With “Pulp Fiction,” Quentin Tarantino took his love for pop culture, nostalgia, seedy characters and left-field long-form dialogue, and injected a shot of bold, original and stylistic art right into the heart of American film. The incredibly-quotable, non-linear crime drama features rich performances and is structured in a way that packs depth in. What really sets it apart, however, is when the plot takes hard, unpredictable turns, spinning the story into madness.
In the last installment of this Tarantino Countdown series, I argued that “Reservoir Dogs” is special because of how the perpetual tension makes it always feel on the edge of pure, visceral violence. “Pulp Fiction,” on the other hand, can be cruising along, somewhat unassumingly, and then, bang, something that seems relatively normal turns into a complete catastrophe.
If you shave the plot down to its core, it’s not that intricate: It’s well-known that you shouldn’t cross gangster overlord Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), a powerful man who has several people working for him that are well-paid to murder his enemies. But people do, including an aging post-prime boxer for a quick payday, and a few poser kids who are way out of their league. It’s how the characters are developed through unexpected, bonkers situations and careful storytelling that adds layers. Those moments are scattered throughout the film. But, to me, there are three, in particular, that stick out.
1) The overdose.
Early in the film, two hitmen, Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield, played by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson respectively, are talking about how their boss, Wallace, had a man thrown off a fourth-story balcony for giving Wallace’s wife, Mia, a foot massage. Later, Vega is asked to take Mia out to dinner because Marsellus is out of town. After a night out, they’re both a little messed up, and Mia invites Vega in for a nightcap. When he goes into the bathroom to give himself a pep talk about a responsible exit strategy, probably so his boss doesn’t kill him, Mia finds Vega’s high-grade heroin, mistaking it for cocaine, and snorts it. She overdoes, and Vega takes her to his dealer Jimmie Dimmick’s house, assuming that Dimmick’s nascent medical knowledge is the best chance of Mia surviving without Marsellus finding out what happened. The great thing about the scene is watching it fishtail into desperation, and then watching it unravel, knowing that the outcome could totally change the plot. But, after getting an adrenaline needle to the heart, Mia wakes up. They all swear silence. There are people to take out on Marsellus’ radar, but Vega isn’t going to be one of them.
2) When Marvin gets accidentally shot in the face.
Vega and Winnfield are sent by Marsellus to recover a briefcase from the aforementioned out-of-their-league amateurs, but they don’t realize one of the kids is hiding in the kitchen with a massive revolver. Eventually, the kid jumps out, emptying the gun at Vega and Winnfield, missing with every round. Winnfield takes hie near-brush with high-caliber death as divine intervention, a sign from god that’s he’s supposed to quit being a mid-level thug and wander the earth in search of meaning. After killing everyone in the room except for a guy named Marvin — who they take hostage — the pair leave, continuing to argue about the significance of what just happened. When driving down the freeway, Vega turns to ask Martin his opinion on the situation but accidentally shoots him in the head before he can answer. “Aw man, I shot Marvin in the face,” Vega softly, yet awkwardly says, as he blames a bump in the road, for a bit of dark humor. The gunshot comes out of nowhere. You expect some 10-minute long Tarantino diatribe about existentialism, but, instead, Marvin’s brains are blown all over the car, which forces them to work with an expert fixer, The Wolf —masterfully played by Harvey Keitel — who has less than an hour to clean up the mess. There’s the expectation that the mistake could turn the whole story upside down, but it doesn’t.
3) The backroom torture scene.
Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis), the boxer who double-crosses Marsellus after agreeing to take a dive, goes into hiding. After returning to his apartment to retrieve a family heirloom, he narrowly escapes trouble, but as he pulls up to a stoplight during the getaway, Marsellus himself is crossing the road. Butch hits Marsellus with the car, a foot chase ensues, and they end up in a nondescript pawn shop. The operators of the shop end up being psychopaths, holding Butch and Marsellus hostage and eventually torturing and raping Marsellus in the backroom. When Butch manages to get free, he has a clear path to the door, but he decides to go back to help Marsellus — with a samurai sword. The scene is so unexpected and disturbing that it completely alters the tone and trajectory of the film.
“Pulp Fiction” is full of witty, larger-than-life characters, Eastern Egg hero homages, ambiguous plot devices (like that frustrating McGuffin briefcase) and cool aesthetics, which are undeniably major parts of the allure, but the catalyst points that spin the narrative make the film unforgettable.