It has become one of the cinema’s most fascinating mysteries: what was in the folder that Vincent Vega and Jules Winfield were looking for in Pulp Fiction? Quentin Tarantino‘s crime thriller created a phenomenon and shaped cinema in the 1990s, mainly due to its playful post-narrative approach. The goal was indisputable even though the characters in the film did not always know it – and the stolen briefcase became the center of this success.
Technically, it’s a MacGuffin, a term coined by Alfred Hitchcock to describe an otherwise irrelevant object in a movie that everyone would love. Some notable examples are the one ring, the Maltese Falcon, and the Ark of the Covenant, as well as countless less attractive MacGuffins like diamond boxes or secret designs in a spy movie. It does not matter what the subject is, at least in narrative terms. The important thing is that all or most of the characters try to get it.
Tarantino deliberately draws attention to this by refusing to show the public what is in the folder. Viewers can never get the final answer just because the film never reveals it. Hitchcock’s lesson turns out to be accurate. The folder’s contents are less important than the fact that his thieves risked death to capture them, and Jules and Vincent rejoice in killing them to get them back.
In addition, several theories have emerged, none of which are conclusive, but most are based on evidence from both this film and other Tarantino films. Many of these started long before the development of the internet, so it isn’t easy to recognize them. The most common can be found in a Snopes article from 1997 and has the most visible evidence. He claims the folder contains the soul of Marcellus Wallace, the crime boss who sent Jules and Vincent to pick up the suitcase.
This is indicated by some seemingly random details from the film. The bandage on Marcello’s neck, for example, is traditionally a place through which the soul can be removed from a body. At the same time, the digital lock on the folder opens with the code “666”, indicating the devil’s implication. Everything in the briefcase lights up when opened – something that gives it an eerie glow – and Jules mentions divine intervention as the reason he and Vincent escaped a hail of bullets as they pulled the folder out.
Another theory is based more on the meta and is based on the flash content of the folder. It dates back to January 1995 – when Pulp Fiction was still in theaters – and a column on the website of the late Roger Ebert. Similarly, Tarantino refers to a specific film from 1955, Kiss Me Deadly, which showed an equally mysterious box looking for different characters in the underworld. As in Pulp Fiction, MacGuffin never really appears in this previous film. However, it came from a nuclear bomb site, suggesting that it contained something extremely radioactive. Those who opened the suitcase and looked at it would be killed immediately. Although the Pulp Fiction character does not have the same fate, the visual nod indicates that it contains something radioactive or can produce nuclear energy.
Other theories try to connect the events of Pulp Fiction with other films in Tarantino’s biography. This, too, can be traced back to at least Ebert’s column. Tarantino has confirmed that his films share a universe that Wallace may have linked to crime in other films. In particular, Le Iene – the director’s first film and the immediate predecessor of Pulp Fiction – is about a diamond theft that went wrong and ended up with the location of the stolen items. It is possible that the diamonds ended up in the case, and their value was enough to send professional assassins like Jules and Vincent to save them. But apart from Tarantino’s comments and overall visual style, there are no graphic elements that directly connect either of the two films.
The constant guesswork keeps these and other theories alive, so pulp fiction remains a new experience after nearly 30 years. Apart from a sequel, the answer never comes, which gives credibility to almost any idea and thus leaves the viewer in the dark. While it would probably be a disappointment to find out what it contains, the question turns its usual black exterior into one of the cinema’s most iconic rivets.