What Did Critics Write About Pulp Fiction When It Debuted 20 Years Ago?

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Photo: Miramax

Twenty years ago, Quentin Tarantino sucker-punched moviegoers with Pulp Fiction, a sprawling, pop-culture-filled romp that secured him as one of the most enticing, up-and-coming filmmakers of the '90s. Critics were transfixed — for better or for worse — by the film and its director's obsession with obscenity, violence, and unconventional narrative structure. Some swooned at Fiction and Tarantino (The New Yorker's Anthony Lane, though not entirely taken with the film as a whole, went as far as saying Tarantino had invented his very own kind of plot). Others, like Howie Movshovitz and Stanley Kauffmann, seemed to bristle at what they perceived to be Tarantino's disconnectedness from reality, which some argued was rooted in the writer-director's version of film school: working at a video-rental store. We've taken a trip to the archives to round up a few takes on Tarantino's classic.

"[A] triumphant, cleverly disorienting journey through a demimonde that springs entirely from Mr. Tarantino's ripe imagination, a landscape of danger, shock, hilarity and vibrant local color. Nothing is predictable or familiar within this irresistibly bizarre world. You don't merely enter a theater to see Pulp Fiction: you go down a rabbit hole." —Janet Maslin, the New York Times

"A spectacularly entertaining piece of pop culture, Pulp Fiction is the American Graffiti of violent crime pictures. Following up on his reputation-making debut, Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino makes some of the same moves here but on a much larger canvas, ingeniously constructing a series of episodes so that they ultimately knit together, and embedding the always surprising action in a context set by delicious dialogue and several superb performances." —Todd McCarthy, Variety

"The film is empty. Tarantino doesn't seem to know anything at all about real life, and maybe he has no interest in it either. He certainly never acknowledges that a real world may exist, and his movie, for all its intricate and elegant dance, evokes nothing beyond itself. Tarantino lives exclusively in a boy's fantasy world, where women and any semblance of reality are only intruders. So Pulp Fiction has only two-dimensional motion. You see the picture, you leave and it's over. There's not even an aftertaste." —Howie Movshovitz, Denver Post (not archived online)

"The proudly disreputable Pulp Fiction (cost: a measly $8 million) is the new King Kong of crime movies. It's an anthology that blends three stories and 12 principal characters into a mesmerizing mosaic of the Los Angeles scuzz world. The acting is dynamite: John Travolta and Bruce Willis can consider their careers revived. Buoyed by Tarantino's strafing wit, the action sizzles, and so does the sex. Pulp Fiction is ferocious fun without a trace of caution, complacency or political correctness to inhibit its 154 deliciously lurid minutes." —Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

"Tarantino is an artist mad for affect, terrified that his audience may be bored or moved (the same thing, as far as he's concerned). But his actors are ahead of the game; people like Samuel L. Jackson and Maria de Medeiros, and even a nicely troubled Bruce Willis, fight to flesh the movie out with warm-blooded gestures of feeling. That is what makes Pulp Fiction such an intriguing spectacle: not the acrylic brightness of its design, or even the funny filth of its patter, but the tension between the manic skills of its inventor and the refusal of his subjects to be treated like cartoons." —Anthony Lane, The New Yorker

"[W]hat's most bothersome about Pulp Fiction is its success. This is not to be mean-spirited about Tarantino himself; may he harvest all the available millions. But the way that this picture has been so widely ravened up and drooled over verges on the disgusting. Pulp Fiction nourishes, abets, cultural slumming." —Stanley Kauffmann, The New Republic

"It is part of the folklore that Tarantino used to work as a clerk in a video store, and the inspiration for Pulp Fiction is old movies, not real life. The movie is like an excursion through the lurid images that lie wound up and trapped inside all those boxes on the Blockbuster shelves." —Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

"Critics see so many action pictures that they sometimes forget that the mass audience has a lower threshold for blood and guts. You are warned. What about sex? There's very little of it in Pulp Fiction; Tarantino's characters here are more comfortable holding a gun than a human being." —Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune (not archived online)

"Watching Pulp Fiction, you don't just get engrossed in what's happening on screen. You get intoxicated by it — high on the rediscovery of how pleasurable a movie can be." —Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

"The best thing about Pulp Fiction, as with Tarantino's debut film, Reservoir Dogs, are its words. They flow in hip torrents that are both idiosyncratic and familiar from lowlife characters who love to talk and can erupt in entertaining riffs on any subject on no notice at all." —Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

"Characters drop references to movies, old sitcoms and fast food until the idea becomes implicit that from their angle these are the basic elements of life. Pulp Fiction celebrates pop culture at the same time it implies that a garbage culture is producing garbage people." —Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle (not archived online)

"True to his nature, Tarantino stuffs Pulp Fiction with movie references, but its true strength is in turning these on end. The experience overall is like laughing down a gun barrel, a little bit tiring...and maybe far too perverse for less jaded moviegoers. When bits of brain cling to Jules’s oily ringlets, not everybody is going to laugh, perhaps because they have been too close to someone who has been the victim of a shotgun blast. Maybe we’re laughing because we’re too shellshocked by what we have become to cry." —Rita Kempley, Washington Post

"Pulp Fiction, in short, is one hell of a ride. It's hot, it's cool and — for a movie that sometimes comes at you like a blindsiding fist — it's unfailingly playful. It was born in the dust motes dancing on the beams of a thousand movie projectors; it hangs out at the intersection of collective memory and contemporary chaos theory; and the thing that makes it so modern is its easy command of the fact that life is often funny and horrible at the same time." —Jay Carr, Boston Globe (not archived online)

"Despite the drugs, the blood, the language, the grit, Pulp Fiction is fundamentally light-hearted. It's fluff." —Picks and Pans Review, People

"Grisly but packed with more laugh lines than any other recent movie, Fiction simply annihilates its current 'underworld' competition. Note to the folks who made The Specialist: This is how it's done in the major leagues." —Mike Clark, USA Today (not archived online)