When I was in college, I spotted a poster for Reservoir Dogs in the library; the Student Film Club was showing it that week, and I figured that the poster looked interesting, but given that this was a movie advertised in a college library, I wrote it off as pretentious navel-gazing and didn’t see it. When I finally did catch the movie a few months later, and was utterly blown away by the rawness and cultural awareness of its director, Quentin Tarantino, I resolved to see whatever else Tarantino put out, because this was a fella who had my number. True Romance followed, and even though it was directed by Tony Scott, Tarantino’s writing showed through, and I loved it. And when the hype machine cranked into high gear for Pulp Fiction, I was already waiting in line. This was a movie that was gonna blow my doors off, I just knew it. And it sure did. I walked out of the movie theatre, and overheard a couple behind me discussing it. The guy enthused that the film was deep. His girlfriend said it was just violence and old music. They were both right. Pulp Fiction is both of those things, and many more to boot, which is why it remains the top dog of independent cinema almost 25 years after its release.
The story is a non-sequential array of intertwining narratives that cover a universe of criminal lowlifes, weirdos and other shadow-dwellers in modern-day Los Angeles. Our intro is an extended conversation between a couple of romantically linked bandits who decide to stick up a diner in broad daylight. Before we know what happens next, we’re on to a day in the life of Vincent Vega and Jules Winfield, two cool-as-hell hitmen who work for local crime lord Marcellus Wallace. As they go about their business for the day, they seem to talk about everything but their jobs as they murder a room full of guys, report back to their boss wearing different clothes than what they left in, and set up Vincent for a platonic date with the boss’s wife, a kind of suicide mission that everybody else working for Marcellus has the good sense to not take. We jump from there to a boxer named Butch, who bets on himself after agreeing for Marcellus Wallace to throw a fight, and now has to get the hell out of town before Marcellus finds him and kills him. Marcellus tracks Butch down, all right, but what happens from there goes off in a direction neither he nor Butch ever expected. Then we go back to the diner, and see why it is Vincent and Jules had to change clothes mid-mission, and why, after a certain point in the story, we don’t see Jules any longer. By the time it’s all over, we should be thoroughly confused at the chronologically overlapping storyline, but we’re not. Instead, we feel like we got a God’s-eye view of a particular world of crime and pop culture that exists only in Quentin Tarantino’s head until he could throw it across the big screen.
It’s hard to overstate just how much this movie influenced film-making for the better part of a decade after it came out. Released just before the advent of internet culture as we know it, this was a movie that still spread its influence largely through a series of filters: the breathless reviews it earned from film critics; the insistence from friends and video store clerks to watch the movie right this second; the endless imitation it inspired in lesser filmmakers; and the derision heaped upon it from those shocked by the movie’s willingness to stare open-eyed at depraved behavior we’d rather shy from. However somebody came to this movie, their personal cinematic history was forever changed by it. You don’t just watch Pulp Fiction and then forget about it; it is a kind of context-altering experience that few other movies ever can be.
The entire movie is quotable. The entire soundtrack is worth memorization. The pop culture references throughout is nothing short of a master class in recursion as Tarantino curates what mattered most to him from the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, and synthesized them into something that first and foremost made sense to him. Half of the reason why this movie works so well is because one gets the sense that it wasn’t even made for us. This is a vision so unique that trying to understand it fully is like trying to puzzle out the identity of the glowing MacGuffin repeatedly referenced in the story. You can’t understand it. You can only appreciate what is around it. Tarantino has made plenty of movies since this one, some great, others not quite so much, but this one stands apart as a defining masterpiece.
For as much energy as Pulp Fiction spends making sidelong observations about the world, this movie is really about the choices we make, the consequences we live with, and the occasional flashes of clarity that let us know we can still change our lives if we’re awake enough to sense the opportunity, and if we’ve got the guts to take it. The moment of truth here takes place at two different parts in the movie, but at the same point in the story, when Jules and Vincent pay their visit to a room full of college kids who double-crossed Marcellus. The way Jules asserts his control over his victims channels the terrifying wrath of an unstoppable persona on a rampage. That such a force can suddenly be made to understand that perhaps he’s more stoppable than he realized, however, is quite a thing. And to see Jules try to live up to that is a struggle worth watching. When he finally retrieves his wallet and we see that what’s stitched on it isn’t just metaphorical, we understand that what makes Jules so formidable isn’t that he’s a killer. It’s his choice not to be.