Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 4(1) (1996) 12-14
Pulp Fiction: A Review
Writer and Director: Quentin Tarantino
Principal Actors: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Bruce Willis
Release Information: Miramax Films/ A Band Apart and Jersey Films (1994) 154 minutes.
From Reservoir Dogs to True Romance and now to Pulp Fiction Quentin Tarantino's films dwell in the dark heart of the criminal underworld. Tarantino grasps the images of sex and violence with a seductive combination of pop-culture, Hollywood icons, and clarifying dialogue.
With Pulp Fiction Tarantino takes you full circle through a forty-eight hour period in the three inexplicably linked stories that realize one story. From Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) and Pumpkin (Tim Roth), two liquor store bandits looking to make a career move, to Butch (Bruce Willis), a boxer hoping to cash in on his last fight, to Jules (Samuel Jackson) and Vincent Vega (John Travolta), two hitmen who may or may not have witnessed a miracle in the performance of their duty, to Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) and Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) who are at the center of it all, Pulp Fiction dashes from image to image only slowly revealing the events that are to transpire.
A close-up of a booth in a greasy spoon in which a young couple sits discussing their current career situation is the opening scene. Within minutes their discussion gains momentum and finally closure before Honey Bunny and Pumpkin rise up and we hear "Any of you f-----g pricks move and I'll execute every one of you motherf-----rs! Got that?" (Pulp Fiction screenplay, 1994). And with these words the tango begins, the music starts, and the tale unweaves, a spiraling descent through the violent world that preceded the moment and that world which it would create. Tarantino does not return to this moment until the closing minutes of the film in which clarity is achieved and the story is laid to rest. But there is more to Tarantino's Pulp Fiction than the mere retelling of a story, more than its images of violence and sexuality, and more than the cheap unfinished "pulp" magazines which inspired this film.
This tale opens up the provocative lives of the characters that inhabit the renegade world that is criminal Los Angeles with a wild and vicious energy that is only tempered by a carefully woven message of hope. Manohla Dargis writes, "The hook in Pulp Fiction may be violence, but the sinker is that here even God gets a chance. When Jules, Tarantino's killer who witnesses divine intervention, says,-I'm trying real hard to be a shepherd , its a miracle that [End page 12] he is trying at all." (Pulp Fiction screenplay, 1994). Tarantino alludes to signs of good and evil, some biblical and others borrowed from movie classics, throughout the entire film.
Much of the tale centers on the troubled quest for a prized possession of Marcellus Wallace, the kingpin around who all the players revolve. This possession itself however is never actually revealed within the film its substance contained within the confines of a black briefcase. It is here that the first glimmers of the clash between good and evil are revealed. In order to gaze upon the treasure sheathed in the briefcase the mark of the devil must be decoded. The numbers 6-6-6 serve as the key for unlocking the hidden treasure of the briefcase. And much like the often sought after spiritual treasures of biblical times, like the Holy Grail or the Arc of the Covenant, Marcellus' treasure is often discussed but few ever bare witness to its splendor in its entirety. In fact, the closest the viewer gets to seeing this enigma is a golden aura released when the briefcase is opened and a reflection of awe in the eyes of the only two men who behold it, one of whom will not live long enough to share the experience with anyone.
Yet these spiritual symbols are further captured in the actions and lives of the characters as well. At one level there is Vincent Vega, a fiercely proud and loyal hitman, a soldier who in life lived by the sword and inevitably had to die by the sword.
And at a deeper level there is the relationship between Marcellus Wallace and Butch. Butch in making a deal with Marcellus Wallace could essentially be working for the devil himself for in this transaction Butch not only trades his service, but his dignity and soul as well. Marcellus Wallace tempts Butch, feeding on the greed and disgrace which hides within man. Butch however breaks his pact with Marcellus Wallace, seemingly outcheating the devil, and finds the means for his escape. Yet Butch in the process of his escape finds that there are certain things from which he cannot hide nor run, in this case his conscience. Much like Jesus going to the desert to be tempted by the Devil, Butch faces the temptations offered by Marcellus Wallace. When Jesus entered the desert to be tempted by the devil he went into the unknown to test his strength and his conviction. The Devil also entered the desert but he did so with an apparent advantage, all his resources against one man. But in the end Jesus, haggard and trodden emerged, as did Butch, somewhat battered but riding upon the wings of Grace.
And the most telling story is that of Jules, who believing that he has felt the presence of the Lord's hand, finally, in a moment of clarity realizes the true meaning of a passage of the bible [End page 13] which he had previously only uttered in rage, prior to making a hit.
"The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of the darkness. For he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you."
(Pulp Fiction screenplay, 1994)
Jules has for the first time felt and understood the meaning of those words. But what is significant is not the debated miracle which precipitated his change but rather that the change has occurred and that Jules felt the touch of God. With this scene Tarantino returns to the diner to close the tale previously begun by Pumpkin and Honey Bunny. Jules has given Pumpkin and Honey Bunny another opportunity at life and a chance to rethink it for Jules has decided to try and be the shepherd.
Tarantino's Pulp Fiction brings so much more to the screen than the collection of Brazen images of sex and violence which encompass the dark underworld of criminality. And if we watch carefully we will not miss the energy and vitality which can spark a glimmer of hope in the noire comedie of life in Tarantino's criminal Los Angeles. With his tale, and his characters, Tarantino reveals some of the shining moments which exist even in the world of the criminal and deviant. Tarantino breathes life into the numbers which fill our cells, and our streets, those who call the costs and losses of criminality their comforts. Tarantino's characters, dancing and stumbling through a dark world, embody the deviant and criminal of the real world. And in them Tarantino lets us see the potential for change and hope that exists. Events occur every day, some miraculous others not, and through these events people change. It is never too late for redemption, for change, for hope.
Jorge M. Chavez
University at Albany
Tarantino, Quentin (1994). Pulp Fiction: A Quentin Tarantino Screenplay. New York: Miramax Books. [End page 14]