A directorial debut shouldn’t become famous for a torture scene. It would be like a general becoming renowned for attrition warfare. They might have done their jobs by definition but surely there was a nicer way to go about it? War has standards and so do films. But Quentin Tarantino earns every weighty second as he breaks them. Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) coyly shuffles to “Stuck in the Middle with You” as he loosens a guy’s ear with a razor and half a smile. QT has a way of staring the audience down. I can almost hear him: “What, you thought that was grotesque? Watch me outdo myself.”
The film opens at a diner, the kind where the waitresses call you “hon” and the apple pie is the best in the county. The camera rotates around the gang of suits, so close that the light goes in and out as they talk too much. They’ve been assembled for a diamond heist by Joe, played by veteran grimacer Lawrence Tierney, under a color wheel of aliases: Mr. White, Mr. Blonde, Mr. Blue, Mr. Brown, Mr. Orange and Mr. Pink. Mr. Tarantino himself gets things started on an anatomical note as Mr. Brown, ranting sexual gags around a table of his idols (can you think of a more self-congratulatory first scene in a directorial debut?). Steve Buscemi as Mr. Pink starts in on that manic rambling he does that always reminds me of a rat scurrying across a floor, this time about refusing to tip a waitress or something. The credits roll up like a curtain call and QT already gives the impression that this is a movie that knows it’s a movie, and that he’s someone you’d best start calling QT.
The studded cast includes Tim Roth as the tremulous Mr. Orange, Samuel L. Jackson as a character so loudly unnamed he might as well be himself, and Harvey Keitel as Mr. White. He plays the thieves from every heist movie rolled into one; since we never see the heist in Reservoir Dogs that makes everything go so wrong, Keitel inhabits them all at once. He tells Mr. Orange how to deal with a guy who thinks he’s Charles Bronson. Perhaps he met him before, on the set across the lot? Keitel is the credentials crime films use to get into the big clubs with an underage narrative (Scorsese has a table reserved there). First-time director Tarantino gets in but he lies so well he accidentally convinces himself too.
Everything swirls around the pull of an event we never see, when the perfect heist exploded off camera and set up all this dynamic human scenery. All we know is told in flashbacks before and after that eccentric point in the story’s hidden center of gravity.
Whatever we want to imagine could really have happened in there -- it can be every heist in every heist movie. Even the men still groaning and shouting accusatory spittle at their chromatic partners can’t agree on the details. After ruing it a while in the safe house, the stragglers try to collect their suspicions around a theme (sort of like Tarantino writing them do so). Madsen shows up with his icy psychopathy and things tempt to get real bloody interesting.
But they can’t agree on whether they want to be incisive or superficial, ironically violent or un-ironically funny. The only thing the characters can agree on is how terrific “K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the 70s” is as it plays intermittently on contextual radios like video games do now when you’re looting rooms. Each song sounds prophetic but only if you don’t think about it, like it’s relevant and meaningful less for what it is than for being out of place here. That's Tarantino with films -- it started with Reservoir Dogs and it never stopped. His films are for a particular kind of film lover, who has a taste for film itself but not for one kind particularly. Even this early in his career, QT is enthusiastically transplanting things he likes into his scripts (if you've seen the 1987 Hong Kong heist film City on Fire, then Reservoir Dogs will give you a lot of deja-vu). He loves movies, and he tries to put them all in this one: that's how we get that brilliant plot device of the unseen heist, as a result of QT's inability to make just one movie. He can only refer to the others he's seen, and would do so to all of them if he could. But looking back at how QT became passionate and what energy he used to make this first movie, I'm wondering: when has Scorsese ever made a movie about an event that took place in someone else's movie? For someone whose entire body of work seems like a play on Taxi Driver, QT never quite makes it there.
Reservoir Dogs is better than its contemporaries but not better than its inspirations, the kind of art you don’t understand but “appreciate.” Unlike QT’s Kill Bill, which is too busy not apologizing for being a movie to have a sermon hidden under its jumpsuit, Reservoir Dogs acts like it has something to say even though it’s up to you to figure it out. But it's the concept of acting that way that's the whole point: don't ask me the "meaning" of something like Reservoir Dogs because I can't give it to you. If you said it was a movie about suspicious men verbally flexing and glowering a lot, a Tarantino acolyte would say you missed the point. If you rambled on like Buscemi about its social contexts and emergent themes, Tarantino himself would call you a moronic academe.
When asked about the film’s title in an interview for Empire, Tarantino said, “It’s just a perfect title for those guys, they are reservoir dogs, whatever the hell that means.” So is the title’s meaning hanging out on the corner of the credits reel hoping you'll come over? Do you have to put in the effort to get it to come to you? Maybe it expects you to be that desperate (maybe QT always does). It feels like a movie made with a title picked because it sounded good, and though that concept can’t stop the inertia of a gore master’s well-acted inaugural effort, like everything else even the brutality feels like a screenwriter’s idiosyncrasy, more demanding to its captive audience than to its own purpose. Reservoir Dogs is a line of code only the rest of QT’s career could possibly decrypt, and if you tried he'd probably never accept your answer. The closest I could come to making him happy might be to say that it's about movies, whatever the hell that means.
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew
|Mr. White||Harvey Keitel|
|Mr. Orange||Tim Roth|
|Mr. Blonde||Michael Madsen|
|Mr. Pink||Steve Buscemi|
|Mr. Brown||Quentin Tarantino|
|Eddie "Nice Guy" Cabot||Chris Penn|