Tyranny and the Righteous Man: A Look at Pulp Fiction

Since its release in 1994, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction has continued to entertain and captivate audiences. With its endlessly quotable dialogue and endearingly twisted humor, the film has established itself as an unequivocal classic and is arguably Tarantino’s finest work. Yet while its popularity is no doubt due to its sheer entertainment value, close scrutiny reveals it as a deceptively simple morality play buried cleverly beneath layers of violence, foul language, and absurdity. It is through the film’s famous non-linear structure along with subtle clues, symbolism, and clever camera work that its themes are revealed.

The opening scene is, of course, a direct lead-in to the final scene. This is an effective framing device as it book-ends the film both literally and thematically. It also helps to give the first-time viewer a frame of reference for the film’s structure, as once we get into the main body of the story, it initially appears we’ve moved past the characters in the opening scene and into a series of unconnected, or loosely connected, vignettes. It also helps to pay attention to the opening titles, as the credit “Stories by” rather than “Story by” hints that there will be multiple narratives. Additionally, halfway through the title sequence there’s an abrupt burst of radio static as the station changes, suggesting a short attention span and a bounce to something else. Already we know we’re in for a wild ride.

Now we meet Julius and Vincent, the most famous and lovable hit men in all of cinema. At first they appear to be having a meandering conversation about nothing relevant, talking about how McDonald’s is different in Europe, and the content of the discussion itself is indeed nonsense. But it’s relatable and it humanizes these men. Aside from being brutal killers, they’re just like everyone else. And of course, Tarantino is setting up the next scene, where the same content will be used in an entirely different way.

Arriving at their destination, Vincent begins asking questions about Mia, the wife of their boss, Marsellus Wallace. At first, it appears to be more irrelevant dialogue, but this conversation will have deep ramifications for what is to come. In the elevator, they discuss the fate of Antoine Roccamora, AKA Tony Rocky Horror, whom Marsellus had thrown from a fourth story window, supposedly for giving Mia a foot massage. The camera tracks with them as they emerge from the elevator, keeping them in a medium shot, while they discuss whether Marsellus was justified in his actions. They arrive at the door, realize they’re too early, and move on down the hall, continuing their discussion. Instead of following them, the camera lingers by the door. This has the dual effect of keeping their ultimate destination hovering in the viewer’s mind, while also allowing the remainder of the conversation to play out in an unconventional composition. Long shots alienate the viewer from the subject, while close-ups are more intimate. Key information is typically conveyed in close-up, or at least medium, but this entire portion of the conversation plays out in a long shot. They’re also framed in a doorway, creating a frame-within-a-frame, giving the moment a fly-on-the-wall quality, like we’re eavesdropping. And the frame is canted slightly, telling us that all is not as it seems. At this point, Vincent’s tone shifts from playful banter to one of gravity. The ultimate effect is to suggest that this is something important – and it is. As he explains to Julius the sexual aspect of giving a woman a foot massage, as well as the implicit betrayal on the part of Tony, he sets up the tension for his own upcoming scenes with Mia. Nestled within Vincent’s assertion of Tony’s betrayal is another tension – between greed and nobility. This is underscored by Julius’s biblical quote (an invention of Tarantino’s) about the good shepherd versus the “inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.” The choice between greed and nobility is the film’s central theme and will determine the fate of the characters.

When at last we get to to crux of this sequence, the McDonald’s dialogue comes back, only this time Julius uses it to intimidate his victim. This motif of seemingly innocuous things like hamburgers and milkshakes as masks for what’s really going on will continue throughout the film. The target of the hit, Brett, stands as he tries to explain himself, but Julius motions for him to sit. With a simple hand motion, Julius establishes his dominance, and then the camera stays low, giving us Brett’s perspective, as Julius looms over him, eating Brett’s food and slurping his drink till it’s empty, all while looking Brett in the eye and telegraphing that it’s all over for him. This is the first of many examples of power plays within the film, and the tension between greed (the weak), power (the tyranny of evil men), and morality (the shepherd) is the core of the entire piece.

Everything thus far has been prologue, and we now move into the main body of the film. As the segment entitled “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife” commences, we take a detour to introduce the character of Butch Coolidge. It saves us time down the road when we get to his story in full, but more importantly, it introduces Marsellus in a tangible way. We get a direct sense of who he is and how he operates. But it’s more of a tease, really. Initially, we’re focused on Butch and we only hear Marsellus’s voice. Our first actual glimpse of the crime lord is the back of his head, with a band-aid at the base of his skull, generating mystery. That’s all we’ll get until later in the film, but it’s enough to build him up for now so that the stakes feel more real as we get into the meat of the segment. There’s also a brief exchange between Vincent and Butch, establishing the animosity between them which will be resolved later.

After a brief bit setting up Vincent’s drug-dealer friend, Lance, we finally introduce Mia Wallace. Our first glimpse of Mia, as with Marsellus, is from behind, once again creating an aura mystery. But in this case, rather than sitting face-to-face with someone, totally at ease, Mia is perched over a control panel like some kind of Bond villain, watching Vincent on a security feed and giving him instructions while using a joystick to follow him with the camera. The immediate impression is that she’s toying with him. She’s not a super-criminal. She’s just the bored wife of one, and Vincent is her entertainment for the evening. Our first glimpse of her face is a close-up of her lips, suggesting sensuality. And next, as she finally joins Vincent, Tarantino keeps the camera in a low tracking shot, following Mia’s bare feet – a direct visual link to the previous conversation about Tony and the foot massage. The sexual tension is immediate and clear, as is the power dynamic between these two.

The “date” takes place at Jack Rabbit Slim’s, a retro diner filled with classic cars and look-alikes of movie stars from the golden age of cinema – the era when the sort of lurid crime novels on which the film is based were popular. It is divided into two segments. The first is filled with the sort of nonsense talk that made up the first scene with Vincent and Julius, but instead of a display of easy camaraderie, here it consists of forced small talk and discomfort. As with the previous scene, though, we’re setting things up for later. We’ve already learned that Mia starred in the pilot episode for a TV show that didn’t get picked up. Now we learn that her character would have had a running gag where her character had picked up a bunch of jokes from her vaudeville performer grandfather and that she would have told a different joke in each episode. Since only one show got made, she only ever got to say one joke. Vincent wants to hear the joke, but Mia refuses to tell him, because she’s afraid she’ll be embarrassed. He presses her, but she refuses, exerting a different, less sexual kind of power over him, but one which is still a sort of forbidden fruit. The small talk fizzles into an awkward silence where Vincent and Mia are framed in profile, heightening the uneasiness. Mia says she’s going to the restroom to “powder her nose,” a fun little euphemism as she snorts cocaine for the second time this evening. Before leaving the table, she tells Vincent to think of something to say while she’s gone. This serves as the dividing line between the two segments.

When she gets back, Vincent has thought of something to say, though he’s initially reluctant to say it. She presses him and he reluctantly asks her what she thinks of Marsellus pushing Tony out of a window. We learn from Mia that Tony did not give her a foot massage after all, and she doesn’t know why Marsellus pushed him. But since the incident is still on Vincent’s mind, it must be weighing heavily on him. When focused on Vincent, Tarantino keeps the camera at eye level, even though Vincent can’t seem to look Mia in the eye. But when we’re looking at Mia, it’s a low angle. Mia still has the power here. The power to impart information or not. The power to give Vincent what he wants or not. The tension is broken when a dance contest is announced and the two of them take to the floor in a beautifully composed profile shot where the background frames the two of them in wonderful symmetry. And Mia is still barefoot.

Returning home after winning the trophy, Mia and Vincent are still dancing, having evidently broken the ice, and as he dips her, they share a moment. The sexual tension is on the rise, and Vincent retreats to the bathroom to talk himself out of screwing his boss’s wife. Mirrors in film are a commonly used device, often indicating introspection or sometimes duplicity. Here, Vincent speaks to his reflection of loyalty, returning to the central theme of honor versus selfishness. Earlier, the drug-dealer Lance, who made a point of calling Vincent a friend, was visible reflected in a mirror during their conversation, indicating duplicity. It is the drugs Vincent bought from Lance that cause Mia to overdose. Vincent calls Lance for help, but Lance refuses, dodging responsibility for his part in this and fulfilling the foreshadowing set up by the mirror. When Vincent crashes his car into the front of Lance’s house, causing some damage, it makes for a nice comeuppance. In a tense scene, they save Mia with a shot of adrenaline. With Mia looking considerably worse for wear, and sex decidedly off the table, Vincent takes her home. Before he leaves, Mia tells him the joke from her TV show. The exchange is something real and heartfelt. They’ve bonded in a way far more meaningful than if they’d just had sex. And Vincent has kept his honor – at least as far as Marsellus goes.

This theme of honor versus greed continues in the following segment, entitled “The Gold Watch.” We return to Butch Coolidge and learn of the heirloom which has been in his family for several generations. But where Butch’s ancestors were all war heroes, having achieved honor by fighting for their country, Butch is just a second-rate boxer at the end of his career, and much to his own distaste getting paid by Marsellus Wallace to throw his last fight. In the end he can’t go through with it, breaking the pact he made in favor of pride – and the alternate deal he made with another bookie. But the gold watch still has deep meaning for him, and not just sentimental meaning. It is a link to the nobility of his forebears that he himself was never able to achieve. So when it turns up missing, he has to go back for it, seeking something he hasn’t earned but desperately needs. By a twist of fate, he catches Vincent off-guard. The animosity set up earlier comes to a head, and Vincent meets his fate, murdered by his own gun. This is significant, and will tie in at the film’s finale.

At last we get our first look at Marsellus’s face in a nice little homage to Alfred Hitchcock. Butch, driving back to get his girlfriend before leaving town, sees Marsellus crossing the street, who stops and sees Butch. The staging and the framing are identical to the scene in Psycho when Marion encounters her boss while fleeing town after stealing the money. The best films deliver the unexpected, and after a suspenseful chase down the street, we veer right into bizzarroland as the fight between Butch and Marsellus is interrupted and they fall into the clutches of some weirdos who seem like something out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Butch manages to escape, and at last reaches the turning point of his arc. It would have been so easy for him to just leave his enemy to his fate, but he can’t bring himself to do it. Reclaiming his honor, he selects a weapon for the rescue. As he goes through several possibilities, the choice is significant. We go from hammer to baseball bat to chainsaw, and each of these weapons is more effective than the last, but finally Butch settles on the perfect selection: a samurai sword. The weapon of a noble warrior. And Butch is rewarded for this nobility. He still has to leave town – Marsellus has to save face – but he will no longer be hunted. Butch can live out his days in peace, knowing that at last he has earned the gold watch through the honor of the battlefield

In the film’s final segment, “The Bonnie Situation,” the arcs of Julius and Vincent converge in a perfect showcase of the central themes. We loop back to the beginning, resuming the sequence where we first met them. We pick up just as they’re about to finish off Brett. The first sequence concludes with Brett’s death, and as bullets riddle his body, there’s a series of quick dissolves to flash frames before a final dip to black as his life fades. We’re experiencing that moment from his perspective. He reaps the rewards of his life of crime and dies by the sword, as it were. He doesn’t get to see what comes next. But now we’re seeing it from the perspective of Vincent and Julius. Examining information the film has already given us from new perspectives will be the dominant motif of the remainder of the film. There’s one final exchange of gunfire as one of Brett’s friends bursts in, emptying his gun. He has them dead to rights but somehow every shot misses and the two hit men gun him down. Julius becomes convinced that only divine intervention could have saved them, and it has a profound effect on him.

The following portion of the segment, in which Vincent accidentally kills the sole survivor of the massacre, is largely played for laughs, but there are still some interesting things going on. We get to see the difference in character between Julius and Vincent. Marsellus dispatches a fixer known as the Wolf to bail them out. The Wolf bursts onto the scene, wasting no time and and taking care of business, doling out jobs to everyone involved. Julius is respectful and appreciative of the help, but Vincent gets uppity, demanding respect that he hasn’t earned. This is after all his fault, accident or no. This speaks to his inner self-involvement and weakness of character. He may show loyalty to his boss, but in all other respects he’s kind of a jerk – in addition to being a criminal.

There’s also another nice fly-on-the-wall moment as the Wolf speaks with Jimmie, the owner of the house where they’ve brought the body. The camera is placed in the hall and we’re looking through a doorway at the Wolf, while Jimmy is only partially visible, sitting on the bed across from him. Jimmy argues about using his best linen, an irreplaceable wedding present, to cover up the blood in the car. But when the Wolf flashes a wad of cash, suggesting that the gift givers would no doubt love for him to have a beautiful new oak bedroom set, Jimmy immediately caves. To Jimmy, money is obviously more important than sentimentality. The camera switches to a profile shot for this exchange, bringing us into the moment and leaving us to ponder what we’d do in Jimmy’s place. Yeah, we’d probably take the money.

With the Bonnie situation neatly wrapped up, and sporting the ridiculous clothes we saw them in earlier, thus answering the question of why they were dressed like that as well as helping us to place the current sequence chronologically, Vincent and Julius decide to grab some breakfast. Sitting in a diner, they return to the question of divine intervention and Julius reveals that he’s chosen to give up his life of crime. Vincent thinks this is ridiculous, and it is indeed played comically, with Julius alluding to becoming like Kane in the TV show Kung Fu, but things turn serious while Vincent takes a bathroom break – and is seen reading the same book he has with him when Butch kills him, reminding us of his fate. The armed robbers return and we realize we’ve returned to the opening scene, once again looking at something from a different perspective. During the ensuing standoff, with everyone pointing guns at each other, Julius refuses to give up the case belonging to Marsellus – honor among thieves – but more importantly, demands his own wallet back while giving the money inside to Ringo. Julius tells Ringo he’s buying Ringo’s life, and he recites the fictional Bible passage from the earlier scene. Once again, we’re looking at something from a different perspective. What was previously just a way to intimidate his victims has now taken on deeper meaning for him. After surviving something that should have killed him, Julius experiences an awakening and makes a choice. He spares Ringo, choosing the path of the righteous man rather than aligning himself with the tyranny of evil men. This sets him apart from Vincent, who has chosen to continue his life of crime. As they exit the film, what awaits Julius is for him to decide, but we already know Vincent’s fate. The moral is clear and simple and encapsulated in that Bible passage.

That the film’s core theme should manifest as a bible passage, even a made-up one, is worth examination. There is a fan theory that the glowing contents of the mysterious briefcase are actually Marsellus Wallace’s soul. It sounds absurd, but the theory is not without merit. When Vincent opens the case and sees what’s inside, he pauses, momentarily breaking the persona of the unflappable murderer to puff on his cigarette and gaze at the contents of the case, his face bathed in golden light while a low rumbling sound fills our ears. It’s not drugs or money in the case – that wouldn’t provoke such a reaction in Vincent. When Ringo gets a look inside, he gawks and says, “Is that what I think it is?” and then, “It’s beautiful.” Like Vicent, Ringo would not be so stunned by drugs, money, or even bars of gold. No, there’s something very special in that case. Then there’s the band-aid on Marcellus’s neck, presumably covering the wound where the soul was extracted. And of course there’s Marcellus’s detached demeanor, like someone lacking humanity, lacking a soul. Lastly, the combination to open the case is 666. Maybe Marsellus made a deal with the devil? Another theory is that the briefcase contains the diamonds from Reservoir Dogs, and there’s some evidence for this as well, since it is implied and Tarantino has confirmed that Vincent Vega is the brother of Mr. Blonde from the earlier film. While the briefcase did contain diamonds in an early draft, that concept was ultimately abandoned. This is one question the film leaves deliberately unanswered. In fact, the briefcase is a direct reference to the 1955 noir film, Kiss Me Deadly, in which the MacGuffin is a box with glowing contents. Does the briefcase in Pulp Fiction contain diamonds? Could be. Does it contain Marsellus Wallace’s soul? Maybe. I can’t refute any of that conclusively. But it’s never explicitly established, so it can’t ever be part of a definitive interpretation of the film. Tarantino has said that the contents of the box were left mysterious on purpose, so personally I think that it is really just an homage.

Despite the debate over the contents of the box, it remains a fact that there are references to the Bible in the film, and for many people, morality and religion are inexplicably linked. Pulp Fiction, for all its delightful quirks and in-jokes and references, is in the end a simple morality tale. But it is one that is so expertly crafted, in terms of narrative as well as visual style and symbolism, that it emerges as more than the sum of its parts. The combination of all these elements will ensure that this film will continue to enjoy its status as a time-honored classic that will be remembered for many years to come.