While it certainly is a product of its time, Pulp Fiction is arguably Tarantino’s masterpiece, cementing his significance in Hollywood.
I make no secret of my reverence towards Tarantino’s work: as an edgy adolescent, his stylized violence, creative profanity and gripping plots helped me to fall in love with the medium of cinema. Among my very favorites of his catalog was Pulp Fiction, the non-linear crime film filled with quotable lines, iconic shots and sequences, and a top-tier oldies soundtrack. Despite these memories, I hadn’t watched it in a while and was admittedly a little nervous: like most of Tarantino’s films, it’s a controversial movie, and I was concerned that certain things may not have held up too well. After viewing, however, I can confidently say that, while it certainly is a product of its time, Pulp Fiction is Tarantino’s masterpiece, cementing his significance in Hollywood.
Pulp Fiction is told as a series of connected short stories presented non-linearly, each telling a separate story around a core group of characters. There’s Vincent (John Travolta), a hitman with a penchant for using drugs and using the bathroom at the wrong time, and his spiritually philosophical partner Jules (Samuel L. Jackson). There’s also their boss’ wife Mia (Uma Thurman), a young woman who loves dancing and overpriced milkshakes. And rounding out the group is Butch (Bruce Willis), a boxer with a watch that has hopefully been washed very thoroughly.
First of all, the acting is universally outstanding throughout! Tarantino’s script is characteristically dialogue-heavy, and the actors really savor the material they are given. The cast makes the dialogue’s flow so natural and fluid, to the point where even the “filler” conversations about normal boring things are still engaging and memorable; who knew that a throwaway conversation about European cheeseburgers could be one of the most quotable parts of a movie? In short, there’s a reason John Travolta, Samuel L Jackson, and Uma Thurman all received Oscar nominations for their work in this movie.
The craft behind the film is also excellent: Tarantino, historically, has made creative choices simply because they were cool or fun, and I fully support that! This is showcased well in the cinematography (Andrzej Sekula): The first time we see Mia Wallace, she’s a figure of mystery, with the viewer only seeing an extreme closeup of her red lips speaking into her house’s intercom. When Butch catches a taxi after killing an opponent in the ring, the night time background, in a stylistic choice, is clearly fake as an homage to older films. And as a sucker for long tracking shots, there are plenty of those, my favorite probably being a wide shot that slowly zooms into Vincent and Mia sharing a dance at a tacky 50’s-themed restaurant.
Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the film’s controversial aspects. Yes, I’m giving this movie a five-out-of-five and I stand by that: it’s an extremely well-made, influential, and objectively excellent movie. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some things that viewers may find problematic or distressing: this is a Tarantino movie from the 90s, after all. If you’re particularly sensitive to physical and sexual violence, explicit drug use, lots of profanity, and white folks using a truly uncomfortable amount of racial slurs, then yes, this is going to be a tough watch for you. There are plenty of people who do not like this movie, and for not unfair reasons. While other films have certainly surpassed it in extremity, Pulp Fiction almost seems like it was designed to be controversial. It’s certainly not for everyone, but there’s a reason this movie has such a massive cult following.
Look, if you don’t like Tarantino in general, then Pulp Fiction won’t do anything to change your mind, but Tarantino fans probably don’t need me to tell them how good it is. To me, it’s the quintessential Tarantino film: the one to break him into mass critical and financial success with all the hallmarks you’d expect from one of his movies. Sure it’s so 90s that it hurts, but in the best way possible: it’s one of the films that helped define the cinema and culture of the decade. It’s a film with vast influence and you may find yourself seeing a scene and thinking to yourself, “oh that’s where that other piece of media got that from.” Pulp Fiction, much like Tarantino, certainly won’t be for everyone (real talk, he should cool it with the racial slurs), but if you consider yourself a lover of cinema, you owe it to yourself to see it at least once.
Pulp Fiction is now available to watch on digital and on demand. Watch Pulp Fiction and read our list of all Quentin Tarantino films ranked from worst to best!