From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.
This one is from January 9th, 2016…
If Quentin Tarantino set his stall out as a vivid, dangerous post-modern auteur with his first picture, Pulp Fiction is the movie that not only cemented him as the most influential director of his generation, but equally will most likely be the piece of cinema that will define him.
Six films and over two decades on, most people agree Pulp Fiction is his best work, revered by legions of fans and critics alike. For me, Tarantino’s direction and skill have certainly improved in some of his successive films, but it’s hard to deny this is probably his strongest and most memorable piece of writing. If Pulp Fiction deserves accolades for one thing, it’s the truly marvellous script filled with a melee of monologues and conversations and one-liners and pop culture references that have gone down in cinematic history, still oft-quoted to this day. How many movies manage that? Most would be happy to stop there but Tarantino’s film has many more strings to its bow; some fantastic performances, larger and more colourful direction, and a wonderful fusion of action and soundtrack to create two and a half hours of neo-noir brutality.
It all begins with an opening quote and an immediate juxtaposition.
You see Tarantino, right from the get go, points out the duality of the word ‘pulp’ – dictionary defined, it means both a soft putty offal and a rough-edged, down and dirty form of storytelling, and QT doesn’t want you to forget that distinction.
Reservoir Dogs displayed his rich understanding of cinema, being a mega fan himself and schooled in previous decades of noir, exploitation and B-movies, all of which swirl into his writing. Tarantino has spoken of how he wanted Pulp Fiction to leap off traditional stories from old movies – mobsters delivering a briefcase to the boss, the boss’ wife being taken out to dinner by one of his guys – and then con-temporise them, letting the ideas spin off in an unexpected fashion, and Tarantino with co-writer Roger Avary gets his wish. The narrative both feels familiar and wildly out of your control across the picture, and to an extent structurally it’s a complete hodge-podge; Tarantino employed a non-linear structure for his first film and cranks that up even more here, with characters and narratives interweaving to the point you even see someone killed before getting the drop on the rest of their story.
The point, however, is that we’re not supposed to witness these narratives in order, that by creating a disjointed sense to the storytelling we’re often unsure quite how the events of a violent, brutal and nihilistic couple of days are meant to go. Nothing in Pulp Fiction is quite as horrific as the ear-slicing moment from Dogs, but with murder, sodomy, bondage, rape and an overdose on the agenda, Tarantino is unafraid to shoot a few startling bullets between our eyes.
Crucially however, it’s not really the stories themselves that make Pulp Fiction a great piece of cinema. To an extent the stories are quite juvenile and cartoonish, with larger than life figures in stylised neo-crime scenarios that mostly work but exist inside a slightly heightened reality; take the briefcase for example and the glowing, mysterious, possibly even supernatural object within – Tarantino enjoys playing with reality and convention. No, the strength lies in the characters, their interactions, and the combined tour de force performances by a range of great American actors.
John Travolta’s dead career was revived playing hitman Vincent Vega (after btw Michael Madsen turned it down to star in Wyatt Earp…), and his double-act with Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules is tremendous, and indeed probably the finest overall piece of writing we’ve ever seen from QT. Jackson arguably walks away with the movie as he charts Jules’ journey from Bible-quoting vengeance-deliverer to an earth-walking man of peace, but credit must go to Bruce Willis for nailing the tricky role of abusive boxer Butch, in deep with Ving Rhames’ gangster Marsellus, managing to balance domestic violence and inner rage with a softness and vulnerability that keeps him on the right side of likeable. People sometimes forget these elements behind Uma Thurman and the dancing to 50’s music (which is probably the weakest segment all told). Scratch that, it’s a toss up between Jackson and Harvey Keitel’s brilliant cameo as The Wolf for best performance. It’s hard to call. The writing sparkles and QT’s perfectly assembled ensemble all raise to the occasion to pump everything up to classic levels, building to a fractured but utterly satisfying climax.
It’s hard to estimate just how far-reaching the influence of Pulp Fiction has been on American cinema (and beyond) in the last two decades, but it’s always going to be Quentin Tarantino’s seminal piece of filmmaking, perfectly capturing it’s era and a zeitgeist, while also being oddly timeless and somewhat heightened in terms of its neo-crime, post modern, darkly comic approach. Is it his masterpiece? Perhaps not quite. He’s never written anything better but his cinematic eye, his control, and his range have improved since this picture; he’s evolved and deepened as a filmmaker, even if he’s never been this brazen, this funny, this slick or this cool since. QT is now the uncle who turns up at parties in his thirty year old leather jacket, still a bit awesome but living off the past.
Pulp Fiction is when he was the Fonz. And what was Fonzie? That’s right. Cool.