Welcome to one of the most Googled props in cinematic history.
Even decades years later, people are still debating what's in the briefcase. We've all seen the astonishment of Jules and Ringo as they stare into its glowing content…so…what is it?
Answer: two battery packs and a lightbulb.
Okay, fine. Let's suspend disbelief for a second. This is a movie, after all, and what you don't see isn't actually there. So let's talk about what could be in the briefcase, with the help of a few popular fan theories.
The first possibility is that it contains diamonds (they're pretty shiny, right?). This was actually the first idea that writers Tarantino and Avary had—they were probably supposed to be the same diamonds from Reservoir Dogs. But then the writers thought diamonds was a bit cliché, so that idea went out the window (source).
Possibility #2? Some people have suggested it's the gold Elvis suit from the Tarantino/Avary film True Romance. Again, a good reason for it to be glowing yellow, and we all know Tarantino likes referencing his own movies in his other movies.
And finally, the fan favorite: the briefcase contains Marsellus Wallace's soul.
Yep. Marsellus has sold his soul to the devil, and now he is trying to get it back.
You probably want some evidence. Sure thing. For starters, we see in Brett's apartment that the combination of the briefcase lock is 666—the Biblical number of the devil. That would also explain the divine intervention that Jules witnesses, because of course God would intervene to help someone rescue their soul from the devil's grasp. And finally, we have the Band-Aid on the back of Marsellus' head. That's is the spot where the devil extracts your soul from your body according to…um, according to…well, no one aside from random online people writing on forums (source).
Ultimately, the briefcase is really a MacGuffin —and a pretty good one, considering all the theories it's generated. A MacGuffin, a term popularized by director Alfred Hitchcock and often used in a derogatory way to describe a cheap tactic in storytelling, is an object that the characters of a story pursue in order to drive the plot forward. Essentially, its significance is of a driving force and really has no importance inside the narrative itself.
In this case, a MacGuffin is exactly what Tarantino wanted. In interviews, he's confirmed that inside the briefcase is "whatever the audience wants it to be" (source).
We're going with a gold-leaf Kahuna Burger.
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 you.
There's Jules' favorite Bible passage in all its glory.
Jules takes some poetic license with the passage, though, probably to amp up the effect. Here's Ezekiel 25:17 from the NIV Bible: "I will carry out great vengeance on them and punish them in my wrath. Then they will know that I am the LORD, when I take vengeance on them." That Old Testament God can be as scary as Jules sometimes, eh?
Many sources attribute this faux verse to Tarantino, assuming he invented it as part of the script. But those people have never seen the 1976 English version of the 1973 Japanese martial arts movie Karate Kiba, a.k.a., Chiba the Bodyguard, starring everybody's favorite mid-'70s martial arts hero, Sonny Chiba. Wait, you've never heard of it either? Well, lucky for you that Tarantino is the ultimate movie fan (watching them, not just making them), so he wrote the intro of Chiba the Bodyguard into Pulp Fiction with just a slight variation. Check it out for yourself here.
We're not kidding—that's the real introduction to the movie.
Jules himself gives us a few different interpretations of why he uses this passage. At first he says it was "just a coldblooded thing to say" to someone before he shot them. Since the miracle, he's been asking himself: Who is the righteous shepherd? And who is the tyranny of evil?
Now, Jules would love to be the shepherd, but he knows he's not shepherd (probably because he kills people for a living), and he's certainly not the weak since he's the one with the gun. He has control of the situation with Ringo in the diner and with Brett and the boys. That makes Jules, as much as he hates it, the tyranny of evil.
This realization causes him to give up his life as a gangster and try to become a shepherd; and what better place to start than shepherding the man right across the table from him. Ringo makes it out with $1500+, his life, and a nice little lesson.
Christopher Walken (er, the character he plays) may not play a major role in Pulp Fiction, but he has the honor of delivering a very important (and hopefully recently sanitized) item to the young Butch: his great-grandfather's gold watch.
The watch itself has obvious sentimental significance for Butch because it's been passed down through generations of his family. So the literal meaning of the watch is as a plot device, forcing Butch to return to his apartment where thing start to go downhill fast.
But the gold watch also seems to represent meaning in Butch's life—a life that otherwise doesn't have much meaning apart from survival and making money. As Butch tells Esmarelda, "I'm an American. Our names don't mean shit." The watch is a link to the men in his family whose life did have meaning. They were soldiers, men of honor who fought for their country and endured POW camps. Going back to retrieve the watch leads to the storyline in which Butch retrieves meaning and honor in his life by saving Marsellus.
No, it's not the same sword from Kill Bill—sorry, Tarantino conspiracy theorists.
But the Japanese sword that Butch chooses to dispatch Maynard still has some symbolic significance. In fact, it's related to the importance of his gold watch, which connects Butch back to a time in his family when men were heroes instead of palookas.
Butch considers a few other weapons before settling on the sword: a baseball bat, a chainsaw, and a hammer. Definitely ordinary objects. But he chooses something extraordinary to begin his redemption: a sword that's part of a culture that had a deeply embedded code of honor. Unlike Butch's, which up until this moment didn't have much of a moral structure at all.
By choosing the katana, Butch aligns himself with the other heroic warriors in his family as he chooses to rescue Marsellus instead of leaving him to a horrible fate. He's getting a look at some greater meaning beyond his own survival. (Source.)
Confederate flag? What confederate flag?
Well, it's just a quick shot in a very busy scene; it's easy to miss. But right as Butch pauses, halfway out the pawnshop door, we see behind him a confederate flag on the wall hanging right next to the American flag.
Is it just a coincidence that, in the scene where we see the confederate flag, we have a white man contemplating the rape of a helplessly bound black man being carried out by two men whose accents sound distinctly southern? It sounds like a bit of a stretch to say Butch's rescue of Marsellus is an allegory for racial injustice but, then again, the confederate flag probably isn't just chillin' there for no good reason. Tarantino doesn't do that. We'll leave the interpreting up to you.
There's a lot of bathroom action in Pulp Fiction. There's even more speculation about why there's a lot of bathroom action.
It's one of Tarantino's favorite settings in his films. Vincent seems to spend half his life there. Characters in Pulp Fiction go there to read, snort cocaine, hide from killers, and talk to themselves in the mirror.
In fact, characters usually come out of the bathroom to find that their world has imploded. Vincent comes out at one point to find that the diner's being robbed and Jules has a gun pointed at him. Another time, he finds Mia dying of an overdose. Brett's friend comes out to find his buddies dead and Jules and Vincent miraculously alive.
Sharon Willis, Professor of Visual Studies at the University of Rochester, sees the meaning of the bathroom as as a place where we get dirty and we clean up—two important themes of the film, doing bad stuff and then getting redemption or grace. She also views it as a metaphor for "getting caught with your pants down," like being totally unaware of what's about to happen to you (source).
And that's exactly what Tarantino wants his audiences to feel like when they watch his movies. One minute we're watching some conversation about whether miracles happen or not, the next we're seeing Marvin's brains splattered all over the car.
We apologize in advance to anyone who's ever made relationship decisions based on Seinfeld reruns or switched to GEICO because of the gecko or bought a skirt you saw Kim Kardashian wearing.
It hasn't escaped Shmoop's notice that Pulp Fiction is loaded with pop culture references and symbols. Jules and Vincent talk about Big Macs; we hear references to the band Flock of Seagulls, the Fonz, TV shows "Green Acres," and "Kung Fu." Then there's Jack Rabbit Slim's, where every 1950 pop culture icon is on display from Zorro to Buddy Holly.
The smart folks over at metaphilm believe that pop culture items abound in Pulp Fiction because the main theme of the film is meaninglessness. No, they don't mean the film is meaningless, just that it's about nihilism, which is a belief that nothing really means anything, there are no moral rules, no higher authority, we don't know anything, etc.
Kind of what we felt like after the "Breaking Bad" finale.
Their point is that all the pop culture references are there because Tarantino's talking about the meaninglessness of contemporary American life, where pop culture—trivial stuff that doesn't last long—is all people have to go on because they don't have any other guiding principles.
BUTCH: It's a very pretty name
ESMARELDA: It means "Esmarelda of the wolves."
BUTCH: That's one hell of a name you got there, sister.
ESMARELDA: Thank you. And what is your name?
ESMARELDA: Butch. What does it mean?
BUTCH: I'm an American, our names don't mean shit.
No higher meaning, no higher authority. We've got a movie about criminals and murder without a single cop in it. (Zed? Zed's just a security guard. And we see how much that means.)
Even Jules, who spouts Biblical verses that are anything but pop cultural, has no idea what they mean. Now, a person could definitely make some moral decisions based on those verses from Ezekiel, but not Jules, at least not in the beginning of the film. For him, they're just a cool thing to say before he shoots someone. Vincent and Jules only have one guiding principle in their lives—do what Marsellus tells them. Things have value only because Marsellus says they do.
The metaphilm folks think that the movie's about Butch and Jules' progress towards finding a larger meaning and rejecting the superficial nihilistic culture where our only teachers are TV shows and celebrities. Butch eventually goes beyond his usual moral system when he rescues Marsellus (who wants to kill him, btw) from Maynard and Zed. He even puts himself in danger to do it, and he chooses a weapon with huge moral symbolism—a samurai sword. (Source)
Butch gets rewarded for his progress. Marsellus calls it even and won't hunt him down. He's free to go back to Knoxville with Fabienne, riding a motorcycle named, appropriately enough, "Grace."
Jules rejects nihilism when he survives a hail of bullets and believes it's divine intervention, a message from God to quit the life of crime. For the first time, he starts thinking about the meaning of that passage from Ezekiel and how it might give him some ideas about how to live his life. He doesn't talk to Vincent anymore about Big Macs or Dutch hash bars or foot massages—he talks about God and salvation. He actually uses his new understanding of the passage to make some moral decisions, that is, not to kill Ringo and Yolanda.
Jules gets rewarded, too. Well, we assume he does; at least he stays alive. Vincent, who stubbornly sticks to his old worldview and insists that there was no miracle and no message, stays in the criminal life and is dead by the following day.
All this philosophizing about the meaning of pop culture in Tarantino's films—the emptiness, the superficiality, the lack of moral meaning—makes for a great essay in your Intro to Film Studies class. But what does Tarantino have to say about why there's so much of it in his films?
Graham Fuller: Why do you think that pop culture, comics, and movies themselves proliferate in your scripts?
Tarantino: I guess it just comes from me, what I find fascinating. If I have an interesting take on it, it's not that I'm necessarily lacing it with irony or showing it to you so I can laugh at it. I'm trying to show the enjoyment of it. (Source)
Oh. It's because he likes all that stuff.
Well, what does he know?
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
The ordinary worlds for our characters are rooted in their dialogue. Vincent and Jules' first scene is a great example, because we see them have some normal, fun, everyday conversation filled with pop culture and personal anecdotes…even though they're about to kill some dudes.
The ordinary world for hired criminal guns isn't so far removed from our own.
There really aren't any calls to adventure in any of our stories. Each of the characters acts in his or her own best interest, with the exception of Jules, whose talk with Ringo is motivated by an occurrence he considered divine intervention, prompting him to want to travel the world.
However, this call to adventure is more the start of a new story than it is a beginning to this one.
With no real calls to adventure, it's hard for any of them to refuse the call: Butch is trying to make some money, Marsellus is being a crime boss, Vincent and Jules are being the hired guns they are.
You could argue that Vincent's disbelief in the divine intervention is a sort of refusal, but instead of returning to accept the call to adventure he gets shot and dies so…it doesn't really work out.
Some of these characters could sure use some mentor meetings, but unfortunately there's not a whole lot of wisdom or guidance being shared. That is, until the final scene where Jules gives Ringo a talking to. Unfortunately, this is the last we see of Ringo's story, so who knows how it pans out?
Most of our characters are just sort of doing their thing when stuff gets messed up. But Butch is the one character who brings about his adventure through his own actions. His double crossing Marsellus to win the fight and make some money is his moment of crossing the threshold from washed up boxer to criminal on the run.
The unfortunate circumstances surrounding Marvin and Mia are certainly the best examples of tests and allies in the film. Both these jobs are supposed to be easy, straightforward tasks that are complicated by a shooting and an overdose. In both instances our characters rely on other characters (Lance and Jimmy) for help…though their loyalty is called into question.
Let's focus on Butch's story for this one, because it's the most obvious. His approach involves snagging his father's watch, shooting Vincent, and getting out before coincidentally running into Marsellus. These events (and the crazy chase that follows) leads to an Ordeal in the pawn shop basement.
Bound together by Zed and Maynard, Butch manages to escape his bonds as Marsellus is raped in the other room. Just as he's about to leave, he has second thoughts about leaving his nemesis to the wolves.
Seizing a sword, he returns to kill their captors and free his enemy.
For freeing Marsellus, Butch is rewarded his freedom (with stipulations of course). His moment of empathy during the Ordeal has shown us he isn't just a no-good, thieving, killing conman, and his morals resurrect him both in the eyes of Marsellus and the eyes of the audience.
While Butch splits after his ordeal, we get to hang around with Jules and Vincent as they think about theirs over some breakfast. Jules is convinced that God has saved his life and he must stop his violent ways…while Vincent thinks it's all a bunch of bologna. It's this theistic debate that they're in the middle of when Ringo and Yolanda take the floor.
Throughout the film, Jules and Vincent have been the bad guys, even if we don't think of them that way. But when Ringo and Yolanda hold up the diner, it's Jules' chance to turn from criminal to hero…sort of, kind of. He gives a nice speech, anyway.
In some ways, you could say the death of Vincent is symbolic of Jules' triumph. Had he not presumably quit his job to travel the earth, it could have been him—or both of them—that Butch kills in his apartment.
Instead, only Vincent, the nonbeliever, is killed. Jules' religious revelation is his salvation.
Yes, believe it or not, this is the '90s. The music and cultural references might trick you into thinking the film takes place in the '50s but we're in the '90s and we're in Los Angeles. The only reason we know it's L.A. is that Marsellus tells Butch to not come back because he's lost his L.A. privileges (because it's apparently a privilege to live in a crowded, polluted, expensive, metropolitan area). There aren't any sprawling shots of the city. Most of the scenes take place inside an interior set.
So the geographic setting of Pulp Fiction isn't all that important. To be honest, though, there is an L.A. vibe; lots of noir films were set in L.A., with its seedy neighborhoods and marginal types of people. If you want a city that suggests shallowness and obsession with pop culture, L.A.'s as good as any.
Quick—name the only character that appears in all three parts of the movie.
Time's up. Answer: Vincent Vega.
Two of the sections, his night out with Mia and the Bonnie Situation, are very much about him. Of course, he's also with Jules in the diner sequence and thanks to his brief appearance in Butch's apartment, that leaves him as our singular character connecting together the three interlocking stories of Pulp Fiction. (Maybe that's why Travolta was nominated for Best Actor to Jackson's Best Supporting Actor.)
Tarantino's storytelling in this film is completely non-linear. In the last scene, the characters walk into a situation that was the first scene. Why? Would it have been so bad to start with the "Royale with Cheese" and end with Butch, Fabienne, and Grace, like the arrow of time intended it to be? Tarantino keeps doubling back on the story, doling out info about the characters and the plot in a disjointed and piecemeal way, leaving us to try to figure out what's happening when. Here's what he said about it in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine:
Part of the fun of Pulp is that if you're hip to movies, you're watching the boxing movie Body and Soul and then suddenly the characters turn a corner and they're in the middle of Deliverance. And you're like, "What? How did I get into Deliverance? I was in Body and Soul, what's going on here?" (Source)
So the narrative style does a bunch of things:
The nonlinear narrative also lets Tarantino focus on character development rather than story. Each character shines in one or another of the stories; they own the story. If everything had been in order, we might be carried along by the story and pay less attention to the characters. It's also easier to appreciate the visual effect of the film if you don't have to worry about the story and just let the film happen to you. Would we be able to watch that final diner scene in the same way, not knowing that Vincent is a dead man walking? The shift in chronology changes how we learn about the characters just like our view of the characters changes how we feel about each story.
Quentin Tarantino has been called a cinematic kleptomaniac. He borrows constantly from all genres because he loves all genres. A true video geek from an early age, he'd watched just about everything, and his legendary stint as a video store clerk gave him a deep appreciation for the genre film.
As it often is in the classic "pulp" genre, Pulp Fiction is first and foremost a crime movie. Tarantino said he started out with the cliché crime stories everyone's seen a million times: the mob boss' sexy wife who you don't touch on pain of death; the boxer who's supposed to throw a fight and doesn't do it; the hit men who rain lead on everyone; the crime couple on the run. (Source)
But Tarantino subverts the crime genre. He makes it comical; he has hitmen who just won't shut up; his couple on the run are idiots; the boss' wife isn't at all what you'd expect; his boxer finds redemption; the mob boss gets into the ultimate non-cool situation.
Tarantino always had a fondness for exploitation films. These films have been called the "delicious, forbidden sleazy underbelly of cinema" (source). They're typically low-budget productions made simply to capitalize on a popular trend in the movie industry. If everyone loves sexy vampire movies, then throw together a rough film for a few million and make some of that sweet blood money. Exploitation films are usually characterized by over-the-top sex, violence, or freakishness.
Exploitation films have lots of subgenres. Pulp Fiction draws briefly from the biker film subgenre, as well as the Blaxploitation movies of the 70s, like Shaft and Cleopatra Jones, which had all the same characteristics of exploitation films but were made with an urban black audience in mind.
This is the slang name for westerns made in Italy (because pasta) that were popular in the 1960s. These films made Clint Eastwood a star, beginning with A Fistful of Dollars. Director Sergio Leone had huge success with that movie, and more spaghetti followed. Eastwood said:
"I think [the Leone films] changed the style, the approach to Westerns [in Hollywood]. […] They made the violence and the shooting aspect a little larger than life, and they had great music and new types of scores. […]. They just had a look and a style that was a little different at the time: I don't think any of them was a classic story—like The Searchers or something like that—they were more fragmented, episodic, following the central character through various little episodes." (Source)
Fragmented, episodic, great score, larger than life violence—you can see why Tarantino described Pulp Fiction as a "rock 'n' roll spaghetti western with the surf music standing in for Ennio Morricone" (source).
What's up with the title? Quentin has that covered in the opening credits. The first thing we see on the screen is a definition of pulp. "Pulp" could mean "a soft, moist, shapeless mass of matter," which sounds pretty gross so we just like to think of fruit pulp, like, the stuff that some people don't want in their orange juice (because we all know the best kind of juice is the least natural; everyone loves Capri Suns).
Okay, so that's one kind of pulp, but the movie also gives us a second definition: "a magazine or book containing lurid subject matter and being characteristically printed on rough, unfinished paper."
We're starting to get an idea of what the movie's gonna be like.
Pulp magazines were sort of the Marvel movies of the mid-20th century. They weren't very artistic or original but they were a big part of pop culture. The subject matter was over-the-top sultry and often involved crime/detective type narratives because what's not to like about crime and sultriness? Also it's probably not too hard to write serial installments of it.
With the introduction of paperback mass-market books, the magazines grew up to be pulp genre books with racy covers and titles like Leave Her to Hell and Scandal at a Nudist Colony. Louis Menand writes:
"Scantily clothed women and sexually suggestive scenes, whether the author was Mary Shelley or John D. MacDonald, became almost a requirement of the format. If the book was a hardboiled-detective novel or a mystery, the requirement was a woman wearing a peignoir and holding a gun." (Source)
Menand points out that this even put pressure on publishers of paperback high-minded literary fiction. The cover of the 1950 paperback reprint of George Orwell's 1984—about as serious a book as you can get—said "Forbidden Love. . . Fear. . . Betrayal!" and showed images of the main characters with ripped biceps and plunging necklines. Pulp fiction was the industry disrupter of the time, redefining what could and couldn't be put in print. Menand again:
"What you could publish in the United States and Britain in 1965 was radically different from what you could publish in 1945, and pulp paperbacks were part of the reason. In the process, the pulps lost their clout in the book business. But they died so that Philip Roth and Erica Jong might live." (Source)
The same sort of stuff that was used to sell pulp magazines and novels is everywhere in the film. Crime? Check. Sexiness? There's a reason Mia Wallace is on the movie poster. Check. Violence and shock value? Check. Pop culture references? This is Tarantino we're talking about, so that's one big—check. It's also is a sort of serialized format.
Quentin knew his pulp fiction.
That depends on which ending you're talking about: real time or screen time?
The chronological ending is Butch driving off into the sunset (in a manner of speaking) with Fabienne on Grace, his new bike which is definitely a chopper, not a motorcycle. It's a pretty standard movie ending. The hero boxer defeats the evil guys and saves the damsel in distress who then blows off one of the villain's crotches with a shotgun.
Okay, maybe it's not that standard, but we've reached the finale of Butch's story and with him and Marsellus "cool" we get a sense of completion. It's how a typical literal-minded director might have closed out the film.
But, as you know by now, Quentin is quite opposite of typical. Instead, the movie ends about midway through its chronological order, but that doesn't mean it simply cuts the story arc in half. In case you missed those black screens with the white words on them, Pulp Fiction is broken up into multiple parts. It's more of an episodic story with the episodes out of order than a randomly sliced up single narrative.
So the last scene of the film is actually a continuation of the first, the ending of Vincent and Jules' crazy day that finds them in a diner being held up by Ringo and Yolanda. This is the true climax of the film, as Jules is forced to confront his past life and change his violent ways in dealing with these lowlife criminals. Maybe you think that a scene in which no one gets shot or dies or anything is hardly climactic in a film which already has so many dramatic scenes. But it's not about action, it's about the heart of the story.
This ending is the thematic center of Pulp Fiction—redemption—and the reason why Tarantino finished the film with it instead of some cliché scene of Butch and his happy ending.
Pulp Fiction has all the (R)ight stuff: brutal violence, sexual violence, drugs, nudity. Mature themes, indeed. There's the shooting of helpless young men and the accidental but very gory death of Marvin. If that's not enough, there's a shotgun blast to the genitals and a death by sword. How about a whole lotta serious drug use including one character snorting multiple lines of cocaine and another character buying and injecting heroin. One character mistakenly snorts heroin and must be given an adrenaline shot to bring her out of a coma.
Hey, it's Tarantino.
Then there's the rape scene. We see two characters bound and one character forcibly raped by another while a third watches and smiles. It almost makes us forget about the other steamy scene between a man and his wife in their motel room, but no nudity…so that must count for something. And, of course, in typical Tarantino fashion, we've got a whole ton of 'F' bombs—265 to be exact, just behind Reservoir Dogs on the all-time list.