Top Five Misunderstood Movies

Symbolism and subtext form an important part of the movie experience and are often found in rich supply in movies leaning more towards Art-house. However, some titles, which have been very successful mainstream, contain some truly impressive subtext that remains largely misunderstood. Herein the top five most misunderstood movies will be discussed and interpreted, as I understood them. Their meanings might just surprise you.

1. Pulp Fiction

The Quentin Tarantino film Pulp Fiction is often cited as Tarantino’s greatest movie and a prime example of expert film-making. However, few have truly attempted to look beyond the cool characters and intricate plot to examine what Tarantino is truly saying and what the true topic of the movie Pulp Fiction is. The plot of Pulp Fiction essentially revolves around the different ways the characters in it view the world and their ideologies. Pulp Fiction is truly an example of a postmodernist film.

Vincent (John Travolta) represents logic or reason. As such, any scene he is in he presents a logical argument or attempt at using logic to understand his surroundings. An example of this is at the very start of the movie where he is discussing the difference of countries by comparing them to one another. The method he employs is to examine the difference in McDonalds in one country from McDonalds in the other. Furthermore, Vincent’s weakness occurs when he is not receiving information about his environment, namely when he is using the bathroom. He loses track of information whilst he goes to the bathroom, and when he returns the situation is suddenly dangerous for him.

Jules (Samuel Jackson) represents spirituality and his arguments with Vincent are in essence arguments between reason and religion. For instance, he argues that the bullets missing him was an act of god whereas Vincent takes a logical view and argues that it was just chance. This in essence causes a split between Vincent and Jules, a split that lasts until Vincent’s death. This death can be interpreted in two ways: If you believe in spirituality and hence take Jules’ view, Vincent died because he did not quit his lifestyle after having been given a sign. If you believe in logic and thus take Vincent’s view, Vincent died because his partner Jules was not there to help him.

Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) represents honor. An example of this is the scene in which Butch is a child and his father’s friend from the Vietnam War tells him of how his father kept a watch that had been passed down from generation to generation. The idea here is that Butch has had instilled in him a sense of duty and honor, which has an affect on the rest of the movie resulting in him refusing to give up the watch despite it being logically appropriate to do so. As such he symbolically kills logic, and hence this leads to him killing Vincent.

Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) represents authority, which is why he is in the position of the boss. All his scenes in the movie back up this concept, with him essentially ordering others around or discussing his position and loyalty related to it. An example is when he is making sure Butch understands his place whilst discussing the plan for Butch to throw his fight. However Butch, being representative of honor, ultimately refuses to throw the fight and runs off with Marsellus’ money instead.

Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) represents mystery, which is part of her appeal to Vincent. Vincent desires to logically explore and gather information about Mia’s mystery, causing attraction between the two. The first example of this is that well before Mia even appears on screen Vincent and Jules are discussing a mystery involving her and a murder. The second example is when Vincent first goes to meet her and she speaks to him over the speaker system, attempting to get him to guess where the button is to talk back.

These examples of characters and what they stand for have been limited for the sake of this article, but are sure to surprise quite a few people and will be of more interest for that next viewing of Pulp Fiction. Watch carefully.

2. Saving Private Ryan

Often viewed and seen correctly as a tribute to the victory of the world over Nazi Germany and the sacrifices made, the relation of private Ryan (Matt Damon) to the United States and the world in general is a topic of less discussion. Often, war movies come to be a kind of glorification of the defence forces, whereas Saving Private Ryan is meant to serve as an example of the horrors of war and why they should be avoided. Private Ryan represents the US as well as the west and world entire. As such, whenever the troops are debating the value of the mission of saving Ryan they are actually debating the value of saving all of us. When Sarge (Tom Hanks) states at the end, with his dying breath, that Ryan should ‘earn this’ he is actually talking to all of us who have let the war happen. The film leaves on a note with Ryan questioning whether he has truly earned such a sacrifice, meaning whether all of us have.

3. Scarface

Most viewers readily understand the main plot of the movie Scarface, the story of the rise and fall of a gangster due to his own greed. However, many viewers get confused on what caused this rise and fall, what makes the character Tony Montana stand out. This same confusion caused many critics to dislike the film as being unrealistic, stating that Al Pacino’s Montana is over-the-top and ridiculous. Tony Montana is meant to be over the top and ridiculous because Tony Montana exists somewhat outside of himself as a character. He is simultaneously an actor and an author; he has created a character for himself to play in the real world, a character that he takes as being better than himself. This character he has created allows Tony to be near fearless because his character is fearless, as evident in an early scene where he has a gun to his head and responds with an insult to its wielder. This in turn allows Tony to climb in rank very quickly. It also leads to his downfall when he refuses to do anything against the ideal he has created of himself, namely by refusing to set off the bomb with the children in the car. He also begins to act particularly violently when this idealized character he has created of himself begins to fall apart, for example when his wife leaves him and his innocent sister is proven to not be so innocent.

4. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was lauded for its storytelling and rich fight sequences, but few attempted to truly explore the topic of the film itself. The topic of the movie is male oppression, and the various female characters’ relationships with masculinity reflect this. Furthermore the Green Destiny sword, a clearly phallic symbol, represents masculinity and its power. As such, a female character comes to be desperate to have it and a male character desperate to let it go.

The female characters all have different relations to masculinity. Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei) despises males, having previously poisoned Li Mai Bai’s (Chow Yun-Fat) master for not allowing her access to martial arts training. The sword thief Jen (Zhang Ziyi) is fearful of being oppressed by men, which is indicated by her arranged marriage, and hence desires the power of masculinity for her freedom. This leads her to steal the Green Destiny in an attempt to gain masculine power. After she does this, no one is able to defeat her save for Li Mai Bai and Yu Shu-Lien (Michelle Yeoh). These two are only able to defeat her because their existential philosophy and experience allow them to see through the power of masculinity; hence the sword is not as powerful against them as it is others. When Jade Fox kills Li Mai Bai, Jen comes to the same view of masculinity and instead of seeing Mai Bai as an oppressor she sees him as another human being. Following his death, she sees that her actions have not lead to an oppressive male being defeated and her freedom, but rather to the devastation of two lovers’ lives.

The film ends with her jumping off a bridge after wishing she had come to the realization earlier, so she could return with her lover to the desert and leave Mai Bai and Shu-Lien to their lives.

5. Atonement

Atonement, based on the novel by Ian McEwan, has a somewhat devastating and surprising ending that has often been misinterpreted by viewers. Many viewers see the movie’s ending as an attack on Briony for having caused the whole incident by having accused Robert of sexual abuse. What the movie is truly examining is the way in which fiction is utilized to shield us from the sad truth. To use a Freudian model, fiction works much the same as dreams in that it allows us to fulfill a wish of some kind. A wish to find love, a wish to be a hero, to see what we consider to be evil and threatening defeated. Atonement allows us to get what we wish for, and then contrasts it with the reality of the situation by quickly taking it away from us and presenting the truth to us. This is essentially the plot of the movie, as Briony tries to escape the reality of the situation by writing over it with fiction. The viewer buys into this, and then our pleasant fiction is taken away from us with the true facts of the ending, Robert and Cecelia’s deaths. As such, Briony is truly representative of both writers and their readers, filmmakers and their viewers. In other words, Briony represents us.

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