What would you consider to be the ultimate Quentin Tarantino movie – not necessarily the best, but the one movie from the auteur’s filmography that best captures what effect the iconic director has had on cinema?
If you were the judge it on buttock clenching tension alone then surely the blood and bullets of Reservoir Dogs is a shoe in, but then what about the deranged action of Kill Bill, or the dark humor of Inglorious Basterds, or the six shooter impact of Django Unchained? On the other hand, I guess if you like cars then maybe an argument could be made for Death Proof…
Anyway, despite there being no wrong answers, all your answers are wrong because surely the ultimate Tarantino movie has to be – nay, must be – the mold breaking, life taking, pop culture rambling, time line scrambling, masterpiece the world went fucking insane for known to us as Pulp Fiction.
As three stories unfold before our eyes in random order, we are cast into the seedy underbelly of L.A. and are immediately introduced to a smattering of various low lives that go about their business while casually sauntering in and out of each other’s stories with varying levels of fallout.
Firstly, after peeking in on a couple of love birds as they hit upon the idea of robbing a coffee shop, we get to spend some time with Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega, two suited heavies who have turned up at the apartment of a bunch of idiots whose deal with crime boss Marcellus Wallace is about to go violently sour. From there we find out that the too-cool-for school Vincent is nervous about being asked to take his bosses wife, Mia Wallace, out for an evening after hearing the rumours of how jealous he can allegedly get. However, matters gets whole lot more serious than a spot of flirting when, after a nice meal and a dance contest, eager coke snorter Mia finds a bag of white powder in Vincent’s pocket that turns out to way more kick than she anticipates.
From there we shift over to meet Butch Coolidge, a hulking boxer who has agreed with Wallace to throw a fight, however, on the night Butch instead pulls a fast one, betting on himself and then obliterating his opponent in the ring before making a quick getaway with his naive wife Fabienne. But his plan hits something of a major snag when his only treasured possession, his late father’s watch, is left behind at the apartment and so he is compelled to return, knowing full well that Wallace and his goons with be looking for him.
Finally, after witnessing an apparent miracle during the job we saw the start of earlier, Jules is brought down to earth with a bump when Vincent’s itchy trigger finger accidentally leaves them in a car on the street that’s coated with gore. After trying to rectify the situation with the aid of the underworld cleaner known as Winston Wolf, both Jules and Vincent try to get their bearings at a coffee shop – the very same coffee shop that’s about to be robbed by two star crossed idiots.
There are so many things about Pulp Fiction that cemented its legacy as one of the most icon films ever made; the impeccable casting, the pointless pop culture convos that remaining utterly riveting, the masterful music choices, the peerless storytelling: but surely the most impressive aspect is how Tarantino (in only his second movie!) manages to merge everything into a cohesive whole while making it all look insanely easy. Just how casually it achieves its masterpiece status is a testament to the director’s vision as he merges tropes from many forms of filmmaking (everything from French new wave to trashy euro-horror) to create an anthology crime epic that, at the time, felt thrillingly unique.
The three stories interweave and intersect in an amusingly laconic way, never drawing too much attention to how clever it all really is, but nearly thirty years after its release it’s easy to take for granted how completely unpredictable it all is with the plot taking massive 90 degree turns at a moments notice with drug overdoses, redneck rapists and misfiring pistols lurking around every corner. If Reservoir Dogs was the director’s loud, violent and concise arrival, Pulp Fiction was Tarantino showing the world what he could really do will multiple characters and sprawling worlds moving way beyond the confines of the warehouse walls that enclosed that gang of rainbow monkiered criminals.
Naming a favorite scene is an act of overwhelming futility; you could pick the early chinwag betwixt Vincent and Jules concerning ordering quarter pounders in France that trickled into popular culture like twirling cigarette smoke; or you could quote Jules’ devastating Ezekiel 25:17 speech, or Christopher Walken’s isolated monologue giving us the turbulent history of Butch’s watch; how about the faintly ludicrous tension as Vincent tries to re-start Mia’s stuttering heart or the sinking horror of Butch and Marcellus’ predicament as they both wake up in that fucked up basement. It’s frankly impossible and the job is made exponentially tougher by the fact that Quentin’s cast is firing on all cylinders as the leads all seem hungry to use such juicy material to prove something. With John Travolta as the coolly flaky Vincent, it was the chance of yet another Phoenix-like career resurgence; for Bruce Willis’ contradictory Butch it was a reminder just how good an actor he could be; for Saumel L. Jackson (arguably the most revolutionary thing in it) it was a long overdue star making turn and for Uma Thurman it was the road that eventually led her to become one of QT’s most beloved characters. Even the actors who don’t have something to prove such as Christopher Walken, Harvey Keitel and Ving Rhames all knock it out of the park (although more Tim Roth would have been nice) and it’s even enough to minimise the damage from Tarantino himself awkwardly trying to match thespian talents with his absurdly legendary cast.
On top of everything, QT is wise enough to sprinkle a light film of whimsy over proceedings to give the down to earth tale a slightly mythic status that’s kept the movie alive with theories and questions every since; what lurks within that suitcase that gives off that golden glow, what does the plaster on the bad of Marcellus Wallace’s neck all about, what is the significance of Vega constantly reading Modesty Blaise on the toilet? It all may mean nothing, but that’s the secret behind Pulp Fiction; it takes a bunch of stories about inconsequential scumbags and makes them into tales of legends who’s tangle timeline means we even get to spend more time with certain characters after they get ventilated with gunfire.
Tarantino’s greatest film? All other claims are merely fiction.