Pulp Fiction is a 1994 American crime film directed by Quentin Tarantino, who co-wrote its screenplay with Roger Avary. The film is known for its rich, eclectic dialogue, ironic mix of humor and violence, nonlinear storyline, and host of cinematic allusions and pop culture references. The film was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture; Tarantino and Avary won for Best Original Screenplay. It was also awarded the Palme d’Or at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival. A major critical and commercial success, it revitalized the career of its leading man, John Travolta, who received an Academy Award nomination, as did costars Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman.
Directed in a highly stylized manner, Pulp Fiction joins the intersecting storylines of Los Angeles mobsters, fringe players, small-time criminals, and a mysterious briefcase. Considerable screen time is devoted to conversations and monologues that reveal the characters’ senses of humor and perspectives on life. The film’s title refers to the pulp magazines and hardboiled crime novels popular during the mid-20th century, known for their graphic violence and punchy dialogue. Pulp Fiction is self-referential from its opening moments, beginning with a title card that gives two dictionary definitions of “pulp”. The plot, as in many of Tarantino’s other works, is presented out of chronological sequence.
The picture’s self-reflexivity, unconventional structure, and extensive use of homage and pastiche have led critics to describe it as a prime example of postmodern film. Considered by some critics a black comedy,the film is also frequently labeled a “neo-noir”.Critic Geoffrey O’Brien argues otherwise: “The old-time noir passions, the brooding melancholy and operatic death scenes, would be altogether out of place in the crisp and brightly lit wonderland that Tarantino conjures up. [It is] neither neo-noir nor a parody of noir”. Similarly, Nicholas Christopher calls it “more gangland camp than neo-noir”, and Foster Hirsch suggests that its “trippy fantasy landscape” characterizes it more definitively than any genre label. Pulp Fiction is viewed as the inspiration for many later movies that adopted various elements of its style. The nature of its development, marketing, and distribution and its consequent profitability had a sweeping effect on the field of independent cinema (although it is not an independent film itself). Considered a cultural watershed, Pulp Fiction’s influence has been felt in several other media.
“Pumpkin” (Tim Roth) and “Honey Bunny” (Amanda Plummer) are having breakfast in a diner. They decide to rob it after realizing they could make money off the customers as well as the business, as they did during their previous heist. Moments after they initiate the hold-up, the scene breaks off and the title credits roll.
- Prelude to “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife”
As Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) drives, Vincent Vega (John Travolta) talks about his experiences in Europe, from where he has just returned: the hash bars in Amsterdam, the French McDonald’s and its “Royale with Cheese”. The pair—both wearing dress suits—are on their way to retrieve a briefcase from Brett (Frank Whaley), who has transgressed against their boss, gangster Marsellus Wallace. Jules tells Vincent that Marsellus had someone thrown off a fourth-floor balcony for giving his wife a foot massage. Vincent says that Marsellus has asked him to escort his wife while Marsellus is out of town. They conclude their banter and “get into character”, which soon involves executing Brett in dramatic fashion after Jules recites a baleful “biblical” pronouncement.
Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife
In a virtually empty cocktail lounge, aging prizefighter Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) accepts a large sum of money from Marsellus (Ving Rhames), agreeing to take a dive in his upcoming match. Vincent and Jules—now dressed in T-shirts and shorts—arrive to deliver the briefcase, and Butch and Vincent briefly cross paths. The next day, Vincent drops by the house of Lance (Eric Stoltz) and Jody (Rosanna Arquette) to purchase high-grade heroin. He shoots up before driving over to meet Mrs. Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) and take her out. They head to Jack Rabbit Slim’s, a 1950s-themed restaurant staffed by lookalikes of the decade’s pop icons. Mia recounts her experience acting in a failed television pilot, “Fox Force Five”.
After participating in a twist contest, they return to the Wallace house with the trophy. While Vincent is in the bathroom, Mia finds his stash of heroin in his coat pocket. Mistaking it for cocaine, she snorts it and overdoses. Vincent rushes her to Lance’s house for help. Together, they administer an adrenaline shot to Mia’s heart, reviving her. Before parting ways, Mia and Vincent agree not to tell Marsellus of the incident.
- Prelude to “The Gold Watch”
Television time for young Butch (Chandler Lindauer) is interrupted by the arrival of Vietnam veteran Captain Koons (Christopher Walken). Koons explains that he has brought a gold watch, passed down through generations of Coolidge men since World War I. Butch’s father died of dysentery while in a POW camp, and at his dying request Koons hid the watch in his rectum for two years in order to deliver it to Butch. A bell rings, startling the adult Butch out of this reverie. He is in his boxing colors—it is time for the fight he has been paid to throw.
The Gold Watch
Butch flees the arena, having won the bout. Making his getaway by taxi, he learns from the death-obsessed driver, Esmarelda Villalobos (Angela Jones), that he killed the opposing fighter. Butch has double-crossed Marsellus, betting his payoff on himself at very favorable odds. The next morning, at the motel where he and his girlfriend, Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros), are lying low, Butch discovers that she has forgotten to pack the irreplaceable watch. He returns to his apartment to retrieve it, although Marsellus’s men are almost certainly looking for him. Butch finds the watch quickly, but thinking he is alone, pauses for a snack. Only then does he notice a submachine gun on the kitchen counter. Hearing the toilet flush, Butch readies the gun in time to kill a startled Vincent Vega exiting the bathroom.
Butch drives away but while waiting at a traffic light, Marsellus walks by and recognizes him. Butch rams Marsellus with the car, then another automobile collides with his. After a foot chase the two men land in a pawnshop. The shopowner, Maynard (Duane Whitaker), captures them at gunpoint and ties them up in a half-basement area. Maynard is joined by Zed (Peter Greene); they take Marsellus to another room to rape him, leaving a silent masked figure referred to as “the gimp” to watch a tied-up Butch. Butch breaks loose and knocks out the gimp. He is about to flee when he decides to save Marsellus. As Zed is sodomizing Marsellus on a pommel horse, Butch kills Maynard with a katana. Marsellus retrieves Maynard’s shotgun and shoots Zed in the groin. Marsellus informs Butch that they are even with respect to the botched fight fix, so long as he never tells anyone about the rape and departs Los Angeles forever. Butch agrees and returns to pick up Fabienne on Zed’s chopper.
The Bonnie Situation
The story returns to Vincent and Jules at Brett’s. After they execute him, another man (Alexis Arquette) bursts out of the bathroom and shoots wildly at them, missing every time before an astonished Jules and Vincent return fire. Jules decides this is a miracle and a sign from God for him to retire as a hitman. They drive off with one of Brett’s associates, Marvin (Phil LaMarr), their informant. Vincent asks Marvin for his opinion about the “miracle”, and accidentally shoots him in the face.
Forced to remove their bloodied car from the road, Jules calls upon the house of his friend Jimmie (Quentin Tarantino). Jimmie’s wife, Bonnie, is due back from work soon and he is very anxious that she not encounter the scene. At Jules’s request, Marsellus arranges for the help of Winston Wolf (Harvey Keitel). “The Wolf” takes charge of the situation, ordering Jules and Vincent to clean the car, hide the body in the trunk, dispose of their own bloody clothes, and change into T-shirts and shorts provided by Jimmie. They drive the car to a junkyard, from where Wolf and the owner’s daughter, Raquel (Julia Sweeney), head off to breakfast and Jules and Vincent decide to do the same.
As Jules and Vincent eat breakfast in a coffee shop the discussion returns to Jules’s decision to retire. In a brief cutaway, we see “Pumpkin” and “Honey Bunny” shortly before they initiate the hold-up from the movie’s first scene. While Vincent is in the bathroom, the hold-up commences. “Pumpkin” demands all of the patrons’ valuables, including Jules’s mysterious case. Jules surprises “Pumpkin” (whom he calls “Ringo”), holding him at gunpoint. “Honey Bunny”, hysterical, trains her gun on Jules. Vincent emerges from the restroom with his gun trained on her, creating a Mexican standoff. Reprising his pseudo-biblical passage, Jules expresses his ambivalence about his life of crime. As his first act of redemption, he allows the two robbers to take the cash they have stolen and leave, pondering how they were spared and leaving the briefcase to be returned to Marsellus, finishing the hitman’s final job for his boss.
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First Published: Mar 4, 2012 - Last Updated: Apr 19, 2013