What About It?
(for a full summary, go down the page to What Happens?)
Quentin Tarantino was working in movies well before Pulp Fiction and certainly some people noticed Reservoir Dogs, and his contributions to True Romance and Natural Born Killers, but Pulp Fiction was the start of Tarantino as a major force. You could see Tarantino in all of the previous films, whether the absurdly over the top pop culture referencing dialogue, the stylized criminal element, the element of casual violence, and people bound by their own unspoken codes, but Pulp Fiction is where he was able to put all these pieces together exactly how they should be. Filmed out of chronological order, it's a film that feels like several films locked together. With the amazing abundance of talent and smart writing here, even the smallest character seems significant, as nothing is in this film that doesn't add to the flavor he's going for. It isn't difficult to look at all the crime films in the time following Pulp Fiction to see what a profound and immediate impact it had. For some time it seemed like everything coming out was tipping it's hat to Pulp Fiction, although not a lot of those films remained memorable, as stylization isn't everything. What Tarantino got that a lot of his imitators missed was that all the style in the world is no substitute for unique and interesting characters.
Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) are the two characters most associated with the film. Their occupation and their suits could have come out of Reservoir Dogs, (Vincent's brother, Vic Vega is even a character in that film) and that's good because it works. We don't picture hit men having discussions over theology and the significance of a foot massage, but Travolta and Jackson sell it very well. It makes sense that guys whose job consists mostly of waiting would spend a good deal of time talking. Their dialogue also makes them far more engaging than say, characters who look silently across the street. They're hit men, but they're sociable ones, not inhuman monsters. They're as entertained by gossip as anyone, as Mia points out. Most of us have probably had similar conversations. Watching them head to an appointment making small talk like it's just another day at work, we relate to them. There are little reminders that their work is a serious kind, such as checking the trunk and wishing for shotguns, but even when they're about to kill someone, Jules sees no reason not to discuss cheeseburgers.
Their habitual disagreements are also fun to watch and telling about their characters. When they're miraculously spared from death, Jules is all too ready to see "divine intervention" while Vincent can't even entertain such an idea. They've both seen all kinds of situations, and at the very least, a close brush with death, could be cause to reevaluate what you're doing, particularly when it's an inevitable part of your line of work. Jules sees that and his bags are practically packed. Vincent though, has no intention of doing anything else. It's interesting that while most of the characters here are given different settings, we don't see Jules without Vincent's presence. Vincent is the perfect symbol for the lifestyle Jules wants to leave. We can also figure that this isn't a new idea, he is insistent that Marsellus' supposed action of throwing a man of a balcony over a foot massage, is excessive. Vincent's defense of the action is telling about him, he's simply justifying why he stays. Jules is a character who is building up his own justifications to cut strings and do something else. It's very clear though, that Jules, doesn't know much of any other occupation, but his idea of "walking the Earth" is perhaps as sensible as being a hit man anyway. And again, Vincent seeing his decision as "deciding to be a bum." tells us everything about Vincent. He sees himself as a guy who is working for a living and can't understand what Jules is planning at all. It's a great touch that Jules' catch phrase is a key in his finally understanding how to turn a corner. It also reveals much about Jules that the "scripture" he's memorized is largely made up. As he says he would quote it because "I just thought it was some cold blooded shit to say to a motherfucker before I popped a cap in his ass." He also went to the trouble to get a wallet that reads "Bad Motherfucker." These details are all part of Jules sense of place in the world. Perhaps he is a "bad motherfucker." but that isn't very relevant, when he's also somebody that should be dead.
"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 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 would attempt to poison and destroy My brothers. And you will know My name is the Lord when I lay My vengeance upon thee."
In analyzing his own favorite phrase, Jules basically tells his whole journey, "See, now I'm thinkin' maybe it means you're the evil man and I'm the righteous man, and Mr. 9 Millimeter here, he's the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or, it could mean, you're the righteous man and I'm the shepherd and it's the world that's evil and selfish. Now, I'd like that, but that shit ain't the truth. The truth is, you're the weak and I am the tyranny of evil men, but I'm tryin' Ringo. I'm tryin' real hard to be the shepherd." Up until the miracle, despite the fact that he killed people for money, Jules imagined he was "righteous." In that light, it makes sense that he would have a problem with Marsellus being "excessive." Jules opinion of what "righteousness is, however, is entirely his own. He's lived to long in a world of different than normal morality to just be a normal citizen, thus his plan to "walk the earth."
Vincent is the other side, firmly entrenched in what he does. Like anyone in the film however, he does have a code he follows. His code isn't tested by Jules, but by Mia. Although he has every intention of doing what Marsellus asked of him, we see when he and Mia return from Jackrabbit Slim's that it isn't as easy as he would like it to be. Mia is certainly off limits, yet he can't help but be drawn to her. She pays attention to things and treats him with respect, even though, he has been ordered to show her a good time. She isn't afraid to broach delicate subjects either, and when she asks Vincent "Isn't it more exciting when you don't have permission?" we can't blame him for finding that an interesting statement. Vincent does manage to follow the rules, and save Mia's life, but clearly it isn't about the letter of the law as we see when he asks Mia to keep the overdose a secret from Marsellus. His loyalty clearly has some limitations. He feels that a foot massage would cross those boundaries, but keeping Marsellus wife's near death a secret, even though strictly speaking he had done nothing wrong, does not. On his date with Mia, we see that Vincent is interested in all sorts of things, and although he doesn't watch TV, he knows the difference between Marilyn Monroe and Mamie Van Doren. Despite the difficulty in maintaining loyalty, it's gratifying to see Vincent and Mia form a deep relationship, due to the worst possible circumstances. We see that Vincent is as human as Jules is, he's just determined to earn his living this way.
Vincent is insistent about respect, but he has no desire to be in charge. He's quite happy to be back up for Jules, and we see when he is sent alone to look for Butch that he isn't as careful as he should be. They were "lucky" he tells Jules when they cheat death, so he is "unlucky" when Butch kills him, but it likely has more to do with the gun he left on the counter, and the fact that he insisted on having a stare down with Butch earlier. It's no wonder that this role revived Travolta's career. He's entertaining every moment he's on the screen, and plays "the Elvis man" perfectly.
Ving Rhames' Marsellus Wallace is really the character that connects them all. He's the boss and the guy that people will believe throws a man over a balcony over a foot massage. Clearly he thinks nothing of having people beaten or killed, as Jules' and Vincent's careers depend on it. Yet here, we get to see Wallace as not just the boss, but a guy like anyone else. He underestimates Butch and pays for it, and then as luck would have it, is severely abused by Maynard and Zed. For his own reasons, Butch rescues him, and we see that despite his brutality, he has his own code somewhere. He lets Butch go free, although he has a shotgun in his hand and could easily take him out with it. He owes Butch his life possibly and certainly some dignity. Even so, he has to place conditions on them being "even." What Butch did for him has a concrete value. It's worth erasing their disagreement, but not if he tells anyone about it, or if he comes back to L.A. People have said that it's what someone does when no one is watching that tells the most about them, and in this case it reveals Marsellus' own sense of loyalty. He's a crime boss but a very particular one. We also notice that Jules has no fear of telling Marsellus he's retiring. Vincent suggests that he'll laugh if Jules tells him why. This is a guy that inspires fear, but also trust in those close to him. Rhames plays him perfectly as a formidable force, even under the worst circumstances.
My favorite character, however, is Butch. It may just be that I like Bruce Willis, but this isn't a standard Willis character. Butch is far from the wisecracking John McLane. When he first meet him he's notable for not saying anything, but not saying it aggressively in Charles Bronson fashion. He's not a regular inhabitant of Wallace's world of crime, just a boxer that sees the opportunity to make some money and be happy with the woman he loves. Of course Tarantino's love of the pulp/noir genre comes through here as well. The boxer taking a dive is another staple of the genre, as seen in "The Set-Up" and "The Harder They Fall" among others. Butch wants to take the opportunity for all it's worth though, accepting not only Wallace's pay off, but placing his own bets, with the odds sure to pay off if he wins, since everyone knows about the fix. We know that Butch grew up without a father, and has made his own idea of what manhood is. The young Butch is instantly recognizable by the way he listens without saying a word. He ends up being quite formidable beating a boxer to death without even realizing it. We see that Butch as much as anyone else has made up his own codes and is more than just a thug. We see him get furious when realizing Fabienne didn't grab the watch his father left him. He catches himself and realizes that she couldn't know how important it was, because he didn't tell her. It doesn't make the watch less important, but it does show that he's careful about assigning blame. As tough as he may be to others, to Fabienne, who is clearly very delicately constituted, he endeavors to be gentle. Butch's code has nothing to do with Marsellus Wallace, although he rightly assumes that crossing him will put him in a lot of danger. Danger doesn't stop him from going to get his watch though, even though his apartment is the worst place for him to be. As with the boxing match, Butch is quick to seize opportunity when finding Vincent without his gun, and when Marsellus crosses the street in front of him. Neither he or Marsellus could've predicted Maynard and Zed's behavior. Butch's strength of character really comes through though, when he's about to leave but decides not to leave Marsellus there. It's worth considering that Marsellus is the biggest enemy Butch has, and he really has nothing to gain from saving him. It's the principle of the thing though. Butch can't leave anyone to that fate. Fortunately, Wallace respects this but that' not something he could've counted on.
Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer are also great as Pumpkin and Honey Bunny. The two armed robbers who think they're bigger fish than they are. Although their roles are relatively small, they make quite an impact, coming across as an affectionate pair who just happen to be deranged. Honey Bunny's distress when Jules grabs Pumpkin is almost to watch and her presence alone creates massive suspense. We can't be sure what she's capable of. Uma Thurman's Mia is another standout. Her personality had a lot to do with it being a memorable experience. She's a femme fatale who's mostly a danger to herself and not what we expect from being Wallace's wife. Although the marriage dynamic isn't heavily explored, we get a character who knows what she wants and takes it without apology, only having the misfortune of finding the wrong coat pocket.
Christopher Walken's appearance is also great, and you can depend on him to make even a minor role a highlight of a film. The gravity with which he tells the story of the watch is so compelling the means of hiding it don't diminish it's importance at all. Harvey Keitel's Winston Wolf is fantastic, and illustrates how effective having the right actor in a small part can be. We never question that Winston Wolf is the only guy in the world that can solve this problem.
True to it's title, Pulp Fiction is populated entirely with new takes on the world of pulp characters. We recognize them, but they're given a chance to be themselves here. They can say what they want and do what they want or not. But the way they're treated it's tough to think of them as old here. This is a film that says, "What if all the characters from all those stories, the hit men, the fixer, the boxer taking a dive, the femme fatale, and the two bit hoods all got together in the same movie, in present day?" It sounds sure to make an interesting story and it does. The out of order filming gives it an energy that makes it fly by even though it's a fairly long film. Just as we get settled on a character and wonder what they'll do next, we move to another and ask the same thing. Pulp Fiction is informed by pulp, but isn't bound by it. Maybe these shady characters will meet gloomy ends, but maybe they won't. It's not afraid of happy endings any more than of bad ones. Butch and Fabienne ride off towards retirement. Honey Bunny and Pumpkin get away with a great take, and get to stay alive. There are consequences and things to be suffered, but maybe there's true love or divine intervention. We don't know until they get to it and that's certainly the mark of a great story.
The film opens on a couple in a diner, Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) discussing. Pumpkin is declaring that he's "all done. through with this shit." Honey Bunny reminds him that the always says this and then forgets in a day or two which makes him sound "like a duck." when he complains "Quack, quack, quack." During the discussion, they amend the "not doing it again" to mean "after tonight." Pumpkin mentions that robbing banks is easier, because they're instructed not to resist in any way, and you don't even need a gun. He tells a story about a man robbing a bank with his cell phone. She asks if he wants to rob banks. He tells her that he's only illustrating that it would be easier than what they've been doing.