Mortality and Mercy in Los Angeles


Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Maria de Medeiros, Ving Rhames, Eric Stoltz, Rosanna Arquette, Christopher Walken, Bruce Willis
(Miramax, 1994) Rated: R

“You’re judging this shit the wrong way,” says Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) in the final scene of Pulp Fiction. He could be speaking to the hundreds of commentators on the film in 1994, when it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and did unprecedented business for an independent release. Critics gushed, fans memorized profane speeches, and armchair editorialists, denying that a film that takes such delight in cinematic surfaces could be anything but superficial, lamented the sorry state of contemporary culture. Although much was made of Pulp Fiction‘s energetic style and imaginative recasting of genre elements (especially those of Westerns and films noirs), the picture’s traditionally “serious” aspects were all but lost in the shuffle.

Which is understandable, as the film itself proceeds through an intricate series of digressions and narrative interruptions, making a joke of its ostensible inability to sustain a mood. Violent mishaps, simultaneously comic and frightening, keep Pulp Fiction purposefully off-balance; at its center, however, is a conversation concerning the distinction between fate and accident. Jules and his fellow hitman Vincent Vega (John Travolta) have just survived a hail of bullets fired from pointblank range. After dispatching their assailant matter-of-factly, they begin to argue as to whether their unlikely survival represents what Jules calls “divine intervention,” or, in Vincent’s words, “a freak occurrence.”

They’re forced to pause their chat after Vincent, his gun still drawn, turns to ask young Marvin (Phil LaMarr) his opinion, and accidentally shoots Marvin in the face. Once they dispose of the corpse and a blood-spattered car with the aid of Jules’s reluctant friend, Jimmie (Tarantino), and the renowned professional problem-solver Winston Wolf (Harvey Keitel), Jules and Vincent stop at a diner for breakfast, resuming their theological discussion.

“It could be God stopped the bullets, or He changed Coke into Pepsi, [or] He found my fuckin’ car keys,” Jules continues. “Now, whether we experienced an according-to-Hoyle miracle is insignificant. But what is significant is I felt the touch of God. God got involved.” Jules, humbled by his near-death experience, and much to the chagrin of the thoughtful yet faithless Vincent, plans to retire from his life of crime, and “walk the earth… like Caine in Kung Fu… ’til God puts me where He wants me to be.”

Jules will neither have to walk nor wait very long to demonstrate his newfound conviction, as the first test of his capacity for mercy is sitting just a few tables away. An offscreen shout (“Garcon! Coffee!”) alerts us to the fact that the film has doubled back on itself to return to its opening scene’s time and location. A couple of smalltime crooks, Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer), are about to rob this very diner.

God’s intentions may be frustratingly indistinct, but the writer/director conspicuously “puts [Jules] where he wants [Jules] to be,” playfully challenging the character to prove that he can do more than just talk of probity. It’s an outstanding moment: the dovetailing narrative satisfies on a formalist level, but instead of tying everything together, the unexpected “click” reveals to viewers an underlying order, of which the characters remain unaware. Narrative possibilities multiply rapidly as these two disparate pairs collide, resulting in a Mexican standoff. Intensifying audience expectations, Jules quotes Ezekiel 25:17, which we know to be his personal kiss of death.

But this time, Jules pauses to reflect on the verse. Taking his cue from its repeated references to “vengeance,” he admits, “I never gave much thought to what it meant. I just thought it was some cold-blooded shit to say to a motherfucker before I popped a cap in his ass. But I saw some shit this morning that made me think twice.” Tarantino and cinematographer Andrzej Sekula black out the left side of the screen so that all we see is Jules’s face, and his ultimately generous interpretation of the Ezekiel passage — “I’m trying real hard to be the shepherd” — becomes a form of absolution, not only for Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, but also for himself.

In the decade since Pulp Fiction‘s release, fans and detractors alike have had difficulty reconciling this spiritual aspect with its violent imagery, ironic tonal fluctuations, stylized dialogue, and ubiquitous pop culture references. Anthony Lane’s generally dismissive New Yorker review (10 October 1994) claims that “Tarantino is less an ironist than a chronic fetishist; he has cooked up a world where hamburgers matter, and nothing else… [He] is an artist mad for affect terrified that his audience may be bored or moved (the same thing, as far as he’s concerned).”

The fact that discussions about hamburgers are treated no more or less seriously than arguments about marital improprieties or divine intervention sets this film apart. Both the banal and the momentous “matter” here. Having “felt the touch of God” may inspire Jules’s clemency, but in context, it is no less significant that Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) thanks Vincent for saving her life by telling the corny “ketchup” joke (from her Fox Force Five TV pilot) she’d been too embarrassed to recount earlier. The actors’ expressive underplaying here belies the picture’s reputation for cynicism. Their characters may be talking about “nothing” (in the Seinfeldian sense), but emotional currents are roiling underneath.

Still, such currents are different from the “lulls and high sensations” identified by Dana Polan in his book-length study of the film, in the BFI Modern Classics series. “[O]n this narrative ride,” he writes, “the primary goal for the spectator is not to look for meanings… but to have an experience, to luxuriate in sensations… A roller-coaster ride, an explosion in a movie, a virtuoso camera movement are not to be interpreted so much as enjoyed, absorbed as further bits of the society of the spectacle we’re immersed in” (76-77). What’s most troubling is that Polan seems to mean this as praise.

In order to comprehend the disservice done by Polan’s superficial interpretation, we might consider the script’s non-sequential arrangement. Surely, this provides a “sensational” experience, not only in its virtuosic presentation but also in its engagement of viewers who must puzzle out the scenes’ order. Most importantly, though, the obviously “written” structure discards conventional realism and allows for not one, but two endings.

The film concludes with Jules’s mercy, but chronologically, it ends with the middle chapter, entitled, “The Gold Watch.” Our first glimpse of that section’s protagonist, Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis), a veteran boxer who doublecrosses Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) after being paid to throw a fight, comes during what we eventually realize to be Jules’s final scene. But Butch’s story really begins with a childhood flashback, the “uncomfortable hunk of metal” monologue. Captain Koons (Christopher Walken) visits Butch and delivers the gold wristwatch that has been in the Coolidge family for three generations — “Your birthright,” he calls it — following Butch’s father’s death in a Vietnamese POW camp.

Walken’s presence surely brings to mind Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), an epic consideration of duty and loyalty among men. “When two men are in a situation like me and your Dad were, for as long as we were,” Koons tells the boy, “you take on certain responsibilities for the other.” Butch’s story, we come to realize, will explore the strangely spiritual nature of masculine obligations. Following in the tradition of Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959), The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969), and Mean Streets (Martin Scorcese, 1973), Pulp Fiction manipulates genre tropes in order to illustrate what motivates men’s actions and alliances.

Unsurprisingly, even when he is grown, Butch evinces a troubling lack of maturity. He still sports a boyish crewcut. Upon learning that he has killed an opponent during a brutal boxing match, he callously admits, “I don’t feel the least bit bad about it.” Most frighteningly, he throws a tantrum — screaming, cursing, upending luggage, and throwing a TV set across a motel room — when he discovers that his girlfriend, Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros), has neglected to bring along his father’s watch when gathering their getaway provisions.

Returning to his apartment to recover the watch, Butch catches Vincent with his pants down and shoots him. New York Times film critic Janet Maslin (in her perceptive review of 16 October 1994) identifies this consequence of the film’s redemption theme, noting that Vincent “is fated to die… because he has not understood how to save his own life. (Following [Jules] along a newly adopted path of righteousness would have made all the difference in the world.)” Pairs are the only stable groupings in Pulp Fiction, and his partner’s retirement, coupled with his own persistent iniquity, has left Vincent vulnerable.

Fresh from eliminating Vincent, and without a hint of remorse, Butch encounters Marsellus at an intersection in a shot reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). An elaborate showdown follows, involving pistols, a car wreck, injured bystanders, spilled coffee, broken glass, and the butt of a shotgun. Ultimately, Butch finds himself tied up in a pawn shop’s basement while a pair of hillbilly leather freaks rape Marsellus in the next room. He manages to break free but, pausing at the door, realizes that he cannot abandon even his enemy to such a horrible fate. The previously ironic reference to Butch’s lack of Hitchcockian guilt now pays off, as a sense of adult responsibility finally stirs within him.

In a short, wordless sequence, Butch selects a weapon with which to confront the rapists. A handheld medium shot observes him picking through the pawnshop detritus, selecting ever larger implements: first a hammer, then a baseball bat, and then a chainsaw. By the time Butch jabs the air with the chainsaw, recalling Leatherface, the audience is usually laughing, but the following shot sequence urges a more complex response. Butch looks offscreen left, and we shift to a higher vantage point, looking down on him from the shelf presumably containing whatever has caught his fancy.

Still staring, he puts the chainsaw down on the counter, and the scene cuts again, this time to Butch’s point of view. The object is a samurai sword, and Butch’s hand sweeps into the frame to pull it down. Another cut returns to the previous over-the-counter set up, as Butch, a look of wonder on his bloodied face, unsheathes the sword. A final cut shows him tearing back a curtain above the stairwell, blade extended, an avenging angel returning to liberate Marsellus from the metaphorical inferno below. The chainsaw (simultaneously a tool, like the hammer, and a horror movie allusion) bridges the gap between work and the action-movie world symbolized by the sword. The progression encapsulates this film’s method of using pulp elements to frame weightier issues such as mercy and deliverance.

Lest one think Pulp Fiction is all about lowlifes with hearts of gold, a third chapter, “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife,” reveals a selfish drug dealer, Lance (Eric Stoltz), who helps Vincent save the overdosing Mia simply because he fears Marsellus’s retribution should she die in his living room. Lance’s insensitivity makes Butch’s and Jules’s actions all the more meaningful. The hitman’s compassion, the boxer’s “leave no man behind” descent into hell — when set against the “pulp” world’s narrative machinery, these significant choices suggest that Pulp Fiction is anything but deterministic. The film seems more interested in placing characters in situations with much, often life itself, at stake, and then waiting to see whether they can acquit themselves.

Contrary to its reputation for coked-up ultraviolence and hyperactivity, Pulp Fiction is a surprisingly patient film. Unlike Tarantino’s first feature, Reservoir Dogs (1992), it closes peacefully. The last chronological scene has Butch and Fabienne riding off into the sunset (“Zed’s dead, baby, Zed’s dead”), but the film ends with Jules and Vincent, guns tucked in the waistbands of their ridiculous borrowed beach shorts, exiting the diner, not a shot having been fired. Surf music swells, and the viewer may be reminded of countless other righteously heroic finales. The irony of the image makes us chuckle, but the distancing effects are more than just amusing. (Our awareness of Vincent’s impending demise weighs heavily here.) Both comic and poignant, the scene evokes the film’s pairing of violence and charity, its muted tone a reminder that adopting a righteous path does not necessarily serve to wash the blood from a killer’s hands.