Pulp Fiction is an Excellent Replay Value movie with excellent dialogue. It does what it sets out to do on first viewing (which any movie should), but unlike a Steve McQueen film, its richness overflows the more times you see it, the more times the dialogue can caress you into the plot. Observe how words uttered at the start herald ominous consequences later, or how a stare wrongly judged spells doom for certain characters, or how the man walking in the background in the very first scene is actually Vincent Vega. You wouldn’t have picked up on that the first time. But watch the movie again, and again; Pulp Fiction can seem entirely new.
This is a movie as smart as it is bold, and it is very bold. You can take any sequence at random, cut it open, prod at its innards, analyse its components till kingdom come and still discover a vein you hadn’t exposed, or a little insignificant growth you didn’t know was there. Together, all these sequences tell one story, but individually, they are filled with details, words, signs and symbols, forewarnings, and resolutions. And they are each built up to meticulous perfection, some having a payoff that is preordained by a completely different, seemingly unrelated sequence.
Take the sequence following the opening credits, where Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) drive to a location and prepare for some kind of confrontation (what it is at the start we don’t know; we are happy not knowing). The beauty of this sequence is all in the dialogue, which Tarantino writes without writing. His words are not dictated. They flow, first through his fingers onto paper, then through his actors onto the screen, delivered in such a way as to honour the Screenwriting 101 rule: Show, don’t tell. Pulp Fiction is all about showing; Tarantino tells to set up action, which he must, then shows the rest of the way.
Let me try to explain with a few paragraphs. Vincent and Jules are in the car. Vincent has just returned from Amsterdam, where drugs are legal in some senses and if you’re caught with drugs it’s illegal for the cops to search you. He returns to America also with new, if not redundant, information about Paris, where the French call a Quarter-pounder With Cheese a “Royale With Cheese”. In any other movie, specifically one not written by Tarantino, the unfolding scene would have involved Amsterdam, or drugs, or burgers from McDonald’s, because most movies play their action scenes against their dialogue. Their dialogue demonstrates to the audience what they already know, what they can clearly see for themselves, because their characters are not smart enough to have personal conversations.
Tarantino diverts our attention from his action with the beguiling power of his words. The scene has nothing to do with The Netherlands, drugs, burgers or McDonald’s. Vincent and Jules talk about that stuff because that’s the kind of stuff they talk about. It’s the kind of stuff we would talk about if we went to The Netherlands and learned that the Dutch put mayonnaise on their fries instead of ketchup. It’s how life is.
The next scene shows Vince and Jules arming themselves with pistols from the trunk. Here the dialogue is plot-driven. It has to be — the audience needs the plan of action to be put into perspective. Then follows the walk from the car to the front door of an apartment, including a long shot that reveals the surroundings, kind of like a reverse of Scorsese’s famous long shot in Goodfellas (1990). Here Vince and Jules discuss a lady named Mia Wallace and an unfortunate Samoan fellow who is purported to have been thrown by Mia’s husband, Marsellus, off a balcony and through a greenhouse, for giving Mia a foot massage. Do we know this Mia and Marsellus? Not right away. At first we think it’s more random talk. Maybe Mia’s a friend, or a friend of a friend. We are inclined to not pay this conversation any real attention either, until of course Vincent says he’s been ordered to take Mia out for a night while Marsellus is away. Now we are confident we will see Mia (Uma Thurman) later in the film, which we do. (Side note: The argument in this scene about the meaning a foot massage implies is handled hilariously by Tarantino’s script and by Travolta and Jackson).
Next: Vince and Jules enter the apartment of three (four?) youngsters who have absentmindedly double-crossed Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) — ah, now he enters the plot — and stolen his briefcase. This is the first of many superb scenes in Pulp Fiction, where dialogue, character, situation and build up come together harmoniously to deliver 1) Memorable moments, and 2) Astonishingly preposterous developments (the very first scene in the diner is also superb, but it doesn’t showcase Tarantino’s writing prowess in the way the rest of the film does).
The scene in the apartment is dramatic, narrative and poetic perfection. It uses its characters wisely, and draws from Vince’s and Jules’ past conversations to provide the atmosphere with a touch of black comedy, dread, and menace (“You know what they call a Quarter-pounder With Cheese in Paris, dontcha Brett?”). Think forward to the opening scene of Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), where the Nazi Hans Landa feigns friendship with a French farmer for information on hiding Jews, knowing full well that the Jews are in the house. Here, Vince and Jules know that Brett is going to die. They just want to butter him up first. They are Landa’s spiritual ancestors, his role models.
Samuel L. Jackson, like Christoph Waltz in Tarantino’s later films, evolves into an entity of his own in Pulp Fiction, which is why his monologues have entered the Global Library of Movie Quotes. Both he and Waltz seem born to play Tarantino characters, to deliver his words as if they were their own. They feel his dialogue and understand it. They instinctively know how to convey it. They pull off an illusion: We look at them, knowing they are characters, and yet think they could be playing versions of themselves.
I’ve used the Vince/Jules/Brett sequence to illustrate Pulp Fiction’s immortality. The sequence is like a chapter, ripped from an actual pulp fiction magazine. It’s a little story on its own, fitted next to other little self-contained stories, tied together by ropes of immaculate detail and effortless knots of dialogue. Consider the scene at Jack Rabbit Slim’s. What wonderful dialogue shared between Vince and Mia, about $5 milkshakes, and the revelation of silences between two people who know when to shut up, and of their canny observations of Marilyn Monroe and Buddy Holly. And then watch it break loose with the famous dance routine, which could tell you more, or less, about the characters, depending on how you wish to see it. And then a plunge into dangerous territory for Vince with Mia’s overdose, calling to mind the story of the Samoan fellow who now has a speech impediment for touching Mia’s feet. And then Christopher Walken’s monologue about Butch’s father’s watch, and how that sets up a tense scene later in Butch’s apartment. Then the whole fiasco with Marvin’s gruesomely hilarious death, and the introduction of The Wolf (Harvey Keitel) as a no-nonsense problem solver. And the diner scenes, which bookend the movie. And who can possibly forget the quasi-horror encounter in the basement of a pawn store that sees Butch (Bruce Willis) find redemption by realising his heart has grown two sizes bigger?