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That Uncomfortable Silence in ‘Pulp Fiction’

A hired killer and thug’s wife meet at a diner and share an awkward moment of silence over a five-dollar milkshake.

John Travolta Pulp Fiction, 1994)
John Travolta Pulp Fiction, 1994)

Vincent Vega (John Travolta) works as a hitman for mob boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). While Wallace is out of town, he asks Vega to look after his wife Mia (Uma Thurman). They end up at a 1950s-themed diner featuring celebrity look-alike waitstaff and kitschy decorations. Unfamiliar with each other, they sit in a booth while Vega orders a vanilla Coke and Mia, a Martin & Lewis, a $5 milkshake. The drinks arrive and Mia take a sip before Vincent asks for a sample, curious about how good an expensive milkshake could be. She lets him have a swig, even letting him use her straw, and he delights in how unexpectedly delicious it is. Then a silence sets in where Vega squirms a bit and Mia teases her lips on the plump cherry plucked from her beverage. It’s a full 30 seconds of silence between the two, with only the jukebox playing the slow guitar of Link Wray & The Wraymen‘s Rumble.

Uma Thurman (Pulp Fiction, 1994)
Uma Thurman (Pulp Fiction, 1994)

Directed by Quentin Tarantino, this scene from 1994’s Pulp Fiction, is a daring moment from a director best known for his action and dialog. Shot in close-up, moving from one profile to the other, we never see them in the same frame, a purposeful choice to give the character a sense of distance and separation. They are not close yet. Both are smoking and while we know a bit about Vega, having met him in the previous segment, we know nothing about Mia. Vega shifts back and forth, his eyes careful to never look directly at the beautiful woman when she isn’t speaking, his awkwardness obvious but not overwhelming. She is the boss’s wife and that means a lot. Mia on the other hand is fixed in her position, never moving once, her elbows firmly on the table and her eyes locked on Vega. There is a hint of flirtation in her subtle gestures, the intense stare and the nibbling on the cherry both signals that could be misinterpreted. She is a woman who has been here before, maybe not this diner, but this situation, escorted by one of her husband’s goons. This is the game for her, to test there resolve, and when the silence breaks, she’s got what she needs and tells him she’s happy with the silence and feels you now you’ve met someone special when you don’t have to talk. This is mostly likely what makes Vega different from the others. This pleases her. Then she decides to powder her nose and tells him to think of something to say when she returns.

A classic moment, the uncomfortable silence in Pulp Fiction is just one of many remarkable scenes in this highly influential film, but one that has a great deal of significance. That’s a pretty f*cking good milkshake.

Pulp Fiction

Director:

Quentin Tarantino

Writers:

Quentin Tarantino (story), Roger Avary (story)

Stars:

John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Samuel L. Jackson

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