Now that Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction has won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, opened the New York Film Festival and made the former video-store clerk a name to suck up to big time in Hollywood, you’re probably thinking the writer-director of Reservoir Dogs has sold out his renegade ass. Think again. The proudly disreputable Pulp Fiction (cost: a measly $8 million) is the new King Kong of crime movies. It’s an anthology that blends three stories and 12 principal characters into a mesmerizing mosaic of the Los Angeles scuzz world. The acting is dynamite: John Travolta and Bruce Willis can consider their careers revived. Buoyed by Tarantino’s strafing wit, the action sizzles, and so does the sex. Pulp Fiction is ferocious fun without a trace of caution, complacency or political correctness to inhibit its 154 deliciously lurid minutes.
That said, Tarantino’s twist on the pulp genre is also damn near a work of art. At 31, he shows a disdain — rare among his peers — for flashy style and lofty pretension. His passion is for storytelling that allows the most outrageous characters to reveal their feelings in long takes and torrents of words, poetic and profane. Tony Scott’s glossy direction blurred the Tarantino script for True Romance, and Oliver Stone obliterated Tarantino entirely in Natural Born Killers.
Pulp Fiction proves that Tarantino is the ideal director for preserving the verbal rhythm and wicked playfulness of his scripts. He revels in pop culture, especially that of the 70s, and he’s no snob; The French New Wave or blaxploitation, The Wild Bunch or The Brady Bunch — it’s all grist. Unlike other raiders of Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and Sam Fuller, Tarantino has found his own voice.
He has also found censure. The ear-slicing scene in Reservoir Dogs, his stunning 1992 debut film about a jewel heist, made him the whipping boy for film violence. A graphic adrenalin shot to the heart in Pulp Fiction will raise more hackles. Such hand wringing only blinds audiences to Tarantino’s underrated and powerfully suggestive gift for language. Do yourself a favor with Pulp Fiction. Don’t just watch, listen.
Take an early scene between Travolta’s Vincent Vega and Samuel L. Jackson as his hood partner, Jules Winnfield. Decked out Dogs style in dark suits, they are about to bust in on some preppy amateurs who stole something belonging to their badass boss, Marsellus Wallace (the excellent Ving Rhames). But before the job, they talk — casual stuff, but it’s how they define themselves. Jules can’t figure why Marsellus tossed a buddy off a balcony for giving Marsellus’ bride, Mia (Uma Thurman), a foot massage. “It’s laying hands on Marsellus’ new wife in a familiar way,” says Vincent. “Is it as bad as eatin’ her out? No, but you’re in the same fuckin’ ballpark.”
The debate on sexual etiquette is hilarious; they could be two pals driving to work, except their work is crime. “Let’s get into character,” says Jules, before he and Vincent bust in on the preps. Vincent radiates silent cool, while Jules raves on about “furious anger.” It’s a coldblooded thing he says for effect. The source isn’t a movie; it’s the Bible — a sly irony that spills over into sinister when Jules suddenly shoots one boy for effect. The victim isn’t a disposable Hollywood bad guy; he’s a scared kid. We are staggered. But not Jules and Vincent. They have turned murder into performance art. It doesn’t touch them. Or does it? Jackson’s astounding portrayal reveals that Jules is developing a conscience.
It is Tarantino’s considerable achievement to show what it takes for these men to play their roles as killers. For Vincent, it’s drugs. Marsellus orders Vincent to take Mia out for dinner while he’s out of town. To calm his nerves, Vincent stops off to score heroin from Lance (Eric Stoltz), a dealer with a wife (Rosanna Arquette) who has pierced her body with studs in 16 places, even her tongue.
Vincent needs help getting through the night. Mia takes him to Jack Rabbit Slim’s, a diner filled with ’50s movie memorabilia. Vincent orders a Douglas Sirk steak, while Mia hits the ladies’ room to powder her nose with coke. Cinematographer Andrzej Sekula and editor Sally Menke show dazzling craft, but Pulp Fiction is an actors’ show. The usually glassy Thurman is marvelous here, seductively scrappy as she teases Vincent for gossiping with Jules (“You’re worse than a sewing circle”). Best of all, she gets him to the dance floor for a twist contest. Travolta is doughier than in his Saturday Night Fever days, but even playing a junkie reptile he exhibits amazing grace. His slow dance with Mia to a Chuck Berry oldie exudes down ‘n’ dirty eroticism and unexpected romantic longing. Travolta makes a spectacular comeback with this brilliant, intuitive performance.
Willis, as boxer Butch Coolidge, also digs into his tastiest role in years. Marsellus sends Vincent to kill Butch for refusing to take a dive. But the mean palooka, reformed by his love for a French chatterbox, Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros), has skipped town. Almost. Butch risks returning for a gold watch. His late father had that watch hidden up his ass in a Nam prison camp, according to Dad’s buddy (Christopher Walken). Going back gets Butch involved with Marsellus and two hillbillies who tie them up for a bout of buttfucking.
Suffice it to say, the revenge isn’t pretty. Neither is the mess when Vincent accidentally blows the head off a guy in the back seat of the car Jules is driving. The cleanup, supervised by a courtly mob facilitator called the Wolf (Harvey Keitel in peak form), takes place in the garage of Jules’ pal Jimmie (a memorably miffed Tarantino), who wants these gangsters out before his nurse wife Bonnie comes home. “The Bonnie Situation” is the film’s comic high point, as tough guys are reduced to frightened boys at the prospect of a woman’s wrath.
But Tarantino is after more than laughs. Near the end, Jules — sitting in a coffee shop with Vincent — enjoys a “moment of clarity” about changing his life. Unfortunately, two small-time crooks played by Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer choose that moment to rob the place. Chaos ensues, though Tarantino never loses his film’s moral center. He refuses to patronize, glamorize or judge his band of outsiders. Instead, he lets us see the glimmers of humanity that emerge when they drop their masks of control. It’s Tarantino’s compassion that deepens the film and sets it apart from trendy, pud-pulling, cinematic nihilism. It also sets Tarantino apart as a major filmmaker, worthy of comparison to early Godard (Bande a Part) and Scorsese (Mean Streets). There’s a special kick that comes from watching something this thrillingly alive. Pauline Kael calls it “getting drunk on movies.” Whatever you call it, Pulp Fiction is indisputably great.