At this point, the story of Quentin Tarantino has become fodder of the dreams of independent and amatuer filmmakers. Just over 20 years ago, Tarantino was working at a video store and all he had were his dreams. Now he is considered to be one of the most creative and visionary storytellers of our generation. His name has been listed along those of Scorsese, Kubrick, and Hitchcock. This is the film that started all of that. Before Pulp Fiction rocketed him to fame, Reservoir Dogs shocked and surprised audiences and critics alike. Empire magazine called it the greatest independent film of all time. It cost 1.2 million to make and doubled that in box office reciepts even though it was shown in less than 100 theaters. Tarantino has cited Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing as one of the major influences for Reservoir Dogs. Sadly, I have not seen this earlier gem. But I see many similarities between Kubrick and Tarantino. Tarantino, the fast-talking former video store clerk remains a major player. In fact, of his seven features, five are listed in the IMDb Top 250:
- Reservoir Dogs
- Jackie Brown
- Kill Bill
- Inglourious Basterds
- Django Unchained
So, what can I say about Reservoir Dogs that hasn’t already been said? Not much, but I can say it again. It’s a straightforward heist film that follows the genre’s basic format. A group of talented professionals band together for one big score. The attempt goes awry and the members turn on each other in the aftermath. There’s also a traitor, often an undercover cop, who places the others in jeopardy, willingly or not. In his debut film, Tarantino takes this model and infuses it with his now signature style and breathes life and chaos into the predictable formula.
First of all, Tarantino injects on the genre is his over-the-top dialogue, which has become more renowned because of Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and his more recent projects. Reservoir Dogs opens with a lengthy conversation about the meaning of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”, led by Tarantino himself as Mr. Brown. This type of pop-culture discussion from his characters would become a signature part of Tarantino’s movies going forward. Heist films aren’t generally known for their dialogue, so this was quite a dramatic change and widely expanded the audience for this movie. Characters mention Lee Marvin, Marlon Brando, the Thing from the Fantastic Four, The Lost Boys, and other enjoyable references. These guys may be involved in a daring crime, but they’re still people with other interests.
Secondly, Tarantino removes the normal focus of a heist film. The only scene we get of the heist is Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) fleeing from police after being ambushed. He recounts his escape to Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) after they gather at a vacant warehouse, which is the primary setting for the movie. By doing this, he deepens the film. The film really begins in the aftermath of the botched heist, and it’s jarring to leap right into the unknown situation. Mr. White is driving a getaway car while his cohort Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) writhes in the back seat and bleeds profusely from a gut shot. Most heist films introduce us to the characters and focus on their preparations for the big robbery. Tarantino does flash back to the time prior to the heist, but he’s not interested in their specific plans. Instead, he’s concerned with briefly setting up these professional thieves and their backgrounds.
Third, heist movies typically focus on criminals, there usually is a lead character (or a group of characters) that we identify with and want to succeed. A good example is Frank Ocean, who we follow from the start of Oceans 11, and while we meet others, we are tied to Frank and root for him and his team, even though he is a crook. In Reservoir Dogs, it’s not clear who we should root for because Tarantino scrambles the narrative. If the story was told chronologically, we’d likely connect with Tim Roth’s undercover cop, known by the alias Mr. Orange. In this structure, however, we don’t learn his identity and back story until more than an hour into the movie. By that point, we’ve grown to like Harvey Keitel’s Mr. White, especially because of his loyalty to his comrade. Steve Buscemi’s Mr. Pink is also interesting, though he’s a bit too manic and doesn’t tip. After we see the lengthy interlude of Orange’s preparations to infiltrate the gang, we feel sorry for the guy, but he’s not really our hero. Tarantino is taking a real chance by stopping the forward plot so late in the game. Watching Orange rehearse his made-up story is a classic segment, but it only works if we’re invested in the story. Tarantino trusts that we’re interested enough in this world to stick with him until the final shootout.
A fourth departure is the graphic violence, which keeps us on edge throughout the movie. Unlike gangster films, heist movies usually spend more time on the characters and plans of the heist and don’t include brutal killings. Tarantino actually moves some of the grisliest moments off-screen, but the overall nastiness remains. The prime example is Mr. Blond (Michael Madsen), who’s recently spent time in prison and has returned with a crazy streak. In the movie’s signature scene, he tortures a helpless cop, cuts off his ear, and prepares to burn him with gasoline. There’s no motive for this action beyond inflicting pain in the most vicious way possible. Strutting to the sweet sounds of “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel, he delivers a frightening, yet cool depiction of a psychopath. This is not your everyday working-class thief.
The ending of the film is classic. It encapsulates the nihilism that we have seen throughout. We see loyalty and trust as well as betrayal and death. So, should everyone watch this film? Certainly not. If coarse language and violence is offensive to you, if you’ve seen other Tarantino films and been disgusted, then this won’t be for you. However, if you are a fan of gangster and heist movies or if you enjoy Tarantino’s style, you will like this first of his efforts. Tarantino injects his own unconventional style into the genre and delivers a powerful, energetic, and original film.
Do you agree with me? Am I way off on this one? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter or Facebook.