Pulp Fiction has become so canonized as a modern classic, it’s easy to forget how transgressive it was on its release twenty years ago. But when Quentin Tarantino’s film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1994, it thrilled and shocked the audience in equal measures.
No scene upended more expectations than the pawn shop sequence (SPOILER ALERT — if you haven’t ever seen the movie, this is the moment when you should stop reading and go do that. Really! It’s streaming on Netflix!). The setup: the boxer Butch Coolidge (played by a 39-year-old Bruce Willis) double-crosses crime boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames); instead of throwing a prizefight, he bets on himself and wins. The next morning, Butch heads to his apartment to fetch a watch; while there, he kills Vincent (John Travolta) and hits Marsellus with the car. A limping chase on foot leads them both into a pawnshop, where Butch punches out Marsellus and the proprietor, Maynard, concusses Butch. Marsellus and Butch awaken in the pawnshop’s basement, tied to chairs and equipped with red ball gags. Maynard is joined by his cousin, Zed, and their leather-clad servant, the Gimp; Zed decides that they will rape Marsellus first. Once they take Marsellus into the adjoining room, Butch knocks out the Gimp with a single punch, and heads upstairs to freedom.
Underneath the Gimp’s head-to-toe leather was Stephen Hibbert, a comedy writer (Animaniacs) and actor (Austin Powers) then married to Julia Sweeney (the SNL alum who also appeared in Pulp Fiction — Tarantino did some work on the screenplay for her movie It’s Pat). Maynard was played by the Texan actor and playwright Duane Whitaker, who later wrote the sequel to Tarantino’s From Dusk Till Dawn. And the creepy Zed was portrayed by Peter Greene, also seen as the villain in The Mask. The pawnshop was actually the Crown Pawn Shop, at 20933 Roscoe Blvd., in the Canoga Park district of Los Angeles — still in business today.
“Part of the fun of Pulp,” Tarantino said, “is that if you’re hip to movies, you’re watching the boxing movie Body and Soul and then suddenly the characters turn a corner and they’re in the middle of Deliverance. And you’re like, ‘What? How did I get into Deliverance? I was in Body and Soul, what’s going on here?'” (Body and Soul is a 1947 film noir about a boxer; Deliverance is the 1972 Burt Reynolds movie about a river trip that takes a disturbing turn into hillbilly rape.) Although some dismissed Tarantino’s genre-shuffling as a cheap postmodern stunt, it was part of a deliberate strategy, along with the timeline jumps, to keep the audience off-balance.
Standing at the door of the pawnshop in a blood-soaked T-shirt, on the threshold of escaping his predicament and his movie’s genre, Butch has a crisis of conscience (beautifully underplayed by Willis). He turns back to help Marsellus, the man who just tried to kill him, but first he needs to find a weapon. He wordlessly grabs a claw hammer, then upgrades to a baseball bat, followed by a chainsaw. The sequence is like an old Looney Tunes cartoon — “The Rabbit of Seville,” for example — where Bugs Bunny and an opponent engage in a rapid-fire arms race. (Check it out here, starting around 6:30. ) Then Butch spots the appropriate weapon of honor and vengeance: a samurai sword. Tarantino’s screenplay specifies that Butch holds the weapon “Takakura Ken-style,” referring to the Japanese star of movies such as 1968’s The Drifting Avenger.
There’s an entertaining but goofy theory about that sword, to be filed next to the fan-favorite notion that Marsellus Wallace’s soul has been removed through the back of his neck and stored in his briefcase. Some people like to think that the sword Butch finds is a crossover from Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies: specifically, the sword that Bill (David Carradine) gave to his brother Budd (Michael Madsen), since Budd tells Bill that he pawned the sword. (The theory falls apart because Budd’s lying: the sword turns up in a golf bag in his trailer.)
The script dictates that the music playing during the rape of Marsellus is “The Judds, singing in harmony.” But Tarantino never intended to use the country-music family: he had gotten wise to the notion that if he specified the song he really wanted on the soundtrack, whoever controlled the rights would charge him extra, so he would plant false musical cues. The track he actually planned to use? The Knack’s No. 1 New Wave single from 1979, “My Sharona.” (Tarantino said that the song “has a really good sodomy beat to it. I thought, oh, God, this is just too funny not to use.”) Unfortunately, the 1994 Gen-X rom-com Reality Bites also wanted it for a scene where Winona Ryder, Janeane Garofalo, and Steve Zahn dance in a convenience store, and the licensing people chose Pringles over sexual assault. Tarantino said that ultimately he was glad he couldn’t go with “My Sharona”: “It would have been too cutely comic. I like using stuff for comic effect, but I don’t want it to be har, har, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, you know?” Instead, he picked “Comanche,” a 1961 song by the surf band the Revels.
Butch comes downstairs to find Zed sodomizing Marsellus in “Russell’s old room” (we never learn who the unfortunate Russell was) while Maynard cheers him on. Butch slices Maynard’s chest open with the sword and skewers him. Butch then faces down Zed (who, in his security guard uniform, is the closest thing we see to law enforcement in all of Pulp Fiction), daring him to reach for his gun.
We see a figure standing behind Butch and hear a shotgun being cocked. “Step aside, Butch,” Marsellus says. Butch does, and Marsellus then blasts his rapist in the groin. (As Jason Bailey points out in his recent book on Pulp Fiction, one of the first things we learn about Marsellus, courtesy of Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules, is that “Marsellus Wallace don’t like to be fucked by anybody except Mrs. Wallace.”)
“You okay?” Butch asks Marsellus.
“No, man,” he replies, as Zed howls in pain. “I’m pretty fucking far from okay.”
“What now?” Butch asks.
“What now? Let me tell you what now. I’m gonna call a couple of hard pipe-hitting n*****s to go to work on the homes here with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch.” (That line is borrowed from the 1973 movie Charley Varrick, where a mobster tells a banker, “They’re gonna strip you naked and go to work on you with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch.”) “You hear me talking, hillbilly boy? I ain’t through with you by a damn sight. I’m gonna get medieval on your ass.”
Quietly, Butch says, “I meant, what now between me and you?”
Tarantino once observed in an interview with Gavin Smith that all the action of Pulp Fiction happens between couples: Vincent and Jules, Vincent and Mia, Pumpkin and Honey-Bunny. He pointed out, “For a moment after [Butch] leaves [his girlfriend Fabienne], he’s the only character in the movie who’s viewed completely alone. Then he makes a bond with this other character and they become a team. It’s only when they become a team that they can do anything. Circumstances make them a couple.”
The answer to Butch’s question is that the slate is wiped clean: “There is no me and you.” Butch saved Marsellus’s life, so he can live — if he doesn’t tell anyone what happened, leaves town immediately, and never returns to Los Angeles. In Tarantino’s screenplay, “The two men shake hands, then hug one another.” On the screen, Marsellus just holds up his left hand, but the bond between the two survivors is palpable.
Another moment cut from the original script: After Butch leaves, Marsellus makes a phone call, saying, “Hello, Mr. Wolf, it’s Marsellus. Gotta bit of a situation.” We haven’t yet met Winston Wolf (Harvey Keitel), but when he appears, he’s a gruff-but-likeable taskmaster who helps Jules and Vincent get a bloody car cleaned up. Knowing that he’s also Marsellus’s go-to guy when torture is called for would give his character a different spin.
On the street outside the pawnshop, Butch finds Zed’s chopper: a motorcycle with the name “Grace” written on it. Butch’s story of redemption echoes the transformation of Jules at the movie’s end: he leaves the pawnshop riding Grace, and having achieved his own state of moral grace.