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Non-Review Review: Reservoir Dogs

I had the pleasure of attending the Jameson Cult Film Club screening of this film.

Reservoir Dogs is my favourite film amongst Quentin Tarantino’s accomplished filmography. It seems a strange choice, as most film fans would concede that it’s pretty great, but would readily point to Pulp Fiction as the definitive Tarantino film. However, I think that Reservoir Dogs has an elegant simplicity that elevates it, allowing Tarantino to demonstrate his unique skills in an environment where he isn’t too confined or too rigidly structured. In a way, it’s that wonderful structure that makes Pulp Fiction so exceptional, but Reservoir Dogs has a relatively modest scale that makes it a lot easier to appreciate Tarantino’s deft mastery of form.

Whiter than White?

Reservoir Dogs has an interesting structure, stemming from an interesting idea. The director has constructed a film around one of the few aspects of a robbery that hasn’t been exploited to death – the aftermath, when the thieves meet up to divide the loot. In fact, the movie is strange for a heist thriller because we don’t see any of the actual robbery. We witness the lead-up and planning to the event, and we see our characters escaping the police shoot-out, but most of the story unfolds in a single cramped warehouse as those involved try to figure out what exactly happened and who is responsible.

Though Tarantino’s directorial debut generated a fair amount of controversy for its fairly liberal use of blood, it’s not too difficult to imagine Tarantino’s script performed on stage with a limited number of actors – somewhat similar to what Jason Reitman did recently with an all-black cast. It is, as with most of Tarantino’s work, more tightly driven by dialogue and character than by plot or pay-off. Tarantino knows that we’ve already seen this story countless times, we just haven’t seen it with these characters in this way. His dialogue flows, and I honestly can’t think of a better dialogue writer working today than Tarantino.

He must have Brown-nosed to the director to get the part...

In fact, it’s the structure of the story that explains why I like Reservoir Dogs so much, because Tarantino structures his story as if he’s telling a story or an anecdote or a joke. “You guys are making me lose my train of thought,” Mr. Brown, played by Tarantino, notes before the credits role. “I was sayin’ something. What was it?” While sharing the true meaning of Like a Virgin, Mr. Brown is continually diverted off track, providing answers to questions and interacting with his audience. He explains to Mr. Blue that it isn’t a song about true love – that’s True Blue – while Mr. Orange can’t recall what True Blue sounds like.

You can almost see the structure of the movie introduced in that one scene. Tarantino reportedly doesn’t like it when you talk about the scenes set before the robbery as “flashback” scenes, and I think that’s quite telling. They aren’t structured like flashback scenes, in that they don’t reveal anything the script hasn’t already explained. We know who the undercover mole is before we jump back to his story. We know that Mr. Pink got away before we see it happen. Instead, those scenes provide a bit of context for the audience, as if Tarantino is telling us a story and we’re poking at it, and he’s filling the gaps.

Shot on the move...

Very cleverly, Reservoir Dogs is structured around that very same idea. Mr. Orange tells his own amusing story during his own back story segment, and he tells it in a similar way. explaining that he’s carrying the weed because the usual guy was in prison, he then explains how the guy ended up in prison. He doesn’t structure it like conventional “set-up”/“pay-off” types of story, introducing the plot point and then coming back to it later. Like the film, we find out the information as we need it, rather than burdening the story with too much exposition and rigorous set-up.

Like Mr. Brown, and like Tarantino himself, Mr. Orange is continually interrupted while telling his story. Things get a bit structurally weird towards the climax, as he stumbles into some cops in a train station toilet, and the cops are telling their own story. For those keeping track, the cop’s story is nested inside Mr. Orange’s story is nested inside the background information is nested inside the film. It’s absolutely structurally fascinating, and I think it portrays the most fascinating aspect of Tarantino’s work as a writer – his willingness to violate the storytelling form conventions in a manner that remains accessible and easy enough to engage with.

Bloody messy...

It almost seems, at times, like the information doesn’t exist until we discover it. As he pads out the story, filling in the gaps, he provides little pieces of the puzzle that seem to rule out the number of possible outcomes to the tale – for example, we only discover Mr. Pink isn’t a rat when we witness him shooting a cop during his escape. As much as his characters might like to talk, there is no certainty until we see an event on screen. Indeed, it seems that anything that we don’t witness play out on screen exists in some sort of unstable Schrodinger-esque state.

Asked about Mr. Blue’s current status, Mr. Blond offers an insightful answer, reflecting the myriad of states that he could be in. “He’s either dead or alive or the cops got him or they don’t.” We can never know until the movie confirms it to be so, with Tarantino’s camera an objective observer of a world in constant flux, with no sense of trust. After all, we can’t believe a word that comes out of any character’s mouth, as Nice Guy Eddie explains when the gang try to beat information out of a hostage. “If you $£#@ing beat this prick long enough, he’ll tell you he started the goddamn Chicago fire, now that don’t necessarily make it $£#@ing so!”

Blonds have more fun...

In certain sequences during the film, characters seem to just “exist” at edge of frame once we see them there, without having to enter the warehouse. Mr. Blond is introduced watching Mr. Pink and Mr. White fight, but they didn’t notice him come in through the front door. Joe was listening to the argument over Mr. Orange before he made is presence known, despite the fact we only see one entrance to the warehouse and one imagines that the group would be watching it. The door isn’t open when he appears. He’s not there when we can’t see him, and he couldn’t have come in without somebody seeing him, and yet he’s suddenly there because the film tells us that he is.

“I got Madonna’s big dick coming in my left ear and Toby the Jap coming in my right,” Mr. White complains during the opening breakfast scene, and it’s a clever way of drawing attention to what Tarantino is doing. By toying with the expected structure of the story and by refusing to relay the story in the expected format, he forces his viewers to sit up and to pay attention to the multiple things that are happening at once. Nothing happening on-screen is as simple as it appears, and Tarantino manages to tease us with a fully textured world by cutting it up and serving it in such a way that the depth becomes apparent.

Hope the location didn't ware them out...

Despite the fact, for example, that we deal with most of the cast using their colour-coded aliases, it’s impressive how fully-realised each cast member becomes. They’re all dressed in exactly the same manner – the sunglasses, slicked-back hair and the suits – but each and every one of them feels somewhat real on their own terms. Save, perhaps, Mr. Blue, whose defining attribute seems to be that he lacks any defining attributes. By the time the credits role, we have a relatively complex understanding of the psychologies of Mr. White, Mr. Pink, Mr. Orange and Mr. Blond.

However, and this is where Tarantino’s structure pays off, we actually know a lot more about the characters than we think we know. Or, rather, Tarantino gives us enough pieces for us to break down and digest into our own complex renderings of these characters. I’ve always subscribed to the idea that the truly special characters are imbued with life by the audience themselves, who read into the characters based on what the writer puts in front of them. So, for example, we get delightfully provoking character snippets like the wedding ring that Mr. Orange fishes from his pile of change. Is he married? Was he married? Is it a good luck charm? What happened?

Man of violins...

Man of violins...

Or, to take a richer example, what about Mr. Pink? He is, after all, the lead character we see the least of. The role made Steve Buscemi a recognisable character actor and, I think it’s fair to say, defined his career, but we know relatively little about his character. He’s one of the few characters who doesn’t let his real name slip, and who doesn’t have an explicit back story with Joe and Nice Guy Eddie, though it is suggested that Joe trusts him. (Since Mr. Orange is the only one Joe “wasn’t 100% on.”)

Mr. Pink projects the image of the cerebral, dispassionate intellectual. He’s the rational member of the group, the one who deduces that there must be a set-up, and clearly distrusts his fellow criminals. He escapes with the diamonds from the heist, and is shrewd enough to hide them far enough from the warehouse. He makes the argument that Mr. Orange should be left to die, rather than sending him to a hospital where he could identify Mr. White. He’s the most cold and detached of the bunch, working on logic rather than Mr. White’s humanity or Mr. Blond’s primal unfocused animal rage.

Give him an earful...

That said, Tarantino teases us with the possibility that all of this is just an act. Discussing how he should trust his instincts, Mr. Pink relates what happened the last time he ignored his gut feeling. “It’s like that time I got caught selling weed.” It seems strange that an armed robber should be caught dealing dope. (And it’s telling that only one other member has a similar story, and it doesn’t turn out to be quite what it appears.) Even if he was arrested for doing dope, it seems unlikely that the police would not connect him with any larger crimes. As he points out to Mr. White, armed robbers tend to move in the same circles, and it doesn’t take the police long to identify them.

It’s quite possible that Mr. Pink is less of a professional veteran than he lets on. “This is bad,” he observes, panicking. “This is so $£#@ing bad.” He pauses to ask Mr. White, “Is it bad?” If one follows this line of thought, it adds a great deal of Tarantino’s superb dramatic irony to certain lines. “You’re acting like a first year $£#@ing thief,” he reprimands the older and experienced Mr. White. “I’m acting like a professional!” As things fall to pieces, “We’re supposed be $£#@ing professionals!”

Junk in the trunk...

That wouldn’t be the only wry piece of humour that Tarantino slipped into the film. Watching the movie again after all these years, I was surprised at hom much dark humour the writer and director included. When Mr. Blond is ready to torture the cop, the radio plays “please stop” before he changes the dial. During the scene where Mr. Blond removes the cop’s ear, there’s a visible sign reading “watch your head.” It’s all very droll, and it provides a very grim sense of humour behind all this.

Of course, all one can do is laugh. Part of the beauty of Reservoir Dogs is the sheer and complete amorality of it all. This is a world populated with bad guys – not anti-heroes, but genuine bad guys. Even Mr. White, the moral centre of the film, is liable to talk about cutting off the fingers of people who get in his way as easily as he’ll joke about attractive women in the street. Mr. Pink is willing to do whatever it takes to survive. They both partake in the brutal beating of the police officer. One might even argue that the amateur member of the group, Mr. Orange, sealed his own fate the moment he killed a woman.

Shady character...

Tarantino still makes the character almost appealing. There’s something about Mr. Blond’s charm, as effortlessly brought to life by Michael Madsen, that almost makes you complicit in his brutal torture of the police officer. Mr. Pink is engaging and convincing, able to persuade Mr. Orange with his logic about tipping. Mr. White is almost paternal and protective of the new guy on the team, and we get the sense that Mr. Orange sees him as something of a father figure.

Of course, Tarantino makes it clear that these are not good people – with Joe, Nice Guy Eddie and Pink made out to be casual racists, using all manner of slurs and racial stereotypes. Still, as Mr. Orange can’t help but warm towards them, the audience find themselves somewhat affectionate towards the character – making the more brutal moments that bit more effective. That’s another clever aspect of Tarantino’s structure, the way that it allows us to see them at their best and at their worst in an order we might not expect.

In the pink...

And, in true noir tradition, Tarantino makes the case that these criminals normalise their behaviour by adopting their own codes of practice, adhering to something that they arbitrarily define as a code of “honour among thieves.” The self-justifications and rationalisations abound. “I don’t wanna kill anybody,” Mr. Pink insists. “But if I gotta get out that door, and you’re standing in my way, one way or the other, you’re gettin’ outta my way.”

The distinctions they make are self-justifying nonsense. They distinguish between cops and “real people.” Mr Pink asks, “Did you kill anybody?” Mr. White shrugs, “A few cops.” Mr. Pink clarifies, “No real people?” Mr. White repeats, “Just cops.” Similar, Mr. Blond even tries to justify his own bloodlust to his colleagues. Rationalising his shooting spree, he states, “They set off the alarm. They deserved what they got.” Later on, in his typically convoluted style, he lays out his own sense of morality in starker terms, “If they hadn’t done what I told them not to do, they’d still be alive.”

Ready, Eddie?

It’s a joke to consider that any sort of morality, and Tarantino shrewdly points out that it’s little more than very nasty people wearing the cloak of civility to mask their own darker and more violent capabilities. With his friends finally gone, Mr. Blond is left alone with the cop. Without any reason to justify his brutality, he doesn’t hide his own urges. “Listen kid, I’m not gonna bullsh!t you, all right?” he explains, as he outlines why all the justifications one might use to explain the brutal torture of a cop are just excuses. “I don’t give a good $£#@ what you know, or don’t know, but I’m gonna torture you anyway, regardless. Not to get information. It’s amusing, to me, to torture a cop. You can say anything you want cause I’ve heard it all before. All you can do is pray for a quick death, which you ain’t gonna get.”

This is a bold new world, Tarantino concedes, and even the romantic old codes of honour are nothing more than self-justification at this stage. In the background, the script hints subtly at the possibility that times are changing and that the old mobsters – the kinds practicing according to any code of morality – are almost extinct. Joe seems to represent the last of a dying breed. He’s a mob boss, but he seems to follow his own code. He forgives an old friend a debt, rather than resorting to threats of violence.

Dam(n) sons of bitches...

When he meets Mr. Blond after the latter is released, he states, “Well it’s kinda a strange time right now.” His son, Nice Guy Eddie, elaborates “We got a big meeting coming up in Vegas.” It’s no coincidence that Vegas is one of the iconic “old mob” locations, featuring prominently in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films, along with other movies. It calls to mind an image of old dons meeting in a town that they helped build, panicking about how the world around them could have changed so rapidly.

Speaking of movie references, I am impressed at how well, and how subtly, Tarantino’s fictional universe ties together on screen. Mr. White, for example, is revealed of a partner of Alabama, the female lead from True Romance. Vic Vega is, of course, the brother of Vincent Vega from Pulp Fiction. And, apparently, the case in Pulp Fiction could be argued to contain the diamonds from the heist in this film. Although that would discount the other film-fan theory that the two films take place on the same day. It’s amazing how Tarantino crafts such a subtly connected universe.

Ever dance with the devil?

The cast is fantastic, even Tarantino who isn’t generally that solid an actor. I maintain this is my favourite Harvey Keitel film. Michael Madsen defined his career here. Tim Roth made a career here. Steve Buscemi assured himself a future as the resident weasel. However, I think that Chris Penn doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his work here. I think it’s a stand-out performance in a supporting role, and it gets too easily over-shadowed by the rest of the phenomenal cast.

Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs is a masterpiece, the rare example of a directorial debut that emerges as perfectly formed as one of the diamonds from that heist.

4 Responses

  1. This is an incredible reading of this film, loved every word of it. Bravo sir.

  2. Great review – very insightful. ) Personally, upon seeing ‘Reservoir Dogs’ ‘Pulp Fiction’ seems to me like a kids’ fairy tale. And I know now why ‘Pulp Fiction’ was made the way it was.

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