5. PULP FICTION (1994)
I love great dialogue. Great dialogue doesn’t just build the plot but also builds character and atmosphere. Great dialogue can define movies. Great dialogue can make characters seem like real people.
It seems to have become a burden for screenwriters to write dialogue and being an occasional storywriter myself, I can agree. Even great screenwriters, such as Christopher Nolan and Stanley Kubrick have a hard time writing colorful dialogue. The biggest challenge of writing dialogue is probably making it sound natural. None of this is a challenge to Quentin Tarantino. He is the Albert Einstein of writing dialogue. Dialogue is the main driving force behind Pulp Fiction. Pulp Fiction’s dialogue is a mix of witty prose, cynical poetry and straight out comedy. Tarantino does a great job at writing jokes without beating up the audience to laugh at them.
Another great part of Tarantino’s euphoric and energetic screenplay is the narrative. Pulp Fiction’s story is actually a very simple gangster story but broken into pieces and mixed up as if it was placed in a blender. It is essentially about two gangsters, Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (an iconic Samuel L. Jackson), who are tasked with finding and bringing back a mysterious suitcase for their boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). Intertwining with this story is one about a boxer named Butch (Bruce Willis) and how his deal with Marsellus went wrong.
Sounds pretty basic, doesn’t it? The film does bring up many mysteries that have provoked discussion: What is inside the suitcase? Why does Marsellus have a Band-Aid on his neck? Why is the combination for the suitcase 666? None of this becomes important because Tarantino’s phenomenal dialogue makes us forget about the necessity of a plot. I confidently think that about 75% of the dialogue in the film is not related to the plot. The opening pieces of dialogue for Vincent and Jules are about weed and cheeseburgers (that sounds like heaven). This does not tell us what is going on but instead very quickly establishes their personality, relationship and even a little bit of their background. When they reach the next major plot point, Jules even says, “let’s get into character”. Pulp Fiction is scattered with moments like this everywhere. Irrelevant conversations that are far more interesting than any of the subplots in the film. Not only are Tarantino’s conversations interesting, they build to something later in the film. Take Vincent and Jules’ discussion about a rumor that Marsellus killed a man for giving his wife, Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman), a foot massage (I know it sounds ridiculous). But later in the film when Vincent takes Mia for dinner upon Marsellus’ request, Vincent asks Mia if the rumor is real. This leads to another interesting conversation and so on, and so on. Quentin Tarantino can make conversations cinematic without using intense music or fast-paced editing or even great actors.
Speaking of great actors, the entire cast does a great job at bringing alive Tarantino’s wacky characters. John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson have amazing chemistry and have both become highly iconic (and funny) gangsters, especially Jackson. Their banter is filled with great comedic timing and energy. Uma Thurman also does a great job at shifting out of the stereotypical mobster’s wife by becoming a far more complex and clever character. The rest of the supporting cast wonderfully assists the main actors by providing a background of characters that are equally nutty. It almost becomes a painting of colors that don’t quite fit together but try their best to.
Pulp Fiction is the film that launched the careers of Quentin Tarantino, Sam Jackson and Uma Thurman while reviving the almost-dead career of John Travolta. After watching so many movies I just realized the true power and effect of Pulp Fiction. It started the “postmodernity” movement of the film industry. It opened up the possibility to toy around with the basic film narrative structure (check out The Usual Suspects and Memento). It brought style back to films and most importantly, it has inspired screenwriters to break the rules and think outside of the dodecahedron. Pulp Fiction is one of the few movies that can pose as an enjoyable audiobook. Just imagine listening to the dialogue of Interstellar for three hours. Yeesh.