Pulp Fiction is a near-perfect film. Its script is brilliantly written and its casting is flawless. Under the skillful, stylistic hand of director Quentin Tarantino, the result of these elements coming together seamlessly is a joy to behold, and create a film that I can return to again and again. This is the mark of a great movie for me: One which continues to hold up under repeated viewings. Pulp Fiction does that.
Let’s start with the cast: Samuel L. Jackson comes off the screen in this film like few actors I have ever seen. Nominated for Best Supporting Actor, he was robbed when he didn’t receive the award. To this day, whenever I see Jackson on screen (and he’s done a lot of films), he remains Jules Winnfield, and his “Ezekiel 25:17” speech is one of my all-time favorites. John Travolta made his big comeback in Pulp Fiction, and it’s easy to see why his star rocketed back to the top of the Hollywood A-list after this film. He was amazing, particularly in his exchanges with Jackson. The entire cast is superb, including Ving Rhames, Bruce Willis, Uma Thurman, Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, and Christopher Walken (the latter in a small but brilliant cameo). I’m hard-pressed to think of another film with a better ensemble.
Pulp Fiction oozes style. Witness director Quentin Tarantino’s work in a multitude of scenes: Travolta shooting heroin and experiencing its bliss in a midnight drive, shot in a series of slow, hallucinogenic images; and Travolta and Thurman’s dance on the floor of Jack Rabbit Slims, charged with electricity, sex, and danger. These are only a few examples of the film's exceptional direction and craft. And what else can I say about Tarantino’s signature use of sharp, witty dialogue ? Pulp Fiction is loaded with a number of memorable exchanges between its characters, too many to note here.
Despite its obscene language, graphic sequences, and crude subject matter, Pulp Fiction is, at its heart, a film that embraces old-fashioned virtues. Don’t be fooled into labeling it as a mere gangster film; it’s a spaghetti western in modern, post-Godfather/Goodfellas trappings. Both of its “heroes,” Bruce Willis and Jackson, ride off into the sunset at film’s end: Willis in literal fashion on an (iron) horse, Jackson implied as he decides to “walk the earth” like Kaine in Kung-Fu.
The film also dabbles in religion: It’s noteworthy that the characters that embrace redemption and “the path of the righteous” survive, while those who reject God/religion do not. For example, Jackson sheds his hit-man profession following the miracle of the missed gunshots in the apartment, and lives, while his partner, Travolta, rejects the notion that God might have intervened to save his life. He continues as a hit-man and pays the price for his choice with his life.
Likewise, Bruce Willis, while far from squeaky clean, follows the path of the “righteous man” and in so doing finds redemption: Rejecting a bribe, he double-crosses Rhames and the mafia to fight a legitimate fight. Later he returns to his apartment to get his father’s watch, a precious heirloom and a symbol of “purity” (despite the fact that it was hid in Willis’ father’s rectum during the Vietnam War). And finally, against his strong urge to flee, he rescues the man (Rhames) who wants to kill him most, and rids the world of a trio of sickos who run an S&M/murder ring in the basement of a gun shop. All his decisions, though difficult, steer him down the right path.
Pulp Fiction contains an enigma, the briefcase, which director Quentin Tarantino deliberately leaves open to viewer interpretation. I love that. For me, I think it contains the holy grail—witness the gold reflection when it’s opened, the religious feelings it invokes (the awed expressions on the faces of those who open the case). But it could be anything.
One bit I haven’t heard much talk about is the film’s clever title. It’s an obvious nod to the movie’s roots—Tarantino was certainly inspired by the pulps, e.g., the hard-boiled storylines of crime, sex, murder, double-crossing, drugs, fixed fights, etc. But it also carries a double meaning—the fiction of the film is literally “pulped”—the various storylines are all out of order, a mish-mash of narratives. Yet in the end they weave together perfectly.
Throw in a terrific soundtrack, and it’s easy to see why Pulp Fiction resides firmly in my top 10.