As the casting for Django Unchained solidifies and early rumblings of controversy begin to be felt over the film’s expectedly outlandish subject matter, the question of what, exactly, Quentin Tarantino is after arises once again. Similar questions came about in the press upon the release of his last film, 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, which more than a few were quick to name the Tennessee-born Tarantino’s masterpiece while others laughably deemed it a theoretical form of Holocaust denial.
Such controversial reactions are commonplace in Tarantino’s career, beginning with the torture scene and the use of the word “nigger” in Reservoir Dogs, sparking an over-reported spat with Spike Lee. These minor infractions, however, seemed to become scorched earth in the wake of the overwhelming success of Pulp Fiction, which remains, quite simply, the most influential film of the 1990s. A rapturous, endlessly inventive, and deeply hilarious embrace of immorality, Pulp Fiction dropped racial slurs freely, was powered by curse words, and set out to do nothing less than make an afro-sporting hitman’s batshit spiritual awakening just as moving, if not more so, than Forrest Gump’s tearful speech at Jenny’s grave.
And what’s more, it succeeded. When we first meet Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), he’s discussing a recent trip to Amsterdam, with its hash bars and beer-serving movie theaters, taken by his partner, Vincent (John Travolta). The talk is riveting, witty, and wildly funny, but restrained when considering future conversations about gimps, proper clean-up after blowing a man’s head off, and the links between foot massages and “sticking your tongue in the holiest of holies.”
This is, of course, matched by Tarantino’s bombastically energized sense of movement and framing, helped immeasurably by DP Andrzej Sekula and his late editor, the great Sally Menke. Jules and Vincent are the central figures of the film, but the brilliant nonlinear trajectory of the story strays from them, finding interest in their boss, Marsellus Wallace (a tremendous Ving Rhames), his wife, Mia (Uma Thurman), a scheming boxer named Butch (Bruce Willis), a pair of lovebird stick-up artists (Amanda Plummer and Tim Roth), a sadistic security officer (Peter Greene), the Wolf (scene-stealing Harvey Keitel), and a dope-dealing suburban couple (Eric Stoltz and Rosanna Arquette).
Every scene, at this point, is a classic, but upon revisiting the film, I found the choreography of it all and the studied yet sensationally unpredictable trajectory of the sequences still amazing after all the years of praise. How Butch comes to be forgiven by Marsellus after botching a fixed boxing match is perhaps the most memorable, but consider all the mannerisms and subtle symbolism of Vincent’s night out with Mia. Yes, the dance sequence is still one for the ages, as is the adrenaline-shot scene, but even more so, Vincent’s doped-up wandering through Mia’s living room, to the soulful bop of “Son of a Preacher Man,” speaks volumes not only to the freedom of Tarantino’s narrative, but to Travolta’s oft-questioned talents as a performer. With the possible exception of Trainspotting, there has rarely been such a balanced, honest portrayal of the pleasures and dangers of hard drugs in cinema, the former so blissfully rendered through Vincent’s nocturne drive to the Centurians’ “Bullwinkle Part II.”
It goes without saying that the music is phenomenal, but it’s put to use so skillfully in scenes like this that Tarantino’s ridiculed status as a vinyl-rack junkie seems even more childish than the publicized caricature of the filmmaker. It has, unbelievably, become an even more popular practice to belittle Tarantino’s reference-heavy style, both in his writing and his directing, which seems to be a way of disregarding the director as an artist and chalk him up as more of a facilitator of high-end trash. Such arguments are painfully tedious and seem to completely ignore the fact that the best American directors worked, often solely, in the B-movie mode, but thankfully, in this case, there’s very little need to argue for Pulp Fiction‘s merits, for they have survived and continued to flourish with age. If Tarantino has indeed set his course for the heart of the cinema, reveling in noir, exploitation pictures, war films, and samurai flicks, Pulp Fiction remains the first undeniable marker that he’s on the right track.
Lionsgate has really done a number with this gorgeous AVC-encoded 1080p transfer. Colors pop with near-perfect saturation and the fine detail is consistently remarkable throughout the film. Contrast is very good and black levels are solid. I was particularly impressed with the look of some of the interior scenes, such as the dungeon below the pawnshop and the empty club where Marsellus and Butch shake on it. And as generous as the visuals are, the audio is even more stunning, beautifully handling Quentin Tarantino's retro-heavy music selections. Still, dialogue is crisp and out front, with a beautiful mix of atmosphere noise, audio effects, and tunes by Urge Overkill and Al Green, among others. It gives your speakers a lot to play with and the entire thing sounds seamless. Top marks.
First, the bad news: There's no audio commentary, which you would think would have been a given. But the good news is that the genesis, production, and reception of the film are all covered here pretty damn well. There are three sizable and informative featurettes, the longest of which features interviews with the cast and crew; the shortest of the three features a panel of critics discussing the film's impact. There are a few solid deleted scenes that are at once entertaining and understandably not in the finished project. Tarantino-focused episodes of At the Movies and The Charlie Rose Show are matched by footage of both Tarantino's Cannes and Independent Spirit Awards speeches. The shorter featurettes on production design and between-scenes banter are interesting and highlight the excited atmosphere of the film's production. A stills gallery, enhanced trivia track, and a deluge of trailers and TV spots are also included.
The most influential film of the 1990s makes its highly anticipated bow on Blu-ray, and Lionsgate rises to the occasion with this spectacular transfer and strong supplemental material.