Pulp Fiction (1994)
“You won’t know the facts until you’ve seen the fiction.”
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Samuel L. Jackson
Synopsis: The lives of two mob hit men, a boxer, a gangster’s wife, and a pair of diner bandits intertwine in four tales of violence and redemption.
It’s now nearly twenty years since Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction stunned both audiences and critics alike, and watching it today it’s surprising how much of the self-indulgence that would blight Tarantino’s later work is already in evidence. Back in 1994 we were perhaps too dazzled by Pulp Fiction’s groundbreaking non-linear narrative, it’s hip, insanely entertaining dialogue, and its graphic but often humorous violence (“Oh man, I shot Marvin in the face!”) to notice how many scenes went on for too long, and how a lot of that cool dialogue went nowhere in particular. And just how annoying Maria de Medeiros’s character truly is.
Pulp Fiction’s plot, as we must all know by now, follows a few days in the lives of an assortment of generally low-life characters. There’s Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield, a pair of enforcers working for crime boss Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman), the cosseted wife of Marcellus, whom Vincent is instructed to take out while his boss is away, Butch Coolidge, a down-on-his-luck boxer who goes on the run with his girlfriend (de Medeiros) after failing to follow Marcellus’s instructions to take a fall in his latest fight, and Ringo (Tim Roth) and Yolanda (Amanda Plummer), a loved-up couple who, at the beginning of the movie, are planning to rob a restaurant.
These characters’ paths cross at various points throughout the movie, sometimes obliquely and sometimes with devastating consequences, and it’s a measure of Tarantino’s confidence and skill that we never really lose track of what’s going on (or when) as the story switches from character to character, often jumping back or forwards in time as it does so. This means that, although the movie begins with a scene in which Ringo and Yolanda are planning their robbery, chronologically-speaking, this incident actually takes places about half-way through the story. Not only was Tarantino brave in employing such a radical technique, he’s also to be applauded for opening his movie with Tim Roth, an actor of truly limited range.
Pulp Fiction is a clever and entertaining movie, no doubt about it, but it quickly loses its lustre after repeated viewings (I’ve seen it four times now in the eighteen years since its release). But Tarantino’s dynamic direction and rapid pacing conspire to disguise how essentially empty the movie is. It’s a bunch of stuff that happens – driven by a number of inconceivable coincidences – and nothing more. There’s no message, no character arcs, no lessons learned. The movie’s essentially empty, a vacuum filled with a superb soundtrack and colourful characters.
Of course, the title Pulp Fiction intimates that Tarantino has no desire to create some great work of art, but even a celebration of one of the lower forms of entertainment should contain some substance amongst the style. Tarantino was simply driven by the urge to create something cool so that people would marvel at how clever he was. In fact, he still is. It worked for a while, but as that precious self-indulgence began to kick in, and the movie references mutated into ’homages’ that looked suspiciously like ’rip offs,’ he ceased to be the darling of the critics and became of the focus of attention of a legion of fanboys.
(Reviewed 9th August 2012)