Column by Brian Bowyer
Seeing Pulp Fiction in a theater in 1994 was an amazing experience. I was 21 in 1994, and already a Tarantino fan because of Reservoir Dogs, so I had been eagerly anticipating Pulp Fiction, but it turned out to be better than I thought it was going to be.
It only played for one week, initially, in my hometown of Beckley, West Virginia, but I went to see it three times by myself that week.
The first time, as I sat alone in the theater at the end of the movie, when Jules and Vincent walk out of that diner in those goofy-looking clothes, despite the two-and-a-half-hour runtime, I was like, “No! Come back!” because I did not want the movie to be over. So of course, I had to go see it two more times by myself.
Some films are critically successful, and some films are commercially successful, but few films are both. Pulp Fiction was not only both, but it almost instantly became a part of pop culture. You can basically walk up to anyone on the street and say, “Royale with cheese,” and they’ll know what you’re talking about. Or if you say, “Five-dollar shake,” they’ll know what you’re talking about. Or, “Big Kahuna Burger.” Or, “English, motherfucker! Do you speak it?” Or, “Don’t you just love when you come back from the bathroom and find your food waiting for you?” Or, “Zed’s dead, baby. Zed’s dead.” Or, “Do you ever read the bible, Ringo?”
There’s a lot of spiritual subtext in Pulp Fiction, with each of the three interlocking stories—which are told out of chronological order—all ending with some sort of redemption. But when Pulp Fiction first came out, in 1994, all that anyone seemed to talk about was how violent it was. But there are only seven deaths in the movie.
The three guys in the apartment, in the beginning. Jules shoots the guy on the couch, then turns to the guy on the chair. “Oh, I’m sorry. Did I break your concentration?” That’s one death. Then he and Vincent kill the guy on the chair. That’s two deaths. Then they kill the guy who comes running out of the bathroom shooting at them, but misses. That’s three deaths. Then Vincent accidentally shoots Marvin in the face in the back of the car. That’s four deaths. Then Vincent gets killed by Butch, with his own gun, when he comes out of the bathroom at Butch’s apartment, to which Butch has only returned to get his father’s watch. That’s five deaths. Then Butch kills Maynard with a samurai sword, in the pawnshop basement. That’s six deaths. Then we don’t actually see the seventh death, but we know beyond all doubt that Marsellus Wallace is about to get medieval on Zed’s ass with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch. To quote Butch again: “Zed’s dead, baby. Zed’s dead.” So that’s seven deaths.
Now, of course, there are two more implied deaths that we don’t actually see: the fighter whom—according to Esmeralda the cabdriver—Butch killed in the ring during the boxing match; and the gimp dressed in leather in the pawnshop basement, whom Butch left knocked unconscious, and whom we assume Marsellus will kill after he’s finished with Zed.
But, as I said, there’s a lot of spiritual subtext in Pulp Fiction—like people being saved.
Mia Wallace, being brought back to the land of the living from the land of the dead, after a drug overdose.
Marsellus Wallace, being saved from certain death by Butch, in the pawnshop basement, from which Butch has escaped but returns to, as if returning to Hell to save a sworn mortal enemy, because he cannot abandon him to that fate.
All those potential victims being saved in the diner, when Jules talks Honey Bunny and Pumpkin into putting their guns down and calling off the robbery.
The lives of Jules and Vincent themselves are saved, when all those shots miss them at point-blank range in the apartment, at the beginning of the movie. Jules calls it a miracle, a sign from God, an act of divine intervention, and retires from crime—and lives. Vincent shrugs it off and pays with his life.
Then you have that whole biblical passage that Jules identifies as Ezekiel 25:17, and which he quotes throughout the movie.
And we have that combination on the briefcase—666—which, of course, is a sign of Satan. And though we never know what’s actually in the briefcase, we do know that whatever it is, it emits a golden glow.
And now, twenty-nine years later, we still don’t know what’s in the briefcase, but that was never important in the first place. The only thing that was ever important is the fact that whatever is in the briefcase is extremely important, and that’s all we ever needed to know.
And I also know, all these years later, that Pulp Fiction and Natural Born Killers remain my number one and my number two all-time favorite movies.
Natural Born Killers came out the same year as Pulp Fiction, by the way, in 1994, just a little bit earlier.
I saw Natural Born Killers in August of 1994. When I came out of the theater, I was like, “That is the baddest movie I have ever seen. That is my all-time favorite.” But then I saw Pulp Fiction two months later, in October, and I was like, “Man, I think I like that one just a little bit more.”
Natural Born Killers, in my opinion, is a film that has never gained the immense respectability that it deserves. And sometimes, I think that’s for the best. Some works of art need to remain beyond mainstream acceptance, because they’re just too cool for school. Which also makes Natural Born Killers that much cooler for those of us who know—and have known from the beginning—what a masterpiece this movie truly is.
Natural Born Killers is a hard film to describe. I mean, sure, it’s easy to summarize the tale of Mickey and Mallory Knox, two deranged, psychotic lovers who go on a killing spree and become celebrities in the media, but it’s the moment-to-moment, frame-by-frame texture of the movie that transforms the story into such a chaotic experience. It’s a surreal splatterfest that works as both a thriller and a satire, and Natural Born Killers cackles maniacally in its visual insanity. The camerawork dazzles in this movie, which is shot on film and video, in color and black-and-white. Then, add in the ear-candy of Trent Reznor’s pitch-perfect soundtrack, and you have an almost overwhelming optical and auditory barrage.
This is by far Oliver Stone’s greatest movie, in my opinion. And yes, we all know that Tarantino wrote the original screenplay, and that he was unhappy with what Stone chose to do with it, but I think he turned it into a straight-up masterpiece.
And there are some great performances in Natural Born Killers: Woody Harrelson as Mickey Knox; Tom Sizemore as Jack Scagnetti; Robert Downey Jr. as Wayne Gayle; Tommy Lee Jones as the prison warden; Rodney Dangerfield as the incestuous father. But it is Juliette Lewis as Mallory Knox who towers over this movie, delivering what is—hands down—my all-time favorite acting performance by anyone.
And I know I say that Pulp Fiction is my all-time favorite movie, and that Natural Born Killers is my second favorite, but there are days during which that order is reversed. Some days, I’ll be like, “Brian, you know you like Natural Born Killers more than Pulp Fiction.” But those days are outnumbered by the days I like Pulp Fiction just a little bit more.
But, whatever the order, those two remain—without question—my number one and my number two all-time favorite movies: Pulp Fiction and Natural Born Killers.
Guest Contributor Brian Bowyer
Splatterpunk Award-nominated author Brian Bowyer has been writing stories and music for most of his life. He has lived throughout the United States. He has worked as a janitor, a banker, a bartender, a bouncer, and a bomb maker for a coal-testing laboratory. He currently lives and writes in Ohio. You can contact him at email@example.com.
His books are available here.