Overview: A collection of intertwining narratives follows a realized cast of characters through criminal lifestyles and loaded conversations.Miramax; 1994; Rated R; 154 minutes.
Strike Down Upon Thee With Great Vengeance: In the five years preceding 1994, the Academy Award for Best Picture was awarded to (in chronological order from 1989) Driving Miss Daisy, Dances with Wolves, The Silence of the Lambs, Unforgiven, and Schindler’s List. All five examples of strict genre exercises, seemingly crafted to screenwriting templates and loaded with sentimentality. And the top contenders for the prize in ’94 included Shawshank Redemption and Forrest Gump (which would go on to eventually win). This was a dangerous period for American film—dry and undaring, the complete inverse from the decades prior. Enter Pulp Fiction, which injected new life and courage into the scene, much in the way that Nirvana’s Nevermind album had done just a few years before in an assumed protest against the plasticity of 80s rock. Both the movie and that album were acts of pure punk rebellion, defiant to the limitations imposed by the contemporary moment of their respective mediums. Pulp Fiction displays a raw post-modern energy in every element—the neo-noir, the campiness, the bullet-fast dialogue, the non-linear and non-chronological structure, its security with its own violence and vulgarity. This movie is an attack on the very notion of formula.
I Think Fast, I Talk Fast and I Need You Guys to Act Fast if You Wanna Get Out of This: Quentin Tarantino seems to know, on a vignette-by-vignette basis, just how much to give his actors. He places them where they need to be, sets the walls (figurative and literal) to allow them just the right amount of space. Samuel L. Jackson etched his career defining sequence in the first fifteen minutes with a biblical speech that proved a perfect match. Uma Thurman teased superstardom with the effort. John Travolta enjoyed a deserved career resurgence after his magnificent turn as Vincent Vega (Thanks in no small part, I think, to the opportunity to return to dancing in what is probably now his most iconic dance scene. Think about that in terms of Travolta’s filmography). I’ve always valued Tim Roth as criminally underrated and readily accredit Tarantino’s use of him in his first two films. Supporting cast and cameos abound and entertain, but Bruce Willis, here playing boxer Butch Coolidge, takes to the screen with his trademark brooding and menace but never feels at home with the spit-style of delivery required of this movie—something lacking in the way of energy and eccentricity.
Pride Only Hurts, It Never Helps: The case has been made that In Utero is Nirvana’s best album and the collected works on Incesticide present their energy in its purest form. I’d posit that their greatest musical achievement occurred on their Unplugged stage, where they embraced rather than rejected rock tradition. Point being: Pioneers aren’t always the best. “Fresh” isn’t a direct synonym for “great.” While recognizable, the film’s innovation is so constant that it never allows that comfortable moment of accepting the movie. The entire product is homage heavy, loaded with nods to its pop culture influences, a virtual film school résumé. And with its stylistic and narrative turns, we are constantly reminded that we are, in fact, watching a movie (a reality that great American film leads us to temporarily forget).
Overall: A milestone instant in American cinema and culture, Pulp Fiction offers one hell of a ride, accelerating and steering with enough frenetic energy that viewers might miss the bumpiness on their first trip.