“Be cool honey bunny”
This is just one of the many memorable lines from Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece Pulp Fiction. For this film review, we decided to hold a screening of Pulp Fiction in order to analyze two of the most influential and powerful characters in the history of film. Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield offer very interesting portrayals of masculinity, assuming the roles of hit men in search of their boss’s mysterious suitcase, they represent two characters that are extremely “likeable” despite their ruthless acts of violence. Although the guidelines of this review asked to analyze just one character, I feel it is vital to offer input on both Vincent and Jules in the company of one another and their relationship to other characters throughout the film.
The two characters Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) are the focus of the film’s opening scenes. Tarantino’s characters present the audience with nuanced accounts of masculinity that not only speak to societal archetypes of manhood, but also show an evolution of character that displays how masculinity interacts with demanding and traumatic situations.
The characters are initially presented as calm, cool and collected while they nonchalantly enter into a situation in which the audience realizes may include the shooting of several people. The viewer follows Jules and Vincent from a significantly early point as they are in the car, casually discussing what a cheeseburger is called in France, to the building, where they have another casual conversation about the limitations of foot rubs while carrying guns and searching for their targets, all the way to the room where it is assumed they are “taking care of business”. At no point do the two characters need to discuss a plan of any kind and it is assumed that they are two men who are well trained and have performed similar operations many times before.
This entire theme of “staying cool” throughout the first scene of violence can be observed as a perpetuation of the notion that men are able to remain calm in situations that may otherwise seem stressful or cause anxiety. Furthermore, we see the recurrent idealized image of men as gangsters in the position of power. Jules and Vincent have an ability to kick ass while retaining a sense of humor with dialogue that almost makes them accessible to viewers like us, we can all relate to having meaningless conversations about big macs and cheeseburgers!
They exude calmness and coolness throughout their casual execution of several individuals and Jules’s goes as far as to take a bite of his target’s Big Kahuna burger and then analyze its taste, again reinforcing their position of power and control of the situation. From the moment we are introduced to Vincent and Jules, the audience is mesmerized by the wit, intimidation and (most importantly) power of these two individuals.
Towards the end of the movie, we see that they maintain that same level of cool as they are being robbed at gunpoint and they proceed to take back the processions the robbers take from them. Simultaneously, they essentially strip the male robber of his masculinity (masculinity as has been defined in this film) by taking his gun and reversing the role of power. Something that should be pointed out in regards to this film is that Tarantino does a fantastic job at romanticizing weapons and drugs throughout the entirety of the movie. At any point when the characters are armed with a weapon, we realize that they are portrayed as masculine and powerful. This is particularly proven to be the case when Bruce Willis’s character, Butch, happens to find Vincent’s gun on his counter and within one second we realize the shift of power from Vincent to Butch, at which point our beloved gangster meets his demise.
Another important dynamic of the film includes Uma Thurman’s character, Mia, and Vincent interactions. Vincent’s calm and sense of control is completely thrown off by Mia. Though he epitomizes suave masculinity, he is still terrified of Mia, in part because of her connection to his boss Marcellus Wallace but also because she tends to challenge his comfort in several different ways. The epic dance scene, her choice of restaurant and her frank and honest dialogue are all examples of how she challenges Vincent’s level of comfort throughout their interaction with one another. When Mia overdoses on heroin we see the worst of Vincent come out. He is worried, not for her life, but because of what Marcellus Wallace might do to him. In this we see his masculinity linked to his own fear of Marcellus Wallace as well as the knowledge that Mia matters only in so much as it affects his own life.
Another interesting element in the film is the relationship between Jules and Vincent, which almost mimics that of two lovers only without any implication of romance. The audience almost never sees one character without the other, with the exception of Mia’s scene, and they exemplify many of the same qualities that are observed between couples. They argue over minute details, display obvious loyalty to one another and even share meals together. As we all know, people can retain a platonic relationship and still partake in all of the above, however combining those qualities with their depiction of masculinity makes for a unique and entertaining relationship.
Finally, the inclusion of the character Mr. Wolf causes a drastic shift in the position of power relative to Vince and Jules. Once Vince and Jules accidentally kill a person in the back of their car, we see their cool persona come crashing down, as they finally have to deal with something that is beyond their control. This results in a call to Harvey Kitel’s character, Mr. Wolf, who assumes position as the dominant role. He appears to be a more pronounced version of their characters earlier; Vince and Jules walk around in suits while Mr. Wolf is wearing a tuxedo, they drive a mediocre car while Mr. Wolf speeds up in a fancy sports car…etc. He asserts his power by “bossing” them around which eventually places them in a subservient and inferior position, something the audience has not been exposed to until now.
Pulp Fiction is considered to be a classic in modern pop culture, however it is one of the countless films that continue to perpetuate the romanticized vision of violence and drugs. The two main characters, Vince and Jules, prove to be extremely powerful and “cool” in their personas so long as they are in the superior position. Their masculinity is challenged throughout the film by characters like Mia and Mr. Wolf, and by events like their bosses wife overdosing. Quentin Tarantino creates two extremely likeable characters that exemplify masculine qualities yet, deconstructed; portray a sort of sensitivity and definitely a source of humor. From the dominant position, throughout the first half of the film, to the blatantly inferior position, after their reckless behavior, Jules and Vince offer a unique twist on the stereotype of male masculinity and completely redefine what we know as “cool”.