The True Tao of Tarantino: Salvation in the LA Underground of 'Pulp Fiction'
Pulp Fiction: A modern masterpiece, a tour de force in filmmaking, and critic’s darling. Award worthy, award winning, awards robbed. Studied, dissected, analyzed. One of the greatest movies of all time. All of these have been used to describe Quentin Tarantino’s sophomore effort. But there is one thing it has not been noted for until now—traditional story structure.
One thing most people know about Pulp Fiction is it follows a non-linear form of storytelling. This is known as a film’s narrative structure. It is all about the story and the plot, how the storyteller weaves their tale. Then there is the act structure films in general follow either three or five act. In a three-act structure, it breaks down to 1. Setup, 2. Confrontation, and 3. Resolution. The five-act structure breaks down into more defined categories: 1. Exposition, 2. Rising Action, 3. Climax, 4. Falling Action, and 5. Denouement. Pulp Fiction, even with its non-straight forward narrative, still follows this structure. And when viewed with this format, the message of the movie is revealed. And that is one of redemption. It also shows the film has a clear protagonist in Jules Winnfield.
Pulp Fiction in Three & Five Acts
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 attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know My name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee
Following the three-act structure, this is how Pulp Fiction fits within it.
-Act 1: The Setup-
This is in two parts as Jules’ story is set up. The first part is the prologue. It is setting up the events that will take place in the climax. Then there is the Jules and Vincent prelude that not only introduces a view into the world, it sets in motion the journey Jules will take, leading to his dynamic change by the end.
-Act 2: The Confrontation-
Here is where the story takes a bit of an unconventional turn. Most of the second act is told from the perspective of the other characters, coming back to Jules at the end of it. The rising action is fulfilled by Mia, Vincent, Butch, and Marsellus, with Jules back for the crisis.
-Act 3: Resolution-
From here, the movie follows Jules to the very end. Both parts of the first act will be paid off here. There is the payoff off from the Jules and Vincent’s mission to retrieve the briefcase, where the journey to get it back to Marsellus it shown. Then there is the payoff from the diner scene/prologue at the beginning.
Looking at it from the five-act perspective, this is how it would all break down.
-Act 1: Exposition-
Same as Act 1 in the three-act structure.
-Act 2: Rising Action-
Also the same as Act 2 in the three act structure, but in the five act structure takes on the segment titled “The Bonnie Situation,” which is previously part of the third act from before.
The rest what is the final act in the three-act structure breaks down into pieces of the final three acts.
-Act 3: Climax-
The movie reaches its climax with the modified Mexican standoff in the diner. A standoff that includes the four characters from the beginning of the film.
-Act 4: Falling Action-
With falling action, a solution to the issue of the climax is reached. This does not necessarily need to be a favorable one. Here, it is the conversation primarily between Jules and Ringo, with Vincent and Pumpkin contributing here and there. This creates the conditions to resolve the standoff in a way for everyone in the diner to be able to survive it.
-Act 5: Denouement-
With the situation defused, the characters exit the diner; first Ringo and Pumpkin, then Jules and Vincent.
Butch, Marsellus, and The Power of Forgiveness
Judge not, and you shall not be judges.
Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned.
Forgive, and you will be forgiven.
Butch is a washed-up boxer. Marsellus is a crime boss. And this is an unlikely tale of redemption.
Let’s look at each man.
Butch is willing to be paid to take a dive in his next fight, to be bought and paid for by the highest bidder. Then to double cross said bidder by taking the large sum of payoff money, and having a friend bet it all for him on himself for the fight. Finally, in not throwing away the fight, he kills the other boxer in the process. An act he has no remorse for, even blaming his opponent for not being better. And it is this lack of remorse that brings into question Butch’s true nature. It demonstrates he has no qualms with taking a life. He shows this side of himself again when he shoots Vincent without a hint of emotion in his demeanor, or his face. Within minutes of killing the hitman, he’s munching on a Pop Tart, then jamming out in his car to The Statler Brothers “Flowers on the Wall,” almost proud of his feat.
Then there is Marsellus. The film introduces the character through exposition from Jules and Vincent. The audience learns, as the men have a few minutes before they need to start their assignment, Marsellus threw an associate of theirs, Antoine “Tony Rocky Horror” Roccamora over a balcony. And the mission they are on, assigned to them by Marsellus personally, is to retrieve something stolen from him, and execute those as punishment. Marsellus is a cold-blooded killer who will enact his wrath at the drop of a dime, either through surrogates or himself. It is a reputation well established, as indicated when Mia overdoses. Vincent is very quick to point out that anybody with even a tangential contention will be pushing up daisies if she dies, and no one questions the reality of that statement. Even Mia, the man’s own beloved wife, fears what he may do if he were to ever find out.
It is these events and revelations that set up these two men as ruthless and willing to take a life without a second thought or bit of remorse. Including each other. As is displayed in Marsellus ordering Butch’s execution, and willing to scour the earth to do so. (And with the knowledge of Vincent being “Their man in Amsterdam,” he more than likely has the resources beyond Los Angeles to do so) As seen in Butch, who has no problem or recitation in running Marsellus down on the road, in broad daylight, on a crowded street.
When they get to the pawn shop, the viewer has little doubt only one of them will be walking out alive. Yet they, in turn, meet their match in owner Maynard and his partner Zed. When Butch and Marsellus awaken in the basement, it’s like a scene out of a horror film, a personal hell. The gimp, in his bondage suit, is reminiscent in appearance to an executioner. And there is a strong feeling of Deliverance in the atmosphere. Not a good place to be for these stone-cold killer men’s men. And the fact it is set in the basement, below ground, makes it more Hell-like.
When Butch gets a chance to escape, at first, he seizes upon it. But before he can leave the shop, he is struck by a moment of conscience. He decides to save Marsellus rather than leave him to a fate, considered by the most macho of men, worse than death. A man who, just earlier that day, he attempted to kill, and who wanted to do the same to Butch. A man that still has reason to want Butch dead. Yet, he cannot leave him to the purgatory below.
In a shop filled with a myriad of weaponry, what is Butch’s weapon of choice? A katana, the weapon associated with the samurai. The ancient warriors who have become the modern mythological personification of honor. For what but honor would Butch make the decision to go back? He has no guarantees of making it back up from the basement. The odds are greatly against him in that respect. The gimp could wake up. Maynard and Zed could get the jump on him. In addition, Marsellus has no reason to let Butch live. Not only for all the reasons before, but with the addition of him knowing the secret of what when down in that nightmare sex dungeon. A reputation ruining secret this LA crime boss cannot afford to get out. In a film filled with backstabbing, murder, drug use, and various other vices, this is a shockingly pure and selfless act.
One that does not go unnoticed by Marsellus. When Butch inquires how things are between them at this point, Marsellus responses with “Yeah, we cool.” For saving his life, he repays Butch by allowing him to keep his with conditions-never speak of what happened and leave LA by the end of the day forever. A man of Marsellus’ status and position cannot let what went down, or his ability to forgive, even partially, get out. He has his reputation to protect, for his reputation is a major part of his power. But he is also a man of honor, as seen when he helps Jules and Vincent out of the situation with Marvin. Loyalty to the man is of the upmost importance, and gives it to those who show it to him.
Due to this display of honor, Butch gets the closest thing to a happy ending in this tale. He rides off into the afternoon on a sweet ass chopper with a lovely French girl. As Glennon Doyle Melton said, “If no pain, then no love. If no darkness, no light. If no risk, then no reward. It's all or nothing. In this damn world, it's all or nothing.”
Vincent Vega, A Cautionary Tale
For the wages of sin is death
When we first meet Vincent, he is regaling Jules with tales of food and drugs from his years in Amsterdam. Though is originally from L.A., he is now an outsider in the City of Angels. So it should be of no surprise to what his eventual fate would be. Where Butch and Marsellus represent redemption, Vincent is the other side of that coin-damnation. When you view him through the filter of the seven deadly sins, it becomes clear he is the representation of each and every one.
Gluttony. There is no doubt Vincent loves food, drink, and drugs. For a good amount of his screen time, he is either talking about, purchasing, or consuming them. In both the dinner at Jack Rabbit Slim’s with Mia or the diner for breakfast with Jules, Vincent always has the larger portions of the two. The scenes leading up to the chapter “Vincent Vega and Mrs. Marsellus Wallace” show his love for heroin. Not only does he pay $500/ounce for it, he is willing to purchase twice as much if he likes it. Then it’s shown that he is an avid user, as he has a professional grade users kit. The shots of him using the drug are filmed like a love scene. The music, the mood lighting, the lingering shots, and the ecstasy on Vince’s face all invoke a feeling of sexiness and seduction.
Lust. This one is a no-brainer, as there is a whole chapter dedicated to it. The object of his lustful attentions is one Mrs. Mia Wallace. When the viewers initially hear about her, the other characters make it clear that Vincent has no clue what he is in store for. When Paul the bartender asks if he has met her, it is obvious from his and Jules reactions Vincent has not made the acquaintance of “the Big Man’s wife.” All the audience or Vincent knows at this point is she was once in a television pilot, and may have been the reason Marsellus threw someone out a window. After dinner and dancing at Jack Rabbit Slim’s, Vincent finds himself at the Wallace home staring in the bathroom mirror, a visual metaphor of the division he feels for the woman in the other room. Though he ultimately makes the right decision to leave (before he sees she’s overdosed), those lustful feelings are still there when he blows her a kiss at the end of the chapter.
Envy. This one is born out of the previous. As he very much desires Mia, it is natural there will be envy for the man she belongs to. Unfortunately, her husband is his boss. Vincent is quite aware of the type of man his employer is. Yet one must wonder, if self-preservation wasn’t a factor, would he have been able to keep the green-eyed monster in check? Would his coveting of Mia have overridden his loyalty to Marsellus?
Wrath. A noun denoting, “strong, stern or fierce anger; deeply resentful indignation; ire,” or “vengeance or punishment as a consequence of anger.” (Dictionary.com) This is beyond your normal, everyday anger. Vincent is easily annoyed, easily provoked, and easily sent in to a rage. When he is with Lance, he mentions someone keyed his car. Understandably, he is upset about it. But then he says, “It’d be worth him doing it just so I could’ve caught him doing it.” Considering these words are being spoken by a hitman, the consequences for said person would have been painful, drawn out, and fatal. A bit extreme for something that can be fixed with touch up paint and a good polish. Then there is the moment when he and Jules are cleaning Marvin out of the car. Jules is, reasonably, pissed and not wanting to deal with Vincent. In turn, Vince retorts, “I got a threshold…I could blow.” Quick to anger, quick to violence.
Pride. In context, this is overinflated self-love, as when Vincent feels he has been personally attacked. And the attacker is one Winston “The Wolf” Wolfe. The Wolf is there to help Vincent, Jules, and Jules’ friend Jimmy of a potentially volatile situation. When the Wolf is done handing out the assignments, Vincent insists on politeness from their savior; he does not take kindly to someone “barking orders.” It doesn’t matter to him everyone is in this mess due to his incompetence and carelessness. It doesn’t matter to him that without the Wolf’s expertise, they are moving upward on a fecal stream without a manual means of propulsion. What matters to Mr. Vega is he be respected, shown some courtesy, and they respect his authoritah!
Sloth. Lazy. No effort. Doesn’t want to work for it. And all done to a careless extreme. When washing up in Jimmy’s bathroom, he doesn’t take the time to wash his hands properly, bloodying the towel. When he loans Mia his coat, he leaves his heroin in the pocket, which she finds. When at Butch’s apartment, a man they are there to assassinate, he leaves his weapon in the kitchen, unattended.
Greed. This one is subtler, but it is very much a part of Vincent’s makeup. Hints and clues are dropped throughout the film. First is his vehicle. Vincent owns a 1964 Chevelle Malibu Convertible, the top of the line. This is a popular classic car. To purchase one in 2018 in comparable condition as Vincent’s, it runs a cool $47,300 (classiccars.com). To put it in perspective, the 2018 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350 runs $57,240 (ford.com). Then, when the Wolf offers the guys a lift, it is reveled Vincent lives in Redondo Beach. In 2007, the median income for this area was $93,274, and has home prices ranging from $875K to $1M. It’s a pretty nice place. But probably the most revealing evidence is the most overlooked. Marsellus’ hitmen are always carrying fat stacks of cash on them. At Lance’s, Vince whips out a wad of it, and hooks him up with the Benjamins like it’s nothing. The viewers later find out Jules has around $1500 in his wallet for spending cash. They have mad money. So what is Vincent’s beef when Mia orders a $5 milkshake? When it comes to making his boss’s wife happy, and keep said boss from waxing his ass, $5 is getting off extremely cheap. Yet Vincent still grips about the price of the shake.
As the embodiment of the seven deadly sins, he tends to have a habit of nearly taking down anyone in close association to him. The audience first experience this with Mia, as she mistakes his heroin for coke, coming quite near to ODing and death. This in turn drags Lance, Jody, and Trudy into the danger zone. It happens again when he is careless with his weapon and blows Marvin’s head off. This puts Jules, and then Jimmy in serious legal jeopardy. The chronological final instance is when he is at Butch’s apartment. This is the third strike for Vincent, as he pays for it with his life. And it has the residual effect of Marsellus getting run down and nearly beaten to death by Butch, along with everything that went down in the pawnshop. There is a reason these sins are called deadly.
Jules Winnfield, A Man at the Crossroads
And I will execute great vengeance on them with wrathful rebukes, and they will know that I am the LORD when I lay my vengeance upon them.
The brings the film around to the one true protagonist, Mr. Jules Winnfield. From Butch, Marsellus, and Vincent, the paths he has to choose from are laid out. As well as the gains and losses of both. He’s a man with a decision.
In the traditional three act structure, the acts are divided by plot points, with the first dividing acts one and two, and second dividing the second and third. Both plot points are dramatic events that drive the story and protagonist to the end. Both involve Jules, Vincent, and someone coming to a violent end. Plot point one of Pulp Fiction is the shooting of Brent; plot point two is the shooting of Marvin.
So how is it that Jules is the main protagonist of the film? Main character 101 states the protagonist’s journey through the story will cause him/her to have a dynamic change by the end; they will not be the same person they were at the beginning. This change can be minor or great, but the change it will be. And to do that, the character must show the potential for change. As demonstrated, Vincent does not change at all. He doesn’t even make it out of the story alive. The film does not spend enough time with Butch and Marsellus to know if they truly experienced change after their ordeal, and also hints that they will remain the same people they are. This leaves Jules, “our man in Englewood.”
Of all the characters in the movie, Jules is the one who’s main story is told in chronological order. There is the bar scene where Jules does appear, but it is a scene there to serve as a continuation of Vince’s story, and introduce Butch’s. Yeah, the briefcase is finally returned to Marcellus, but was there any uncertainty this would happen?
The first opportunity seen where Jules shows a glimpse of moral fortitude is in the hallway conversation before their job at the apartment. He is clearly disturbed by the incident with Tony Rocky Horror, as well as the assumed reason things went down the way they did. Vincent doesn’t see an issue with his employer’s actions, even equating a foot massage to a type of sexual act. Jules feels those actions were an overreaction, even in conceding Tony may have crossed a line.
The old adage goes “you are what you eat.” In this, Jules does not share his companion’s gluttonous ways. When discussing cheeseburgers with Brent, Jules mentions his girlfriend is a vegetarian, “which pretty much makes me a vegetarian.” If this was just something he did at home to satisfy his woman, it would be one thing. Yet, at the diner later on the same day, he orders a corn muffin. Grilfriend’s not around. Can order anything he wants. And there he is, still choosing the healthy choice.
Jules demonstrate he is one cool cat under pressure. When Vincent blows Marvin’s brains all over the car, Jules is required to take over the situation. He assesses where they are, who he can go to quickly, is the one to make the call to Marsellus. This is also seen back with Brett and his crew. It is obvious which of the two hitmen is in control. He sticks to the mission and does not deviate. When a bump is hit, he is quick on his feet, and can change to fit the new scenario.
Lastly, he knows how to be gracious. In the situation with Marvin’s head blown all over the car and the Wolf is sent to help, he shows the man nothing but gratitude. He listens to and follows everything the man says without question. When the Wolf asks something, Jules answers with sincerity. When Vincent, with his pride, almost runs the Wolf off, Jules is quick to let him know his help is appreciated. When the situation is over, he tells the Wolf, “it was a real pleasure watching you work.” Jules is one bad mofo, yet he shows humility and gratitude to others.
The test of character comes in the epilogue. The views are brought back to where they started, the diner. Jules informs Vincent of his plans to “walk the earth like Caine from Kung Fu,” helping people in need during his journeys. He feels the narrow escape from the harrowing situations they experienced to this point, which all take place in the short span of the morning hours, are a message from God to change his ways. Little does he realize he is about to face one more.
The audience is shown this is the same diner Ringo and Yolanda are contemplating robbing. There now hangs the knowledge of the robbery about to take place in a location containing two professional, seasoned hitmen having a very bad morning.
Vincent is in the bathroom when the robbery begins. Jules, unlike the other patrons, sits cool, continuing to eat his muffin. When Ringo comes to collect his wallet, Jules gives it to him no problem. It is only when the briefcase comes into play Jules takes action against these wet-behind-the-ears criminals. As he tells them, “it don’t belong to me. Besides, I've already been through too much shit this morning over this case to hand it over to your dumb ass.” Faced with potential death, he is still only willing to part with his possessions. He shows respect to Marsellus by protecting his property.
When Vincent returns, a modified Mexican stand off commences. Jules does everything he can to keep the situation from escalating. He is determined everyone in the diner leaves of their own power, something that has not happened in any of the ones the duo has been a part of that morning. He makes his intentions clear when he informs Vincent, when he speaks to Ringo, “I'm not giving you that money. I'm buying something from you…Your life. I'm givin' you that money so I don't have to kill your ass.” Through he specifies the two lovebirds, in reality it is every soul under that roof.
The film spectators then hear Jules recite his Ezekiel 25:17-inspired speech one final time. In this reciting, the Bible verse is quoted correctly. This is significant, as it solidifies Jules’ decision to “walk the path of the righteous man.” As the final act of attrision, he confesses that he is “the tyranny of evil men. But I'm tryin'…real hard to be the shepherd.” Ringo and Yolanda exit, bit richer and much wiser. The hitmen quickly follow. Here ends the career of Jules Winnfield, professional hitman, with out a life lost or drop of blood spilled.
In simple story structure, the protagonist is put through trials that bring dynamic change by the end. And of all the players in Pulp Fiction, this change is most dramatic and deep in the character of Jules Winnfield. In the span of 154 minutes, he goes from lucrative hitman to protector of the weak. When viewed through the lens of straight forward storytelling, it is clear the Pulp Fiction is the tale of one man’s journey to redemption.
© 2019 Kristen Willms