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‘Pulp Fiction’ (R)By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 14, 1994
“PULP FICTION” is everything it’s said to be: brilliant and brutal, funny and exhilarating, jaw-droppingly cruel and disarmingly sweet. Quentin Tarantino, the postmodern Boy Wonder of American crass culture, for whom the only thing to fear is boredom itself, has produced a work of mesmerizing entertainment. To watch this movie (whose 2 1/2 hours speed by unnoticed) is to experience a near-assault of creativity.
The multi-plot story, whose almost-Escherian design becomes apparent as the movie progresses, is too involved to outline. Essentially, the film’s a narrative circle of interconnecting, time-jumping episodes, in which various pulp-fictional gangsters, molls and palookas deal with bizarre occurrences in their lives. In the end, everything comes together in a multi-ironic Tarantino reverie. The never-a-dull-moment drama is propelled by its crazy-casting dream team: Samuel L. Jackson is unforgettable as a philosophical killer who quotes Ezekial before his ritual executions. Uma Thurman, serenely unrecognizable in a black wig, is marvelous as a zoned-out gangster’s girlfriend. Bruce Willis is a pug-faced charm as an aging boxer who refuses to throw a fight. And who knew John Travolta would produce the sweetest performance of his career as a good-natured goon?
As with his “Reservoir Dogs,” Tarantino delves into the working-stiff world of crime. For the characters in “Pulp Fiction,” killing, stealing and breaking fingers are merely occupational banalities. Partners Amanda Plummer and Tim Roth discuss whether to keep robbing liquor stores or stick up all the customers in the sandwich shop they’re eating in. (They carry on like a married couple making a mutual career decision.)
Hoodlums Travolta and Jackson—like modern-day Beckett characters—discuss foot massages, cunnilingus and cheeseburgers on their way to a routine killing job. The recently traveled Travolta informs Jackson that at the McDonald’s in Paris, the Quarter Pounder is known as “Le Royale.” However “a Big Mac’s a Big Mac, but they call it Le Big Mac.”
“Come on,” says Jackson, as they approach the room of their victims-to-be. “Let’s get into character.”
With chatty asides like these, Tarantino makes unwilling—and disconcertingly easy—conspirators of the audience, no matter how outlandish the action. In one of the movie’s most harrowing sequences, Thurman has a drug overdose and Travolta—stuck with babysitting her for his boss—has to perform improvisatory surgery. It’s horrifying and oddly funny. As Travolta and drug-dealer Eric Stoltz attempt to revive her with the help of a medical book, the movie enters some out-there combination of Sam Peckinpah-style gruesomeness and “I Love Lucy.”
Tarantino, an L.A. video store clerk-turned-auteur, was raised on filmic bloodletting. Screen violence, assimilated secondhand from such films as “Straw Dogs,” “The Godfather” and “Scarface,” is his most immediate reference point. But he transcends himself by putting brutality in quotation marks, making it traipse hand in hand with absurdity. It may be that, with “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction,” Tarantino has over-mined his muse. Should he make another work remotely like either film, he’ll run the risk of rendering his work commonplace. But for now, his material is witty, ironic and inspired—although the irredeemably squeamish should know to stay away. In “Pulp,” you’ll see what it is to clean up a car spattered with brain gore. But you’ll also see an amusing Harvey Keitel, as a freelance clean-up man (dressed as if for a prom) supervising the icky proceedings. In the film’s most exhilarating showpiece, Willis undergoes an extended, hair-raising suspense ride that includes sword violence, rape, gunfire and torture. After the most brutalizing experience of his life, Willis returns to his girlfriend, who promptly starts crying. Shaken beyond compare, Willis is the one who has to do the consoling.
“How was your breakfast?” he inquires, as pleasantly as he can.
PULP FICTION (R) — Area theaters. Contains almost everything you could possibly take offense to, including profanity, brutality, murder, nudity and male rape.
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