Let’s talk close-ups. Not of actors, although there are plenty of interesting faces in Pulp Fiction, and almost every member of its large ensemble gets at least one close-up during the film’s 154 minutes. No, I’m thinking about close-ups of objects. This visual technique can be found throughout Quentin Tarantino’s body of work, but it’s especially prevalent in Pulp Fiction. These shots serve as visual punctuation, but they serve a narrative purpose as well. I’ve selected five of them (there are more) that highlight objects which are especially significant to the “three stories about one story.” MacGuffins, totems, elixirs — they bear a lot of weight for both the plot and characters. They also make convenient springboards for exploring the distinct reasons this movie is so special.
We never find out what’s inside this briefcase, except that it’s so valuable to a local crime kingpin that he sends two hitmen to retrieve it when it’s stolen. The contents glow, and anyone who looks at them is transfixed. That’s all we ever know, and since it’s a MacGuffin, that’s all that we need to know. As many have pointed out before, the briefcase is an homage to the 1955 film noir Kiss Me Deadly, with its glowing “Great Whatsit.” This is only one of countless pop culture references in Pulp Fiction, a movie about movies. The film’s genre can be summed up as “crime comedy,” but it has elements of many others as well. Sergio Leone and Jean-Luc Godard are two major influences on Tarantino, and he shares their fascination with westerns, gangster movies and musicals, while adding to the mix blaxploitation, kung fu and slasher movies. Everything disreputable in one package, in other words. The combination on the briefcase is a nice joke, as well. The crime boss is diabolical, to be sure, but this is actually one of two biblical references to be found in the scene in question. It’s a little jarring to see the Bible invoked in a film centered around pulp lit, B-movies and fast food. But we’ll get back to that later.
Quentin Tarantino makes violent movies. People who don’t know anything else about him know that much. And Pulp Fiction could be considered a violent film, although it has nothing like the limb-hacking and blood-spurting of Kill Bill. There are actually only a few moments of graphic violence to be found in Pulp Fiction, but they are calculated to leave an impression. Not only this, but the film is about violence even when nothing disturbing is being shown. Characters talk about violent acts that happen off-camera, such as the crime boss throwing a man off a balcony, or a boxer killing his opponent in the ring. Characters contemplate violence: possibly the funniest moment in the film involves a character wielding first a hammer, then a baseball bat, then a chainsaw, and finally a katana. We in the audience laugh and squirm at the same time as we imagine the kind of mess he’d make with each. Like Leone, Tarantino relishes the build-up to violence — tense situations slowly boiling over. But he’s also interested in the consequences, the aftermath, which is something most action directors seem to avoid. Tarantino’s characters are famous for their “cool,” but in Pulp Fiction they spend a lot of time cleaning up their own messes. The heroin overdose to which the above image refers is one such mess. No one avoids consequences in this film, except by divine intervention.
This watch is of paramount importance to one character, the aforementioned boxer who agrees to throw a fight for the benefit of the crime boss but double-crosses him. The watch first belonged to his great-grandfather and has been passed along to each subsequent generation. It’s another MacGuffin, but it’s a far more overtly symbolic one. The boxer’s ancestors were veterans; he treasures the watch as a way of honoring their sacrifices. He ends up going to great lengths to avoid losing it. The watch also signals the script’s preoccupation with time. This film, famously, does not unfold in chronological order, although it’s close enough to remain coherent. The first scene is also the last, and a character who dies returns to the film in a “later” scene. More than a gimmick, this structure gives each event its proper weight in the narrative, and it highlights how the stories intertwine and comment on each other.
Pitt/sh**, Paul/y’all, Zed/dead. The other aspect of the script that’s so fascinating, and the first that someone new to the film will notice, is the profane poetry of the dialogue. The fun that these characters have just talking to each other is infectious. Most of what they talk about isn’t directly relevant to the plot, at least not right away, but it does wonders for character development. The speed, rhythm, vocabulary, metaphors, and (as I already mentioned) pop culture references are endlessly pleasurable. One discussion feels especially trivial in the moment but actually feeds into the plots of not one but two of the film’s three stories: the “foot massage” debate between the two hitmen. It’s funny hearing two cold-blooded killers argue over such a sensitive subject, but the subtext is that one man is defending his boss’s actions, while the other calls them into question. This sets the two men on different paths, and a later event will only exacerbate their differences.
Here’s where we get right down to it: what is this film about? Is there a deeper meaning to it at all? Pulp Fiction is tremendously entertaining and vibrant. But is it also shallow, “postmodern,” superficial? As I’ve written before, the most important theme of the story is redemption. Characters receive grace (or “luck,” depending on how they look at it) and are given a choice about how they’ll respond. The boxer chooses to stop hiding, to bring the downward spiral of revenge to an end before it destroys him. One of the hitmen chooses to listen when God is evidently speaking to him. He will leave his former life and “walk the Earth” (or become a “bum” — again, depending on how you look at it). Part of this involves letting a thief take the money in his wallet but not the wallet itself, which is a symbol of his personality — let’s leave it at that. In the briefcase scene, this hitman quoted Ezekiel 25:17 (or, rather, an embellishment of that verse lifted from a Sonny Chiba movie). It turns out that he’s been quoting this passage from memory for years because he thought it sounded cool, but only at the end of the movie does he understand its meaning. In some small way, this film is a rebuke to shallowness, even if some viewers can’t seem to look past its surface.
Yes, there’s a lot of “coolness” to be found in Pulp Fiction. Two men in black suits firing off pistols. An unforgettable vow of revenge or two from a crime boss. A dance contest. But this film also works as a deconstruction of the “coolness” of powerful men who use violence to solve their problems, as a video essay by Peter Labuza and Matt Zoller Seitz points out. The climactic moment of the entire film involves potential violence being averted. Cooler heads prevail.
Whenever I see it, Pulp Fiction reinvigorates my passion for cinema. It’s a living testament to the medium’s capacity to thrill, amuse, shock, and satisfy. Tarantino’s filmmaking also owes something to Orson Welles, prioritizing long takes, low angles and deep focus. It can be argued that every generation of cinephiles needs its own Citizen Kane as a touchstone. Pulp Fiction fits the bill.