Quentin Tarantino’s films treat talk as action; torrents of words spill out of his characters' mouths, defining and redefining them, in their own eyes and in the eyes of the world. Words as clay, the speaker as sculptor, the rest of the world as spectator, art critic, vandal: this vortex of monologue and dialogue draws the viewer into the curiously theatrical spectacle of people attempting to create, refine, and propagate their own mythology. They are what they say they are, and more, and less. They build themselves up, and the film does, too; then somebody else tears them down, and the film grinds the last remaining pieces of their fragile self-images into powder.
Tarantino has been doing this from the start of his career, from the moment in Reservoir Dogs when the doomed Mr. Brown (played by Tarantino himself) waxed profane about the supposed true meaning of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” then promptly died of gunshot wounds behind the wheel of a getaway car. His second film, Pulp Fiction, moves this tendency into the foreground. Nearly all of the movie’s 150-minute running time features characters talking, talking, talking, about their personalities, their values, their world views, and about other characters, some of whom we don’t get to know—or even meet—for an hour or more. All the film’s major characters are modern, workaday cousins of the Great and Powerful Oz; the film builds them up by having others repeat their (often self-created) legends until they loom in our minds like phantoms, then tears away the curtain to reveal panicked little people desperately yanking levers. “Come on,” Jules tells Vincent in the film’s opening section, “let’s get into character.”
The gang boss Marsellus Wallace is granted a Col. Kurtz-level buildup. Jules and Vincent’s early dialogue about how he threw Tony Rocky Horror out of a window for giving his wife Mia a foot massage establishes that he’s not a man to be trifled with. In the film’s second section, Marsellus orders the boxer Butch to throw a fixed fight, but remains tantalizingly undefined. He’s a big, bald head with a Band-Aid on its neck—a totemic abstraction on par with the fabled briefcase, contents unknown, that emits hellish light when opened. We see him again from the back right after Butch pulls a double-cross, kills his opponent in the ring, and flees with the money he made by secretly betting on himself: again, no face, just a voice and some words. When we finally see Marsellus’ face 95 minutes into the movie, Tarantino instantly demystifies him as a burly man standing in a crosswalk holding a box of donuts—whereupon Butch runs him over. Marsellus’ first close-up represents Pulp Fiction’s storytelling strategy in microcosm: after all that advance press, he’s just a stranger bleeding on the street, his face framed upside-down as if to certify what we already suspected, that his mythology has been suddenly and violently flipped.
Tarantino does this over and over again in Pulp Fiction. Mia Wallace is introduced as a sex goddess monitoring her date, Vincent, via surveillance cameras while mood-setting music (“Son of a Preacher Man”) thrums on the soundtrack, and then speaking to him through a microphone. Until Vincent’s car pulls into the parking lot of Jackrabbit Slims, she’s just a pair of lips and two bare feet, intriguing by virtue of her remoteness and sense of control. She seems a more strange and special person than the woman described earlier by Jules: a failed wannabe-star turned gangster’s trophy. “Some pilots get picked and become television programs,” Jules says. “Some don't, become nothing. She starred in one of the ones that became nothing.” But the date proves to be a complete disaster, as Mia mistakes Vincent’s heroin for cocaine while he’s in the bathroom and nearly dies of an overdose. And about that needle scene: Vincent and his drug dealer Lance’s terrified babbling about the right way to administer a heart injection refutes an earlier conversation in which they tried to make themselves seem like world-weary bad-asses. (Lance on his smack: “I'll take the Pepsi challenge with that Amsterdam shit, any day of the fuckin' week.” Vincent: “That’s a bold statement.”)
Vincent Vega creates a mythology of a globetrotting hipster on a voyage of self-exploration, but as the movie unreels, it becomes increasingly clear that he’s a bullshit artist whose main target of deception is himself. He can’t take criticism, advice or even notes from other people (“You have to ask me nicely,” he tells the man entrusted with cleaning up Vincent’s accidental shooting of Marvin). And when the film’s fractured chronology is rearranged in linear fashion, we realize that the poor bastard learned nothing from the According-to-Hoyle Miracle that stopped the bullets and spared his life. He dies on the toilet reading Modesty Blaise while his buddy Jules—who had a religious experience after the near-miss, and pledged to stop murdering people and “walk the Earth, like Caine in Kung Fu”—lives on. “I was sitting here, eating my muffin and drinking my coffee and replaying the incident in my head, when I had what alcoholics refer to as a moment of clarity,” he tells his friend, who’s locked away so deep inside his own mythology that he doesn’t recognize that Jules has just handed him a second chance, an opportunity to escape, to be free, to live.
“There's this passage I got memorized,” Jules tells Pumpkin, the would-be diner robber who has dared to steal his “Bad Motherfucker” wallet. “Ezekiel 25:17. ‘The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.’ I been saying that shit for years. And if you heard it, that meant your ass. 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 made me think twice. See, now I'm thinking, maybe it means you're the evil man, and I'm the righteous man, and Mr. 9 millimeter here, he's the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could mean you're the righteous man and I'm the shepherd, and it's the world that's evil and selfish. I'd like that. But that shit ain't the truth. The truth is, you're the weak, and I'm the tyranny of evil men. But I'm trying, Ringo. I'm trying real hard to be the shepherd.” – Matt Zoller Seitz
Matt Zoller Seitz is a co-founder of Press Play.