senses of the word); in being non-linear, even killing off a main character halfway through the movie, to bring him back in completing a former scene; and weighing in at over two and a half hours of near solid dialogue, its not exactly your easy Sunday night watch.
Yet, Tarantino pulls it off, and with style. In fact, his heavily stylised direction puts him right in the centre of the screen. We have the signature Tarantino tension, a bristling fear of what’s to come but also that desperation to see it play out. Pulp Fiction is wittily wordy, somehow enjoyably dark-humoured and completely absorbing. As is usual with Tarantino’s work, its also fairly derivative, or as he’d say, full of homages. There are many ideas and shots pinched from Tarantino’s favourite films, and as the title suggests, the rich dialogue and heavy violence is typical of the pulp magazine popular in the mid-20th century. Not that we particularly hold this against him though, as we’re too busy enjoying it all to care particularly where it came from.
But that’s a point in itself, why are we enjoying this violence? Someone accidentally gets his head blown off in the back of a car and we’re laughing, laughing. I’ve been shocked by far less in a film, and yet I was guffawing away at the tiny pieces of brain in Samuel L. Jackson’s (or technically Jules Winnfield’s) afro, as he shouts at Vincent Vega (John Travolta returning to form) for his carelessness. Pairing unacceptable violence with comic characters could go drastically wrong, but Tarantino’s and co-writer Roger Avary’s characterisations of these criminals and their idiosyncrasies ensures the laugh. It’s not often you get comedy and/or violence alongside a character-driven plot, and yet this film at its core is all these things. While there is plenty of action (though I don’t mean car chases and explosions), it all serves to explore these characters and how they react to demanding situations. This is what makes it acceptable, that it’s not, really. Because it’s not about the violence, it’s about the people in that situation, what they’d say and what they’d do. It’s the unfamiliarity of the realism in these scenes which brings the humour, and that is entirely dependent on well-drawn characters.

Whilst this essentially all comes down to the Academy-Award winning script, the well-cast troupe of actors pulls it all together. Jackson gives depth and breadth to what needed to be a nuanced black gangster role, Travolta brings that American nostalgia, Bruce Willis’s name alone brought the financial backing, and Uma Thurman earns her way into A-list stardom as the intoxicating/ed Mia Wallace. Every joke hits home and the script takes off in their hands, so that somehow this melange of curse words, blood and throbbing egos becomes sheer, undiluted entertainment.