In Light of Tarantino's Divine Intervention, or rather, The Denouement of Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction
Vincent Vega (John Travolta) peers down into a black briefcase. He inspects the contents, his face bathed in a golden auburn glow, and for a moment he loses himself. He is motionless, as though he is looking at something of great significance. The retrieval of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction occurs during the film's second scene. It is not revealed to the audience at any point throughout the film what is actually inside the briefcase, nor how those (according to the published script) "three young guys, obviously in over their heads" came to possess the briefcase1. The audience also never finds out what the deal actually is between these "guys" and Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames).
Pulp Fiction is a precision film. There is no wasted screen time; everything that is needed to be said is said, every action is a consequence of the preceding moments. This is cause and effect at its best. At moments, Pulp Fiction has a veneer of style over substance. For some, this may be a fair point to make, however I think that this is the kind of prima facie analysis that falls short of realising the significance of the subtleness by which the film behaves.
Take, for example, Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and his Ezekiel speech. The delivery of the lines and build-up to the shooting of Brett (Frank Whaley) is very stylised, but if we break down the elements we can see something more significant occurring. The two important aspects of this scene are the killings and the speech, and both of these elements are contributing factors to Jules' denouement. "Three young guys, obviously in over their heads." These are the words Tarantino uses in the script. Why are these characters described this way? Why not have the script read: "Three hardened criminals who clearly know what they are getting themselves in for"? These are characters who are about to be killed off early enough in the piece that they are of no real significance, they just appear to be a group of guys who the heroes need to get the briefcase back from. Why not another group of cliche characters who would appear to be more congruent to the scene? Why "three young guys, obviously in over their heads"?
It is what these "three young guys" represent that is important. There is not enough screen time to get to know these characters, and this is not the point. What they say and what they wear and how they act during the mere minutes that they are on the screen is imperative. These "three young guys" are another one of the keys to Jules' denouement. Disclosed to us during this scene is that these guys have the briefcase and they tried to take it from Marsellus Wallace. These characters are there in the film for the same reason that the briefcase is there in the film: to move Vincent and Jules through the film and to create drama and conflict.
So what is in the briefcase? One theory is that Wallace's soul is in the briefcase and it is in there because Wallace made a deal with the devil (which I have to admit to liking, with respect to hermeneutics!). I like the idea that Wallace sold his soul to the devil for money and power, and more importantly of all for the love of Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) in a kind of Faustian pact with Mephistopheles. While I like these ideas, I don't believe them for a second. This explanation feels too much like an after-the-facts explanation. Call it cinematic intuition. The briefcase is just a MacGuffin; it is another device in the film needed to move Vincent and Jules on their journey, and it fits perfectly with the pathos of the film. The briefcase is a tool for character development; the scene has been constructed around the briefcase. Jules and Vince need the briefcase so they can learn something, so they can become enlightened – or miss the point completely, as Vince does. The "three young guys" serve the same purpose, and to create drama.
In an interview with Charlie Rose, Tarantino explains how American cinema has always been about story and that traditionally the best story-based films come from Hollywood, giving Howard Hawks as an example. In contrast, Tarantino argues that European cinema (more specifically, French cinema) has always been the best at character films, and he uses Jean-Luc Godard as an example of this2.
Pulp Fiction is very much grounded in this French cinema tradition, but this is only because Tarantino builds on the foundations set by early Hollywood filmmakers. By placing genre-based characters and storylines central to his works, Tarantino side-steps the need to explain plot and therefore creates a vehicle through which the characters drive the drama and action.
Jules and Vince are a cliched odd couple, but they're gangsters. Jules is black, Vince is white; Jules is spiritual, Vince is grounded in logic. Throughout the film, the majority of their conversations consist of bickering or disagreements. Consistent conflict creates drama and movement. The most obvious disagreement is the "miracle" of the second scene. Unknown to Jules and Vince, there is a fourth "guy" in the bathroom. He bursts out and shoots wildly at Vince and Jules at point-blank range, only to miss. Jules sees this as divine intervention, but Vince sees it as a freak occurrence. I see it as what I like to call a John Wayne moment.
John Wayne is never shot in the face. This is because he is usually the hero and the hero needs to win in the end to accomplish his journey (and he needs his face to do this). The bad guys shoot at John Wayne to create drama and as big and clumsy and slow as John Wayne is, they shoot everything else except John Wayne. Vince and Jules need to get the briefcase to Wallace, so the film dictates that they are not shot in the face because they are required in the rest of the film. The "kid" who steps out of the bathroom serves two purposes: first and most importantly he creates drama (and also more conflict between the two heroes) and, by missing, he also sows the seed of Jules' denouement.
I would just like to note here that when Marvin is shot in the face (in the back seat of the moving car) this creates drama, but it also highlights a particular use of character to move the main characters along. Even though no one mentions it, Marvin's death is a counterpoint to Vince and Jules' near miss. Vince "accidentally" shoots Marvin, right in the face. Vince is a professional; it is his job to handle firearms. But in this scene he doesn't even aim his weapon or pull the trigger, it just goes off. Marvin is no longer required to help move the briefcase towards the end of the film, so what happens? Marvin is shot in the face. The shooting of Marvin is in fact the second moment of "divine intervention." These two moments of "divine intervention" are in fact moments of self-realisation of the film. These are moments that are deliberately written and produced for the characters to question and are also highly constructed.
All of this raises the question: what in fact is Jules' denouement, which the briefcase sets in motion? By the end of the film Jules realises that he is the tyranny of evil men and by coming to this conclusion, he needs to make a decision. I think this is essentially what Pulp Fiction is about; it is about making choices. Jules decides that he wants to be the "shepherd" rather than "the tyranny of evil men," as stated in his Ezekiel speech during the initial briefcase scene and the final cafe robbery scene. The weak in this film are the "guys" back in the second scene: Bret and "flock of seagulls" and the "fourth man" with "a goddamn hand cannon." They are weak because they were tempted with something valuable and instead of doing the right thing, they were greedy and attempted to steal from Wallace, the evil man. So Jules realises that he is the bad guy, in a kind of self-realisation that doesn't occur often in films, and definitely not in genre films. Later, by not killing Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) and Pumpkin (Tim Roth) he redeems himself for killing those "guys." By the end, Jules has become the shepherd and with an excellent popular culture reference, will walk the earth like Caine from Kung Fu.