Pulp Fiction: How Tarantino Breaks the Mold of the Reactionary Gangster
In Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), the audience observes a world portrayed from the gangster’s point of view. Only after witnessing the varying behaviors of the main characters in both their work and social environments can the audience truly grasp the complex essence of Tarantino’s characters.
Until the end of the movie, one could possibly write off Jules, played by Samuel L. Jackson, as a heartless and reactionary exemplification of the typical thug. After all, we see this cold-blooded killer execute a man for no other reason than to intimidate and get inside the head of a man who has fallen short on a business arrangement with Jules’s boss, the infamous Marsellus Wallace. But after a “miracle” takes place that results in Vincent, played by John Travolta, and Jules not being shot down by a crazed combatant unloading his gun at the two from only feet away, an observant eye begins to notice a change in the ideological nature of Jules. The final scene in Pulp Fiction, sometimes called “the diner scene,” changes the audience’s perception of Jules and consequently the movie as a whole. This scene disconnects Jules from the expected characterization of the orthodox gangster, solidifying the notion that his role is progressive in nature. Pulp Fiction’s final scene harbors smart dialogue, unrelenting intertextuality, and methodically placed slow-cutting that effectively work against the reactionary portrayal of the standardized thug, while leaving the audience to decipher Jules’s convoluted moral revelation, in an otherwise Godless film.
Tarantino’s seemingly effortless ability to represent unlikely characters in complex and believable ways through dialogue is comparable to none. The character of Jules Winnfield is no exception. The conversation that takes place during the diner scene between Jules, Ringo (Tim Roth), and Yolanda (Amanda Plummer) epitomizes Tarantino’s ability to intimately connect the viewer with any given character through philosophical and thought-provoking conversation. After a long and eventful morning, Jules and Vincent enjoy a lazy breakfast at a local diner. As soon as Vincent excuses himself to use the facilities, a robbery unfolds. In an attempt to relieve Jules not only of his provocative wallet, but also of his glowing briefcase full of mysterious riches, Ringo loses focus long enough for Jules to instinctively grab Ringo’s gun, pull out his own, and consequently gain the upper hand of the situation.
But Jules must now deal with the firecracker Yolanda, Ringo’s accomplice and love interest, who nearly loses control as she imagines the thought of Jules blowing Ringo’s head off into oblivion. When Yolanda realizes that Ringo no longer has his gun, but rather is looking down the barrel of Jules’s, she jumps on top of a booth, points her gun at the man whose finger holds the fate of her Pumpkin’s life, and exerts a fury of inaudible demands and threats towards Jules, who of course has no intention of giving up his newly acquired leverage. Instead, Jules diffuses the situation by alluding to the lovable character from Happy Days, maintaining that all three of them act like three little Fonzies.
This allusion has the viewer beaming, when in real life one would almost surely be paralyzed with fear; that is, when a crazed robber is prepared to shoot you dead, it may not be appropriate to tell her to be cool like the Fonz. This behavior is diametrically opposed to the reactionary portrayal of a gangster. Gangsters do not want to defuse situations peacefully and make you chuckle, they want to kill you and take your things. Tarantino’s ability to make the viewer smile or even laugh at inappropriate times is one of his defining characteristics as a director and writer. This adds to Pulp Fiction’s authenticity, while also furthering the claim that Jules Winnfield transcends the stereotype of a dull and violence driven mobster.
As a career criminal, Jules has killed many people. But since witnessing a so-called miracle earlier in the day, Jules challenges himself to take the harder route by reasoning with Ringo and Yolanda instead of murdering them in cold blood due to inconveniencing him as per usual. But Jules isn’t simply going to let them escape unscathed. Even though he has experienced a moment of clarity, he still must leave these two amateur robbers with a keepsake; that is, if he won’t harm Ringo and Yolanda physically, then he sure as hell won’t let them leave without some psychological abuse. With a loaded gun pointed directly at Ringo’s head, Jules shares the fact that typically before killing his helpless victims he will recant his favorite bible verse: Ezekiel 25:17
The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.
This is traditionally done for the effect; that is, it scares the crap out of people. This time, instead of merely regurgitating the bible verse in a feverishly insane manner before pulling the trigger, Jules slows down and tries to assign meaning to the strange portrayals of the evil man, the righteous man, and the shepherd. Although no killing takes place in the diner, and even though Tarantino’s artistic license drove him to rewrite a Bible verse (you won’t find this quote in your bedside Bible), the scene is no less bone chilling as Jules shares his sobering translation: that Ringo and Yolanda are the weak, while Jules himself is the tyranny of evil men. When Jules follows this up with, “But I’m tryin’ Ringo…I’m tryin’ real…hard…to be the shepherd,” the effect is captivating. The viewer can absolutely connect with this criminal as he wallows through his moral dilemma in an attempt to come to terms with his reality, and perhaps mentally disturb two wannabe robbers along the way.
As Jules begins to expand upon his newfound moral compass to Ringo, the audience experiences numerous 5-10 second point of view shots from both Jules and Ringo. In spite of the fact that Jules does the vast majority of the talking in this scene, we often see reaction shots from Ringo after Jules says something. When one can see Ringo, one can also see Jules’s out of focus gun, hand, and forearm seemingly protruding from the camera’s point of view as if the audience’s range of vision mimics that of Jules.
But as Jules begins to analyze the meaning of Ezekiel 25:17, something strange happens. For nearly 35 seconds, the viewer experiences the mesmerizing scene from a new and distinct angle. Tarantino decides to employ a half-minute long slow-cut that draws out the pure and unadulterated talent exuding from Samuel L. Jackson as he dissects and expounds upon the Bible verse. Contained within this slow-cut is a close-up of Jules’s face, emphasizing the subtle yet haunting facial expressions given off by Jackson. But instead of a shot of Jules from Ringo’s point of view, as was the case with the reaction shots leading up to this cut, Jules is now viewed from a position several feet behind Ringo. This causes nearly half of the mise en scène to be obstructed by the dark anamorphic figure that is Ringo’s out of focus head, a tactic that, while effectively blocking out nearly half of the screen, subsequently forces the audience to engage in a stare-off with Samuel L. Jackson.
After seeing 5-10 second back and forth point of view shots in the exchange between Jules and Ringo leading up to this cut, a 35 second slow-cut from this new angle disorients the viewer, while also emphasizing Samuel L. Jackson’s eloquent use of language and tone. The use of slow cutting as well as Tarantino’s decision to obstruct the mise en scène in this 35 second clip effectively brings extra attention to Jules as he gives his most compelling speech of the movie.
The dialogue, intertextuality, and slow-cutting present in the diner scene all work together to challenge the viewer’s stereotypes with respect to Jules. Without this scene, one might still argue that Samuel L. Jackson’s portrayal of Jules Winnfield is progressive in nature, and this may indeed be true. But the fact of the matter is that this scene solidifies Jules’s entry into the category of a progressive character, leaving one without doubt that the mold of the prototypical henchman has been broken. Pulp Fiction’s smart dialogue grabs the interest of the viewer, and at the same time allows one to feel comfortably immersed into the world being shown. Tarantino’s use of intertextual components contained within his dialogue adds to this feeling of immersion and authenticity. Jules’s final speech regarding Ezekiel 25:17 is highlighted by Tarantino’s choice to employ slow cutting. With nearly half of the mise en scène obstructed by Ringo’s blurry head, the eye’s of the viewer are invariably met with Samuel L. Jackson’s cold and calculated eyes for nearly 35 seconds, thus adding a disturbingly hypnotic dimension to this unimpeachably legendary scene.
By employing this technique, Tarantino leaves the audience with no other choice than to silently work through Jules’s philosophical analysis and subsequent conclusion of his favorite Bible verse, while at the same time challenging the audience to confront their own beliefs, and decide where they fall in terms of the evil man, the righteous man, and the shepherd.
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