The 1994 film, Pulp Fiction directed by Quentin Tarantino, contains formal elements, which expressively communicate the narrative troupes and tone of neo-noirs. Cinematography and mise-en-scène work together to create the images presented to the audience. The product of these interconnected parts is shot construction, which influences viewers to feel certain ways. Pulp Fiction utilizes shot construction to instill a sense of unease in the audience.
The shooting angle, as well as the framing, establish character relationships. For instance, the audience sees Jules from a high camera angle, which connotates his position of power. Brett, the man Jules threatens, causes the audience to perceive him as timid and helpless compared to Jules because of the low camera angle. The power dynamic created by the contrasting shooting angles leaves the audience in a state of unrest because they are unsure of how much longer Brett has to live. However, other scenes shot with the camera at eye level, therefore composition conveys character relationships. For example, Mia observes Vincent aimlessly roaming her home from video surveillance cameras, which positions her in a dominant role. The design of Mia’s home with a white color scheme contrasts with Vincent’s black suit, implying he does not belong. These binary oppositions demonstrated through elements of composition heighten the creeping sensation of being watched, which leaves the audience in a state of discomfort. Although audiences feel uneasy because of camera angle and composition, the length and type of shot also contribute to this emotional response.
Close-ups and long takes isolate the action occurring within a frame. To illustrate, a close-up of Jules’ and Brett’s faces intensifies the former’s evil intentions and the ladder’s look of terror. Additionally, extreme close-ups of specific body parts, like Mia’s lips and feet or the bandage on the back of Marsellus Wallace’s head, hides the face of the character, allowing them to seem more mysterious. Extreme close-ups heighten the audience’s sense of unease, which comes from their fear of the unknown. For example, the audience knows Marsellus Wallace has a bandage, but the event which makes it necessary goes unexplained. The juxtaposition of a long take with intercutting a series of close-ups increases an audience’s anxiety. For instance, the long take forces the viewer to watch the events of Vincent preparing to give Mia an adrenaline shot without a break for relief from the action. The audience’s preconceived uneasiness regarding needles, in addition to a fear of injecting a foreign substance into the body with unknown effects, is exemplified through an extreme close-up of a large syringe. While cinematography impacts the audience’s sense of anxiety, so does composition and design.
The use of space and props amplifies the audience’s feeling of dread. For example, in the pawnshop basement scene, deep-space composition implies a close proximity between Butch and Marsellus Wallace to the camera. On the first plane, the audience sees the characters, who are held captive, squirm with anticipation. The BDSM toys and restraints hang down from the wall on the second plane. Out of focus is the third plane, which shows Maynard releasing the gimp from a wooden cage. This framing choice allows the audience to see the character’s reactions as well as the action occurring behind them. Not only does this heighten the anxiety within Butch and Marsellus, but also within the audience because they know what is to come while the characters do not. The design of the gimp’s leather bondage outfit, the ball gag in Maynard’s prisoners’ mouths, and the various background toys contribute to the audience’s sense of unease because of the stigma surrounding BDSM culture. While the deep-space composition and set construction immerse the audience in the story world, framing and kinesis draw attention to the verisimilitude of the film.
The expressive use of on-screen and off-screen space prompt the viewer to consider the world beyond the frame, which works to communicate a sense of unease to the audience. Sometimes a character’s voice is heard but lies in the off-screen space. This plays into the viewer’s sense of the movie’s reality as they interact with the world around them because people do not always see the person who is speaking to them. To illustrate, Vincent and Lance yell at each other from different rooms. Additionally, the on-screen action shows Lance stumbling around his messy room in search of a black medical book to aid the unconscious Mia. This builds suspense because Lance and the audience are aware of the dire circumstance but cannot see Mia’s life condition progressively worsening. This scene is also shot from a long take, so the camera tracks Lance’s movement from one room to the next, therefore showing elements which were previously off-screen. Similarly, the expressive use of off-screen space introduces the audience to Marsellus Wallace.
The point of view shot during Butch and Marsellus Wallace’s conversation causes the audience to hear Marsellus’ voice before they see his face. While the two speak, Marsellus Wallace’s hand emerges from the off-screen space into the frame to give Butch an envelope of money. This boosts the audience’s anticipation as they are one step closer to revealing the gangster boss’ identity, yet he remains a mystery. The longer the screen is empty of what is to come, through cinematography and mise-en-scène techniques, the longer the viewer feels unease.
Pulp Fiction’s audience sees the iconography and feels the mood of this neo-noir film because of its shot construction. Deliberately coordinated by the production designer and cinematographer, the shot construction conveys Tarantino’s overall look and feel of the film. The blend of shooting angle and shot types as well as composition, framing, and design components in Pulp Fiction evokes a sense of unease from the audience.