Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Film Review | Pulp Fiction (1994)

In Reservoir Dogs, his feature debut, Quentin Tarantino laid down in raw, unbridled fashion what he is about as a film-maker. Pulp Fiction was his chance to refine this style and prove his first film was not just a fluke. History shows that he more than managed this: Pulp Fiction received seven Oscar nominations, with a win for Best Screenplay, and is regularly hailed as both a cinematic milestone and Tarantino's defining work. Eighteen years on, it's still not hard to see why.

The film relates, in nonlinear style, several different stories set in Los Angeles linked by the characters appearing within them, most prominently mob hitmen Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), their gangster boss Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), his wife Mia (Uma Thurman) and boxer Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis).

Pulp Fiction is such a comprehensive success, first and foremost, because of the talent on show here. There  isn't a performance within the film which isn't excellent, and the cast play off each other superbly. It's unfair to single out any individual turn over the others, but there are a few which are so iconic that it's hard not to: this is the film that revitalised Travolta's deteriorating career and that made Jackson a renowned and respected Hollywood star; it also allowed Willis to truly prove he was capable of more than just action roles, his turn as Coolidge being one of the most varied and multi-layered he has ever given, and potentially his best performance in any film. Ironically, the only performance that truly sticks out (although not enough to spoil proceedings) is Tarantino's cameo as Jimmy - his n-word laden speech to Jules and Vincent when we first see him is still cringeworthy, and mainly serves as a reminder as to why Tarantino moved behind the camera in the first place. Thankfully, Harvey Keitel soon shows up to undo any damage with a performance that desperately begs the question as to why the man never made it as a genuinely big star.

The rest of Tarantino's work here is so exemplary that even his dodgy bit part can be wholly forgiven. Part of the charm of Reservoir Dogs is the rough-and-ready feel to much of it; Tarantino showed what he could do with a relatively small budget. With Pulp Fiction, Tarantino had the chance to show off a lot more with a studio behind him. The cinematography here is superb, with every shot considered and crafted to perfection. The director also shows ambition in using more abstract elements in his work - watch Mia draw a square in the air when describing Vincent's attitude, only for it to appear in front of her then disappear with a cartoonish pop. It's kitsch, it's unexpected, it's brilliant.

Tarantino's script fizzes and crackles throughout, his characters speaking in a poetry which oozes cool and perfectly fits the world Tarantino creates within the film. From Jackson's Bible-quoting mobster to Thurman's character saying "disco" where most would use the word "bingo", Pulp Fiction offers some of the finest, coolest writing ever heard in a film. Tarantino imbues his scripts with both contemporary fire and retro ice, making his films simultaneously modern and nostalgic. Pulp Fiction balances this effortlessly, arguably better than any of his other works, giving the film a timeless quality and allowing it to age beautifully.

Pulp Fiction is an incredibly ambitious work and succeeds comprehensively at everything it attempts. It's a film which can be endlessly analysed, interpreted and critiqued, but just taken as a piece of cinema it is purely and simply a masterclass in film-making. There is not a part of this film that doesn't work. Not only that, it cemented Tarantino as one of the defining cinematic talents of the 1990s and showcased both the scope and imagination of his talent.


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