Friday, August 5, 2011

Pulp Fiction

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 94
Year: 1994
Writer: Quentin Tarantino, Roger Avary
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Star: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman

Watching “Pulp Fiction” is like opening a set of nesting dolls. Every time you open one up, another doll is found underneath, smaller but even more intricate. Though the movie takes place out of chronological order, it isn’t a puzzle. Each section of the movie can be enjoyed and understood on its own, but when put together the pieces become transcendent.

There are three major plot threads, all of which connect to one another in varying degrees. The first follows two hit men (John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, both great) as they try to get back a mysterious briefcase belonging to their evil boss Marsellus (Ving Rhames). The second follows Travolta’s character Vincent as he takes Marsellus’ sexy, sexy wife Mia (Uma Thurman) out to dinner. Not a date, he insists. The third involves a wrestler named Butch (Bruce Willis) who is on the run from Marsellus but can’t leave town until he reclaims his father’s watch.

Each one of these storylines is hugely enjoyable and, as in all films from co-writer/director Quentin Tarantino, it’s the details that we linger on and remember after the film ends. His dialogue, which reads just half-an-inch above realism, is endlessly quotable, and I’ll do my best to not do any of it here, simply because it’s impossible to single only one or two speeches out. He takes his time setting up the characters and allowing the audience to get a feel for who he’s about to torture and maim, but in doing this he also weaves in plenty of little Easter eggs that will pay off later (or earlier, depending on the chronology) in the movie. In lesser hands, the set-ups and pay-offs would implode, but Tarantino’s (along with co-writer Roger Avary) writing is so crisp, so seductive, that you can’t help but invest wholeheartedly in it. Speaking of Easter eggs, another splendid thing about Tarantino films are the numerous references (Travolta dancing the twist) and homages (hello briefcase with unknown substance in it) to other films, making film buffs all the happier.

Tarantino and Avary takes their time setting things up and pays them off gradually, ensuring that what is happening makes sense in relation to the characters we’ve come to know. The even tone and pacing of the movie actually bring an elevated level of suspense to the proceedings than would be present in a movie that had more quick-cutting and thumping music. This is true of all of Tarantino’s work—look at the “Kill Bill” movies and “Inglourious Basterds”—but is most prominent in this film. Look at the scene where the Willis character arrives at his apartment, knowing that someone is probably there waiting to kill him. Tarantino’s camera follows him as he parks two blocks away and walks through yards to go into his building through the back way. The scene is shockingly quiet, and as a result (it seems to build forever even though it can’t be more than a minute or two long) the suspense becomes almost unbearable. The diner stick-up that climaxes the film is similarly tense because Tarantino takes his time getting to his point, not seeming to care that the audience is in their seats going crazy with anticipation.

The cast, on the whole, is brilliant. The writers have made a point of ensuring that all of the leads and supporting characters come across as fully fleshed out individuals, and the actors more than rise to the occasion. Thurman doesn’t have as much screen time as the other leads (though she does get the showstopper moment thanks to an adrenaline shot) but makes every minute count, and when she’s explaining her failed TV pilot with the kind of glee a kid on the schoolyard would speak with, you can’t help but fall for her. Willis seems at first like an odd choice, especially considering Tarantino’s dialogue, but makes his forlorn attitude and quiet demeanor work for his character. Harvey Keitel comes onscreen as the cinematic equivalent of an 11 o’clock musical number, and nails every line of his professional clean-up character. Instead of letting the article degrade into a list of praise for every actor in the ensemble (which it easily could), I’ll move on.

I do have to admit that the use of the word “nigger” throughout the film is way overdone and the one major thing about the screenplay that makes me grimace. It’s not that the characters use it, it’s that it’s used so often, and usually simply for shock value. It interrupts the flow of the movie. Sure, writers have been doing this for centuries…I’m currently re-reading Truman Capote’s work and constantly rolling my eyes at how often he uses “lesbian” and “faggot” simply to get a rise out of the reader…but the movie would have been stronger without it.

Tarantino’s visual style throughout is inventive without being too showy. The visual tricks he plays are usually subtle enough to not point themselves out to the casual viewer, like having a projection with older cars playing in the background while Willis is taking a cab-ride. His work with his editor, Sally Menke, is especially notable in how well it implies violence without having to show very much of it. Remember in “Reservoir Dogs” when a character lost his ear? Though we don’t see the act on camera, you remember seeing it. The same is true here with the moment Travolta pounds the needle into Thurman’s chest. I hadn’t seen the movie in a year or two, but I clearly remembered seeing the shot where the needle enters her chest. Watching the film this time, I was wrong. But Menke does such a great job of cutting around it that it feels like we have.

“Pulp Fiction” is a little over two-and-a-half hours, but feels like it’s just about the right length. The viewer feels exhilarated as the credits roll and immediately wants to see the movie again, partially to look again for all the little moments that connect the stories, but mostly because it’s just a damn great movie.

My Score (out of 5): *****

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