Pulp Fiction |
directed by Quentin Tarantino
There's no denying, 1994 was a bit of a high-water year for movies. Forrest Gump won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Disney released The Lion King. Huge blockbusters with taut intrigue plus enough explosions to rattle the fillings of any theatergoer littered the metroplex: True Lies, Clear & Present Danger and, perhaps the most controversial movie of the decade, Natural Born Killers. Films of a more quiet nature also held our collective interest: Four Weddings & a Funeral, The Shawshank Redemption, Hoop Dreams and the chilling British thriller Shallow Grave were all released in 1994.
Many new directors, now household names, made breakthrough films that year. Peter Jackson directed his astonishing Heavenly Creatures. Kevin Smith brought us the politically incorrect but hysterical Clerks. Ang Lee first came to the attention of a significant American audience with his film Eat Drink Man Woman. Yet for me, all of these films, admirable though most may be, pale in comparison to one -- THE film of 1994 -- Pulp Fiction.
From the prologue, I knew this was something different, something new. Something edgier, with a sharper sensibility. Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) seem like an ordinary young couple in love, having breakfast at a diner. But as they drink their coffee, we realize they are not whispering sweet nothings -- they are planning a heist. More importantly, they are planning a different kind of robbery -- a robbery of a restaurant, because, "Nobody ever robs restaurants. Bars, liquor stores, gas stations ... you get your head blown off sticking up one of them. Restaurants on the other hand, you catch with their pants down." More discussion ensues about the merits of switching to softer targets, followed by a decision: "I love you, Pumpkin." "I love you, Honey Bunny." The big guns come out: "All right, everybody be cool! This is a robbery!" followed by Honey Bunny's expletive-laden instructions to the diner's employees and customers.
We are stunned when the camera cuts immediately to the opening credits. Dick Dale's energetic rendition of "Misirlou" playing under those bold yellow-on-black credits warns us that this is a screaming fast rollercoaster and we are in for one hell of a ride!
Next scene: No Pumpkin. No Honey Bunny. They seem to have fallen off the face of the earth. Instead, we focus on two guys driving to work. Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta) are just two guys, discussing the sort of stuff ordinary folks discuss -- in this case, burgers. We like them. They've made us laugh. In a lot of ways, they are us. It's only when they arrive at their destination that we realize what kind of a "job" they have been hired to perform: these guys that we like so well are hit-men. But even in their capacity as hit-men, they are still just a couple of guys -- once again discussing burgers with one of the intended victims. Jules even tries a bite of a Big Kahuna Burger, saying, "Mmm-mmm. That is a tasty burger." Just an ordinary guy. We try to reconcile our perceptions with their reality, right up until Jules recites a Biblical passage about vengeance and the pair release a hail of bullets on their victim.
New scene. New situation. None of the characters we have met yet are gone for good -- well, except for Jules and Vincent's hapless victims. The point is: we are following multiple strands of the story, with each vignette weaving a bit more information and color into the overall pattern of the tale. The script, by Roger Avary and director Quentin Tarantino, masterfully blends a variety of characters from disparate backgrounds, tosses them into desperate situations, adds a bit of comedy, a dash of pathos and a generous helping of irony, shakes vigorously, then pours. The result: a story that resembles the pulp magazines on which the script is based. Oh, and also a script that won the Golden Globe, the BAFTA and the Academy Award for Original Screenplay. Plus, the film also won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Loaded with memorable characters reciting unforgettable dialogue, Pulp Fiction is a treat for fans of great acting. The ensemble cast also includes Uma Thurman, who delivers one of the best performances of her career as the sexy, flirtatious and ultimately dangerous Mia Wallace. Ving Rhames breathes life into the role of her husband, mob boss Marsellus Wallace, while Bruce Willis is a pure delight as Butch Coolidge, a down-on-his-luck fighter who just needs to win one to score big and blow this two-bit town. Harvey Keitel is perfection as Winston Wolf -- a kind of clean-up man to the mob, who is called in by Jimmy (Tarantino in a flawlessly whiny performance) after Jules and Vincent show up at his door with a problem too messy for their limited talents. Eric Stoltz and Rosanna Arquette are marvelous as Vince Vega's drug dealer and his trippy-dippy wife. In a single scene, Christopher Walken delivers one of the weirdest, most genius performances of his weird and genius career.
But the thing that really sets Pulp Fiction apart from all the other worthy films of 1994 is its director. With his 1992 Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino threw down the gauntlet, promising that his was a talent to watch. In Pulp Fiction, he delivered on that promise. But what makes Tarantino so unique? He does something few directors are brave enough to attempt: he trusts the audience. In Pulp Fiction, Tarantino trusted the audience to be smart enough to follow a story told in a nonlinear fashion. He trusted the audience to be patient enough to allow the divergent storylines to grow and develop and finally to mesh in a single, satisfying ending. He trusted us to get it.
October marks the 15th anniversary of the American release of Pulp Fiction, and the movies have never been the same. And I, for one, thank the Cinema gods.
24 October 2009
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