Pulp Fiction and the Advantages of Being Ambiguous

Pulp Fiction Logo

“The greater the ambiguity, the greater the pleasure.” – Milan Kundera

My fiancee and I just watched Pulp Fiction the other day, her for the first time and me for the hundredth, approximately.

If you haven’t seen it yet, go see it! And if you’ve seen it already, watch it again. Don’t worry, I’ll wait for you.

You good? Good.

I’ve got a question for you: what did you think of the briefcase? You know, the one Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta) recover from those guys in that apartment. The one that shines golden light upon the face of everyone who opens it. The one that we never discover the contents of.

For me, that briefcase is the best part of the movie. It’s pretty much the center of Jules and Vincent’s storyline, yet we don’t even know exactly what’s so great about it. Isn’t that brilliant?

I mean, let’s imagine for a second what could’ve been inside. Money, maybe? Sure. But isn’t that exactly what you’d expect to see? In a mobster movie, there’s probably nothing used more than a suitcase full of neatly-stacked hundred dollar bills. Imagine how disappointing that would be.

Okay, then maybe it’s something a little less cliche. Writer/director Quentin Tarantino stated that in an earlier draft, the briefcase contained a whole lot of diamonds. Which works a little better than money, but pretty much means the same thing.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I like this idea: no matter what they might’ve shown us, nothing would’ve been as effective as showing us nothing at all.

Instead of being given an answer, we’re presented with a question. We as the audience are asked by the filmmaker to provide our own explanations. We can’t help but wonder what would leave Vince Vega momentarily speechless, or leave Tim Roth’s character so awed.

As a result, the briefcase has become one of the most hotly debated topics among fans of the film. There are all sorts of great theories on what might be inside, ranging from a nuclear warhead to Marsellus Wallace’s soul to the physical manifestation of violence itself. No matter how unlikely the theory, no one can really prove or disprove anything. That’s the power of ambiguity: it allows us to fill in the blanks with whatever we like best.

Of course, the challenge with ambiguity is using the proper amount. The briefcase only works because we know enough about it to speculate. It’s obviously something very important, something that people are positively enchanted by. There’s an eerie golden light emanating from within. And the lock combination is, famously, the number 666.

Come on. I know you have some theories of your own, here.

When ambiguity works, it works because the question is more interesting than any possible answers. That’s definitely the case with the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. 

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