The Tarantino Reviews – ‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994)

Tarantino's second feature is still his real masterpiece!

Written by J.T. Johnson

While writer and director Quentin Tarantino hit the ground running with his debut release, “Reservoir Dogs”, the movie didn’t really do much at the box office. It became this small indie hit on the festival scene and made Hollywood aware of this young talent that had come up with the rest of the indie scene from the 1990s. The world at large would get to know Tarantino better in 1994, though, when he released “Pulp Fiction” into theaters.

The movie is, for me at least, still Tarantino’s greatest masterpiece. It takes a contemporary look at the film noir genre with Tarantino’s signature use of violence, immoral yet likable characters and an even more nonlinear narrative. The movie not only made Tarantino a household name, it also revived many careers that had either gone to the wayside or were on the ropes at the time, particularly the careers of John Travolta and Bruce Willis.

It also elevated newer actors at the time, especially Samuel L. Jackson as Jules, a hitman who is going through an existential phase in his life. The opening with Jules and Travolta’s Vincent Vega is one of the all time classic scenes as they discuss Vincent’s recent trip to Amsterdam, what a Quarter Pounder is called oversees and what may or may not have happened to someone who gave a foot massage to their boss’s wife. This is all a tranquil little prelude to a violent encounter and you would assume that these were just two regular people.

That’s another factor about Tarantino. His characters are violent and often reprehensible people, but he somehow finds a way to humanize them. You still don’t approve of what they do or their viewpoints, but you at least feel like they are human beings and for some of them, you even want them to overcome whatever dilemma they’re currently facing.

The dialogue is there, of course. There are plenty of rhythmic monologues that sound so natural that I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that they were improvised. It’s only later, when you really think about it that you understand that Tarantino carefully crafted every word. Unlike “Reservoir Dogs”, this was the first film where I felt like Tarantino had simply written a novel and then translated it to the screen.

The performances are also fantastic as usual. Not only do Travolta, Willis, and Jackson give career defining performances, we also get great work from other veterans such as Ving Rhames and Harvey Keitel. They don’t feature into the film as much as others, but their few scenes have an amazing impact on the story and they’re also just cool as hell.

Then there is another star making performance from Uma Thurman, an actress that would become something of a muse for Tarantino. She plays Mia Wallace, the wife of Rhames’ Marsellus who is the boss that Jules and Vincent work for. Her story with Vincent is a more intimate one than other stories featured in the film, but it too goes into an unexpected and darkly comic place.

Now, it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. If you’re opposed to onscreen depictions of violence or you’re not a fan of foul language, then this movie simply isn’t for you. When I talk about Tarantino, I always have someone tell me about how violent Tarantino’s movies are as if I didn’t already know that.

It doesn’t change the fact, though, that Tarantino is one of the few truly unique voices in Hollywood, even if he is viewing his stories through the prism of the genres that he grew up watching. Somehow, Tarantino always manages to take a genre and flip it on its head, giving us something original and fresh in the process. “Pulp Fiction” is his finest example of this and a genuine cinematic classic.

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