I posted the following to a Facebook conversation with my buddy and movie critic Marc DiPaolo (check out his books on amazon.com). Marc had asked if Pulp Fiction is a “deeply religious movie.” What follows is my response, slightly edited.
If Pulp Fiction is a deeply religious movie (which I think it is), then the suitcase is a modern incarnation of a golden calf, or a concentrated image representing our culture’s worship of money and power, which mob boss Marcellus Wallace holds and everyone else wants. What makes Sam Jackson’s character (Jules) the most “spiritual” is his willingness to get it for someone else without keeping it (or even wanting to keep it) for himself, much like Frodo and the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings.
Once Jules has attained that level of development, he increasingly becomes uninterested in serving power structures at all, so like a prophet he seeks only to “walk tha erf” protecting the weak and innocent from the strong and powerful, per his mangled, fictional Biblical quotation.
Bruce Willis’s character (Butch) represents another path of spiritual development, one that does not compromise on principle (represented by his memory of his father’s watch) in the face of despair over his personal advancement (he will never make it as a boxer) or personal gain (Wallace paying him off to take a dive in a boxing match). Butch accepts the payoff from Wallace in order to retaliate against the criminals using him by betting on himself for a change (which he’d never done all his life, “betting on himself” representing faith in oneself and one’s principles). He then wins the fight so violently he inadvertently kills his opponent.
But Butch is not himself completely criminal, because even though Wallace has now become a sworn enemy, Butch respects Wallace’s basic human dignity enough to protect Wallace from being killed by the “pawnshop rednecks” who have already started to rape him. This act of decency wins Butch his freedom from Wallace, who forgives Butch’s betrayal. Butch rides off to collect his money with his girl on a motorcycle that has the word “Grace” spray painted on the tank — he has received grace (in the form of freedom from revenge by power and money) because he stuck to all of his principles, even at great personal risk to himself: saving Wallace proved he wasn’t just another con man.
The “pawnshop redneck rape scene” extends the film’s commentary to a commentary on the distribution of wealth and power: white people (yuppies in the hotel room; white racist rapist uniformed security) keep trying to take it from black people (Wallace). Wallace, though a criminal, isn’t totally evil: he forgives Butch, allows Jules to leave, trusts Vincent Vega with his wife. He works on a basic principle of fairness and even trust although he makes his living as a criminal, which may extend Pulp Fiction‘s commentary to metadiscourse on society: lawful society has become so criminal that only criminals free of law can act on any kind of principle. Wallace’s revenge on the racist rapists may anticipate the revenge fantasy theme in Tarantino’s later films, such as Django Unchained or Inglorious Basterds.