Josh wanted to blow us away with his first film this time around, and while almost all of us had seen it (no surprise) the film itself never disappoints: Quentin Tarantino’s defining 1994 mash-up Pulp Fiction.
As is his wont, Tarantino throws the narrative into the non-linearizer before presenting it to his audience. Given that Reservoir Dogs was more or less straightforwardly linear (with a few flashbacks, of course, but nothing that truly altered the order of the narrative thread) and that Tony Scott’s original cut of True Romance also went from beginning to end (true, Tarantino later got his hands back on the film to shuffle it up – not to its benefit in my view – in an alternate…well, it’s not exactly a “director’s cut” but you get the idea), Pulp Fiction is basically the first of Tarantino’s films to employ this technique. Furthermore, the time jumps are actually more successful here than any other time Tarantino has done it, bar none.
I believe the success has to do with the narrative structure of the parts of the film themselves. Wikipedia will tell you that there are three storylines (three being the number actually given a name in the title cards), but I would cut the linear screenplay up into five acts. Unfortunately, with the exception of what I will call Act V, none of the other acts have a particularly compelling story arc. Style? Yep, the stories have style oozing out of their pores, because that’s what Tarantino does brilliantly. But as far as story arc goes, they fall pretty short. This deficiency, I will posit here without putting forward a particularly detailed argument, is largely masked by the non-linear narrative order. The viewer spends much of their time trying to reconstruct the storyline in their heads, is wowed by Tarantino’s directorial panache, gets the hook from Act V (though this comes well before the end of the movie), and comes to the conclusion that the entire thing resonates as a whole. I kind of don’t think that turns out to be true on close reflection. Great film, awesome style, great technique to mask a marginal screenplay…but a marginal screenplay nonetheless.
In honor of now having watched the film enough times to put the thing in order, here’s my review, breaking the film into five acts. Acts titled in parentheses are my own unofficial breakdowns, contrasted with the three title-carded acts in the film.
Act I: (The Briefcase and the Miracle)
It’s early morning (given the events in Act II, it can’t be later than about 7:30) and hitmen Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield are on their way to do a job for their boss, Marsellus Wallace. Vincent has recently been in France and informs Jules that due to the metric system, a Quarter-Pounder is called a Royale with Cheese there. Jules informs Vincent that an acquaintance of theirs was thrown out of a fourth-story window by Marsellus allegedly for the impropriety of giving his wife Mia a foot massage. The latter piece of information is probably more important, as Vincent has been asked to (for lack of a better word) babysit Mia the following evening.
But down to business. Big-brained Brett and his associates have retained a briefcase (with unknown contents – something which mysteriously glows but NOT Marsellus Wallace’s soul – according to Tarantino it’s a MacGuffin) which belongs to Wallace and Wallace is not playing nice anymore. So Vincent and Jules burst into Brett’s apartment, where Brett and company are eating Big Kahuna burgers. At like 7:30 in the morning. That always bothered me. Big Kahuna Burger wouldn’t even be open at 7:30. C’mon. To make a long scene short, the hitmen recover the briefcase and then execute Brett and a buddy while Jules goes off on a bad-ass Bible verse allegedly from Ezeziel. They do spare their cowardly informant Marvin, but Marvin doesn’t turn out to be a particularly good informant, as he neglected to mention the guy in the bathroom with the hand cannon. He bursts out, fires six shots point blank at Jules and Vincent, and somehow completely misses. Jules considers this a true act-of-God miracle – after dispatching the bathroom dude, of course.
Act II: The Bonnie Situation
Marvin joins Jules and Vincent in the car as they casually flee the scene of their triple-murder. Hey, remember how Marvin was a lousy informant? Well, in the midst of a conversation, gun drawn, Vincent casually shoots him in the head, making a hot mess of the car. I am convinced that the not-altogether-brilliant Vega did this on purpose because of the dude in the bathroom, but he claims it was an accident.
Seeing as the interior of the car is now doused in blood, the hitmen have to get it off the road, and they pull into a safe house whose owner Jimmie is not terribly happy about it. You see, his wife Bonnie is going to be coming home in an hour and a half from her graveyard shift (it is now 8:15 AM) and she would lose her shit if she found this bloody car in the garage. Besides, as Jimmie points out, there is no sign saying “dead n****r storage” out front of his place.
In a hurry and at a bit of a loss, the hitmen call Marsellus, who sends in “The Wolf” – the nattily dressed Winston Wolfe, who responds from the middle of a black-tie cocktail party. At 8:15 in the morning. That also always bugged me. The Wolf is a “cleaner” – he fixes situations. The funny thing is, the only thing he really does is tell everybody to gather their wits together, clean the car and get out of their bloody clothes. It’s just that because he has this air of authority that the previously at-a-loss hitmen do what they gotta do, and the car, with Marvin in the trunk, is deposited at a friendly wrecking yard for further processing.
Act III: (The Diner)
In possession of the briefcase and dressed in Jimmie’s natty old sweats rather than their previous formal suits, Jules and Vincent decide to go to a diner for breakfast. While Vincent is in the can reading, two small-time burglars decide to hit the joint. Jules would probably have had a field day with these amateurs on any normal day, but today, he has witnessed a miracle. And he is determined to turn over a new leaf, having the impression that his salvation in Brett’s apartment is a sign that he ought to retire, which he intends to do as soon as he delivers the briefcase to Marsellus. He even graciously drops his wallet into the robbers’ bag, but when they ask for the briefcase, that is the final straw. Because of the miracle, Jules spares their lives, but needless to say Jules and Vincent leave the diner with the briefcase and even manage the return of Jules’ wallet. It’s the one that says “Bad Motherfucker” on it.
And Vincent delivers the briefcase to Wallace in an empty nightclub, as Wallace is informing the prizefighter Butch that his ass goes down in the fifth. And the evening and the morning was the first day.
Act IV: Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife
The next day, Marsellus is scheduled to be out of town and Vincent is charged with Standing In For Joe with Marsellus’ restless wife Mia. Beforehand, he naturally stops in with a dealer buddy of his and buys some high-quality heroin, which is delivered in a baggie instead of a balloon because the dealer is out. He shoots up before heading over to Mia’s for a night on the town. Mia, for her part, is a coke fiend, and I suppose that it’s not terribly surprising that the underworlders are also drug addicts. After going to a ’50s diner, flirting way too much for Vincent’s taste, and winning a twist contest, they return home and Vincent goes to the bathroom to rehearse the words that will allow him to get out of any potentially expected foot massage. Problem is, he has chivalrously given Mia his jacket, in which she finds the heroin. In a baggie. So she thinks it’s coke, and she snorts a line.
A panicked Vincent returns to the dealer with a passed-out Mia and what follows is probably the most tense stab-her-in-the-heart-with-a-horse-syringe-filled-with-adrenaline scene in movie history. Mia lives. And the evening and the morning were the second day.
Of note, when Vincent shows up with Mia, the dealer is watching none other than The Three Stooges’ “The Brideless Groom” on TV. If you were paying attention, that was our short just last time around. Weird.
Act V: The Gold Watch
So, you’ll note that while a bunch of stuff has happened, there’s really no story here. Well, it’s time for us to actually have a story. We were first introduced to Butch when Marsellus told him to throw an upcoming fight. We get a bit more backstory on Butch, specifically the information that in a Vietnam POW camp his father (and after his father’s untimely death his father’s companion) stored the family wristwatch in the, erm, rectal pocket for several years.
Well, it has come to be the night of Butch’s fight. For once, it’s not clear just how far into the future this is, but possibly more than one day. You see, Butch had, shall we say, a change of heart and declined to throw the fight. This is probably largely because once Wallace started dumping money on Butch’s underdog challenger, suspicion got out that the fix was in, and with heavy money going against Butch the odds shifted hard. Butch took advantage of those shifted odds and put a ton of money on himself. Through associates, of course. He flees the fight scene by climbing out of a window into a back alley holding a waiting taxi to find that he has in the course of the match actually killed his opponent. He’s less impressed by this than the morbid taxi driver.
Back at a motel, Butch reunites with his girlfriend, and in the morning they prepare to skip town. Unfortunately, while she was packing up the essentials from his apartment during the fight, she neglected to get the watch. Butch insists upon going back for it, despite the fact that he suspects his apartment is being watched. He stealthily gets into the apartment and finds it apparently empty, retrieves the watch, and is about to leave when he sees an incredibly large gun sitting on his kitchen counter. It turns out that Vincent is watching his apartment, but as in the diner, he has headed off to the can with a book. He flushes, he opens the door, and Butch administers the ultimate penalty for not washing his hands.
Butch thinks he’s gotten off scot free, until, at a stop sign he sees none other than Marsellus Wallace in the crosswalk directly in front of him. Wallace looks into the car, and sees Butch, so there’s nothing for it. He guns the car and sends Marsellus right over the roof. Problem is, he guns the car into traffic and gets t-boned badly, resulting in a very limptastic two-man chase through the industrial areas of L.A. which ends in a pawn shop. Butch has the upper hand and is about to kill Marsellus when the pawn shop owner, shotgun in hand, has different ideas. He leads them both into the basement, ties them up , and calls up his buddy Zed for a good ol’ sadism and sodomy session. They decide to start on Marsellus, leaving the infamous “gimp” to watch over Butch. Well, Butch breaks free, strangles the gimp, and is about to bail when he has a change of heart. He can’t leave Marsellus to this fate. So he grabs a kitana from the pawn shop, slashes one of his captors to death and leaves the “pretty fuckin’ far from OK” Marsellus to take care of his sodomizer. His reward for returning?
Butch: What now?
Marsellus: What now? Let me tell you what now. I’ma call a coupla hard, pipe-hittin’ n****rs, who’ll go to work on the homes here with a pair of pliers and a blow torch. You hear me talkin’, hillbilly boy? I ain’t through with you by a damn sight. I’ma get medieval on your ass.
Butch: I meant what now between me and you?
Marsellus: Oh, that what now. I tell you what now between me and you. There is no me and you. Not no more.
Butch: So we cool?
Marsellus: Yeah, we cool. Two things. Don’t tell nobody about this. This shit is between me, you, and Mr. Soon-To-Be-Living-The-Rest-of-His-Short-Ass-Life-In-Agonizing-Pain Rapist here. It ain’t nobody else’s business. Two: you leave town tonight, right now. And when you’re gone, you stay gone, or you be gone. You lost all your L.A. privileges. Deal?
Seems fair to me. So Butch heads out on Zed’s chopper, finishing the (chronological) film with the infamous answer to his girlfriend’s question about who Zed is: “Zed’s dead, baby. Zed’s dead.”
I have to admit that the “redemption” scene between Butch and Marsellus is one of my favorite character scenes ever. It makes the movie, and it especially makes Act V. There is an actual story here – an actual moment of conscience when you, first watching the movie, just don’t know if Butch is going to go back and rescue his would-be murderer. He does, and that’s perhaps the one and only humane action in the entire film. But Acts I-IV? Style without substance. Jules changes his ways, Vincent doesn’t, and nothing else really matters.