Reservoir Dogs

You shoot me in a dream, you better wake up and apologize

In celebration of twenty years of filmmaking on the part of Quentin Tarantino (and the upcoming release of his newest film, Django Unchained, which I’m tempted to dodge family holiday obligations in order to see), I was finally able to see Reservoir Dogs, a film that has topped my list for the better part of a decade, in the theatre for the first time.  Instead of the theatre’s usual shameless ads and blockbuster trailers, viewers were shown the original trailers for Quentin’s previous films (Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, etc.) and a bunch of Tarantino trivia.  There were also ads for a new Tarantino Blu-Ray box set, but as Miramax hasn’t yet realized that not everyone has/needs/wants a Blu-Ray player, I tuned out.  The VHS-DVD transition was organic and took decades.  Stop trying to force the next magic discs on us; forcibly rendering the current generation of technology obsolete creates endless waste and yard-sale fodder (plus you’re expediting the takeover of the machines).

It occurs to me that despite my years-long love of Reservoir Dogs, I have yet to write a word about it.  I’m not sure what I can say that hasn’t been said in the past twenty years, but it would seem that in a case like this, people want to know if an old movie “holds up.”  Of course it does, dummy.  But this has also been a big year for anniversaries and re-releases and general love for the cinema (look at the Oscar winners from February): with the somber 100-year anniversary of the Titanic sinking, the film holding its namesake was screened in theatres for the first time since I was in eighth grade.  With twenty years of Quentin behind a camera, we get to see ‘Dogs and Pulp Fiction in the theatre again.  The best part of the overall experience, maybe, was that several moviegoers around me had not seen the film.  They knew Quentin’s name, they’d probably been told that filmmaking was forever changed after his first two films, they’d heard of Mr. Blonde, but hadn’t actually sat through what Quentin once referred to as his equivalent of Kubrick’s The Killing and what many consider to be the greatest independent film of all time.  The reactions, which included gasps, cackles, and plenty of audible occurrences of  “jeeeeezus” said it all.

Reservoir Dogs is a heist film without a heist.  We begin in a diner, with a bunch of guys in identical black suits – Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), Mr. Brown (Quentin Tarantino), and Mr. Blue (Eddie Bunker) – eating breakfast and hashing over the meaning of Madonna songs.  The exceptions to the suits are the two “bosses”: Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) and Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn).  The “diner scene,” as it’s known, has come to be one of the most quotable sequences in film history.  I’ll spare you direct quotes (because your friends surely haven’t), but the scene remains a diamond of screenwriting that sets a precedent for the rest of the movie: dialogue, not contrivance, deepens characters and pushes scenes forward.  Buscemi’s legendary “tipping” vignette is something few of us can avoid thinking about while computing gratuity at a restaurant.

I have always considered Reservoir Dogs to be two separate films.  The diner scene (i.e. everything before George Baker’s “Little Green Bag” and the famous slow-motion walk under the opening credits) is one film, whose attack, rising action, conflict, and resolution are all composed and accomplished through dialogue.  Then, we’ve got a relentless crime film.  Keitel’s character, Mr. White (arguably the only character with any sort of conscience, and I include the police characters in that statement) drags a gut-shot Mr. Orange into a warehouse where Joe, the boss, has instructed everyone to rendezvous.  After Mr. Pink arrives, we learn (through dialogue) that something went wrong with what was supposed to be a simple, two-minute robbery.  An employee set off the alarm, Mr. Blonde executed several innocent people, Mr. Orange was shot by a civilian during the getaway, a legion of police showed up out of nowhere, and Mr. Brown and Mr. Blue were killed.  Most of this, at least at the outset, is not shown, and we are left to imagine the horrific events.  White and Pink deduce that someone in the group must be a rat (i.e. an undercover cop).  White rules out Orange, who is slowly dying from his wound, and doubts that Joe knew anything about the setup.  Mr. Blonde, who casually arrives drinking soda from a paper cup, dismisses their theory, dodges questions about why he became a psychopath at the jewelry store, and reveals that he has kidnapped a police officer (Kirk Baltz), whom the trio savagely beat for information (and also out of boredom, as they are to wait for Joe and Nice Guy Eddie to meet them for further instruction).

Through a series of flashbacks that play like the three acts of a stage drama (complete with titles over a black screen), we witness Joe’s recruitment of Mr. White, Mr. Blonde, and Mr. Orange, each of which reveal something else about where the story is headed.  The film’s events (in the present) are pushed along by accidents and severe mistakes, which turns the film into a comedy of errors that is anything but funny (as much as we may laugh and grin at the amusing dialogue).  The biggest mistake since the initial heist happens when Eddie decides to leave Mr. Blonde alone with the unconscious Mr. Orange and the tied-up cop.  This gives way to the iconic “ear-cutting scene,” which many exclusively remember Mr. Blonde (and Madsen) for, and which rendered “Stuck in the Middle with You” virtually unlistenable without picturing Blonde’s sadistic antics.

The longest and most well-crafted of the flashback acts belongs to Mr. Orange, who is revealed to be the informant after gunning down Blonde in defense of the cop, and contains the only story-within-a-story-within-a-story-within-a-story I’ve ever seen done on film (Inception doesn’t count).  The story plays out violently, yet controlled, when the others discover Orange’s identity, and the final smash-cut to the credits and Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut” leaves the audience fatigued, somber, and still thinking.  Consider the fact that in 2012, the most expensive of indie films (the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas) can only accomplish two of those.

The film’s violence is the primary struggle of the film’s detractors, aside from the rough and unapologetic language.  It’s not because of gratuity or the sheer amount of red Kool-Aid seen smeared all over the backseat of Mr. White’s car and the floor of the warehouse; it’s because the violence is portrayed in such a realistic and disturbing way.  Here, we do not have James Bond twirling around and gracefully blasting supervillains over bridges with only a hole in the enemy’s shirt to indicate damage taken.  Here, people bleed when shot, the wrong people die, and the cops aren’t the good guys – in fact, without police involvement, no one would have been injured (much less killed) in the heist.  An anecdote told by an L.A. Sheriff in Mr. Orange’s flashback in which he finds humor in verbally brutalizing and threatening to kill a “stupid fucking citizen” still haunts me more than most of the shooting.  The film’s realism is also bolstered by the fact that there are very few, if any, reshoots and retakes.  Most of the shots are long and wide.  Buscemi, speaking at 100mph, stumbles over lines and loses his breath.  Tierney, bookending his career as a crime actor, repeats lines and thinks so hard about what he wants to say that we’re not sure he’s actually acting.  The lack of jump cuts makes us forget that we’re watching a scripted film and not just a bunch of guys in a room trying to find their way out of a life-and-death predicament.

To those who count the film’s disturbing portrayal of violence as rendering the film somehow unwatchable, I’ll say this: you should not be comfortable while watching Reservoir Dogs.  Not at any point.  Not even when you know what’s coming.  I’ve seen this movie dozens of times, and I have yet to eat during it or to find amusement in the in-and-of-itself facts of what happens.  Discomfort during a movie like this, the act of looking away when a guy has his face slashed by a straight razor, might be a glimmer of hope in disguise: perhaps we are not completely desensitized to blood and gore and murder, not when it’s shown to us as it actually exists.  I called out the violence of Cloud Atlas for being gratuitous and unnecessary, but in that case it’s done for a different reason – Reservoir Dogs is not an action epic nor a film during which to cheer; it offers more than violent spectacle.  There are no stylish flourishes during shootouts.  There’s cinematic artwork involved.  There’s something you can take away besides fatigue, but you’ll have to decide for yourself what that is.

Reservoir Dogs is a 101 course on film structure, and its re-release will net a few new fans for Quentin (not that he’s got a deficiency).  The re-release is also a breath of cool air for those of us who just want to see a higher ratio of good films to disappointments when we go to the theatre; for the rest, maybe it’s a nudge into the correct queue line.  All that’s left is for the corporate theatres to mimic this event and put a serious damper on all the shameless advertising.  Blu-Rays reign supreme?  Tell that bullshit to the tourists.

Reservoir Dogs (1992); written and directed by Quentin Tarantino; starring Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi, and Michael Madsen.   

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