What's really in the Pulp Fiction briefcase? Fans of the 1994 crime classic have speculated for years, but director Quentin Tarantino has suggested that there’s no concrete answer. In terms of filmmaking, the briefcase functions as a "MacGuffin," a plot device used to push the story forward. But for those who know their movie history, it's clear that Tarantino references a film noir classic with the Pulp Fiction briefcase.
In Pulp Fiction, contract killers Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent Vega (John Travolta) attempt to recover a briefcase for their gangster boss, Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). In the process, they kill two men and later accidentally murder another, thus setting up a memorable “clean-up” sequence. When Jules and Vincent first recover the mysterious briefcase, a glowing light can be seen, though the camera never shows the contents. Vincent appears to have a spiritual experience, and the briefcase later has the same effect on a restaurant robber named Ringo (Tim Roth), who describes the glowing contents as “beautiful.”
Pulp Fiction famously jumps back and forth in time to create a cinematic puzzle, and the briefcase represents one of the most oddly-shaped pieces in that puzzle. Here are a few interpretations to consider (or dismiss).
Online, the most popular theory is that Pulp Fiction’s briefcase contains Marsellus Wallace’s soul. Meaning, the gangster sold said soul to the devil, and decides that he wants it back. But it comes with a price, of course, evidenced by the bloodbath that is Pulp Fiction. Many people have noted that the briefcase’s lock code is 666, a number associated with the Devil. To support the “soul” theory, many have suggested that the bandage on the back of Marsellus Wallace’s head correlates with biblical text that reveals how the Devil takes one’s soul. Considering Jules’ monologue about “divine intervention” after miraculously surviving a shoot-out, the “soul” theory is indeed intriguing.
Some Pulp Fiction afficionados have suggested that the briefcase holds the diamonds from Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino’s feature debut. There’s not much evidence to support this argument, aside from the gangster aspects and character connections. In Reservoir Dogs, Mr. Blonde a.k.a. Vic Vega (Michael Madsen) goes on a killing rampage after a carefully planned diamond heist, thus upsetting Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), who later escapes with the loot (Reservoir Dogs’ final audio implies that Mr. Pink was captured by police). In Pulp Fiction, Mr. Blonde’s brother - Vincent Vega (implied, later confirmed by Tarantino) - is the first person to see the briefcase’s contents. It’s worth noting that Tarantino created Pulp Fiction’s story with Roger Avery, who once revealed that the Pulp Fiction briefcase originally contained diamonds, but that the concept was ultimately deemed “too boring and predictable.”
The beauty of Pulp Fiction’s briefcase is that it allows for endless interpretations. Most likely, Tarantino’s glowing light is simply an homage to the 1955 film noir classic Kiss Me Deadly, which includes a sequence featuring a cryptic box - one that’s connected to “the gates of hell” and glows upon being opened.