The New Cult Canon: Reservoir Dogs
By Scott Tobias
December 18th, 2008
"I'm hungry. Let's get a taco." —Harvey Keitel, Reservoir Dogs
Earlier this year, I started The New Cult Canon with Donnie Darko, arguably this generation's only genuine midnight-movie phenomenon, so it seemed appropriate to end the year with Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, without question a major touchstone in today's cult cinema. Before Reservoir Dogs premièred at Sundance in 1992, the festival—and the arthouse scene in general—had seen very little of its kind. The independent world was supposed to be cordoned off from the violent, profane genre fare that littered the multiplex. While the great unwashed were off watching Steven Seagal shatter forearms like twigs, Joe Bordeaux-Sippers could flee for safety in tucked-away cinematic oases, where they found the comfort of earnest, socially progressive, values-affirming indie films, stuffy Merchant-Ivory costume dramas, or a host of middlebrow French imports. (Rumor has it that Reservoir Dogs' mysterious title comes from a mispronunciation of one of those middlebrow imports, Au Revoir Les Enfants, while Tarantino was working at a video store.)
Granted, that may be stating things a little broadly. It wouldn't be entirely accurate to call independent film pre-1992 toothless, or mainstream movies vulgar, or to claim that Tarantino was somehow the savior of an ineffectual, irrelevant arthouse scene. But Reservoir Dogs was nonetheless a defining moment, because it lent artistic legitimacy to what would have otherwise been dismissed as genre trash. It didn't make much money in its theatrical run—old viewing habits die hard—but along with Pulp Fiction two years later, it legitimately transformed the scene. Even now, low-budget genre films still have a tough time getting the support they need, but Reservoir Dogs did an awful lot to make them viable by finding a previously nonexistent audience that craved unvarnished visceral excitement without the attendant Hollywood stupidity.
Sixteen years and five films later (not counting Four Rooms, and counting Kill Bill as one), Tarantino has become a polarizing figure, swept along uneasily by the undulating waves of "cool" he helped create. Too often, he's looked upon less as a filmmaker than as a cultural phenomenon, subject to the "hot or not"/"in or out" fickleness of trend-spotters, who don't always consider the merits of his work. Detractors don't like his acting. (Okay, they have a point.) They don't like his obnoxious public persona. They don't like the drooling fanboys who congregate on Ain't It Cool News, or the legions of imitators who've clogged screens and video-store shelves in his wake. But all these things are just a distraction, because they're mostly in response to Tarantino the phenomenon, and not to what happens in the narrow hours when the lights are down and his formidable skills as a writer and director are on display.
Reservoir Dogs opens with what would become a Tarantino signature: The idea that bad guys, in the time between jobs, blab about the same banal shit the rest of us do, albeit in a much more colorful way. Sitting over breakfast with a table full of gangsters, there's Tarantino himself as Mr. Brown, theorizing (convincingly) that the Madonna hit "Like A Virgin" is not about "a sensitive girl who meets a nice fella" (that's "True Blue"), but about a John Holmes-type making a promiscuous girl feel the sweet pain of virginity all over again. That segues into an argument over tipping, prompted by the sniveling Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), who refuses to throw in a buck like everyone else, because he doesn't believe waitresses deserve extra money just for doing their jobs. Mr. Pink is obstinate in the face of reason until bossman Lawrence Tierney, with his gravelly voice and hulking frame, brings him in line: "C'mon, you. Cough up a buck, you cheap bastard."
Nothing said in the opening scene figures in later, not even in some obscure metaphorical way. Tarantino does make the most of an opportunity to introduce his characters, who have convened on a day leading up to a jewelry heist, and won't be seen together again until they meet at a warehouse rendezvous after the botched robbery. But the film would still make sense without the scene, which is just as much about Tarantino delivering a statement of intent that's carried him through to this day. Having these gangsters riff on Madonna and tipping establishes his characters and films as products of popular culture, reflections more of a movie-addled brain than of the far-less-exciting world outside of it. Some tag him as a rip-off artist, but he's really a collagist, cutting and pasting phrases, references, and styles from the past into something new, infused with his own distinct sensibility and unmistakable voice.
Made for just over $1 million, Reservoir Dogs is a classic example of turning budgetary liabilities into creative assets. A heist movie without the heist, the film takes place mostly in one location, the warehouse, and deals alternately with the lead-up and the aftermath. The limited space gives it the intensity of theater, and the interweaving of flashbacks and present-day confrontations make the robbery itself come together in the imagination better than it might have had Tarantino splurged on a Michael Mann setpiece. As with much of Tarantino's work, the heist-without-the-heist conceit isn't unprecedented, nor is the structure—Stanley Kubrick's The Killing, also a model of low-budget resourcefulness, was his acknowledged influence—but he always manages to stay on the right side of the line between homage and rip-off.
Here's what we know right away about the robbery: It didn't go well. Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) and Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) are the first back to the warehouse, with the older White desperately trying to keep the gutshot Orange from bleeding to death. Mr. Pink comes in next, declaring his certainty that they were set up; with their daytime smash-and-grab job, they knew they only had minutes after the alarms went off, but the cops seemed to be waiting for them, and a bloody mêlée ensued. The question then becomes, "Who's the rat?" Could be Mr. Brown, who died in the frantic escape, or Mr. Blue (Eddie Bunker), who never materializes, or maybe Michael Madsen's sadistic Mr. Blonde, who just started shooting bystanders at will once the job went sour. Tarantino takes his time with that and other revelations, and fills in the blanks by giving the key players—Mr. White, Mr. Orange, and Mr. Blonde, specifically—the introductions they deserve. And while everyone's in limbo, he also gives us Blonde torturing a uniformed cop in this career-making NSFW sequence, which forever repurposes the Stealers Wheel bubblegum-Dylan hit "Stuck In The Middle With You".
Tarantino tends to get singled out first for his stylized dialogue (with good reason), and second for his achronological, novelistic approach to storytelling (also with good reason). But he's always been underrated as a director, and the torture scene wouldn't be nearly as effective in more pedestrian hands. It's hard to believe the Madsen of Reservoir Dogs would balloon into the corpulent softie of the Free Willy movies, but in his black-suit-and-sunglasses getup, Tarantino frames him like the second coming of Robert Mitchum, a lean, charismatic figure with the black heart of Mitchum's preacher in The Night Of The Hunter. Having "K-Billy's super sounds of the '70s" in the background sets up the perfect ironic ambience (and gives Madsen the right beat for his famous shuffle), but what Tarantino does with the camera is key. The scene is considered hideously violent, but the most gruesome moments happen offscreen, whether the camera positions itself to miss the cuts of Mr. Blonde's razor, or pans away altogether as he severs the cop's right ear. (The latter shot is a nod to Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, which also has the camera dolly out in the film's most painful moment, when Robert De Niro gets turned down while talking on a payphone.) There's plenty of blood in Reservoir Dogs, but little gratuitousness, and perhaps less violence than the average action thriller; it's a trick of a great director, one who knows how to play with viewers' imaginations, and realizes that less violence can have more impact. On Charlie Rose in 1994, Tarantino quoted Brian De Palma, who once talked about filmmakers getting "penalized" for doing violence well, and he goes on later to explain:
"Violence was like another character in the room [in Reservoir Dogs]. It hung over the proceedings. You kept waiting for every conversation to break out into it. So even if it was funny, the audience might have laughed, but when they get out of the theater, they don't remember laughing."
Thematically, Reservoir Dogs sticks to the tried-and-true "honor among thieves" premise common to most heist movies, and its strong masculine bonds put the film firmly in line with the two-fisted entertainments Tarantino has always championed. At the center of it all is this idea of "professionalism": These guys were hired to do a job, and as professionals, they have a code that dictates how it should be carried out. Mr. Blonde may be loyal, but cutting up a room when the robbery starts to fall apart is unprofessional, as is his extracurricular abduction and torture of a cop.
And though the dynamic between Mr. White and Mr. Orange is surprisingly tender, almost like a bear nursing a cub, all professionalism went out the window the moment Mr. White trusted Mr. Orange enough to tell him his first name, and reveal his incriminating love of the Brewers. Ironically, Buscemi's Mr. Pink comes away as the lone professional: In the chaos following the robbery, he could have (and given the circumstances, probably should have) driven away with the diamonds rather than come back to the rendezvous point, but he didn't. He also tries to break up the Mexican standoff between the other men ("We're supposed to be fucking professionals!"), but he fails and winds up the last man standing, fully entitled to the stash. There's no doubt Tarantino feels more affection for Mr. White, who reveals a kind of tragic decency in taking the younger Mr. Orange under his wing, but the job is the job, and his inability to live by a criminal code hastens his demise.
Above all, though, Reservoir Dogs is about the sheer pleasure of a good story told right, and few people can do it as well as Tarantino. There's a great meta-scene halfway into the movie in which Mr. Orange, an undercover cop preparing to infiltrate this criminal operation, goes over a five-page script called "The Commode Story." The script is a piece of fiction about Mr. Orange's run-in with four cops and a German shepherd while he was carrying a bag of hash, intended to ingratiate him with the other crooks. He's told he needs to be a good actor, "like Brando," but it's really about how stories come alive in the details, and how the storyteller's command of the little things spells the difference between a convincing and an unconvincing tale-or, in this case, between life and death. He may be a savant genius, a semi-literate with little but a pop-cultural education, but when he's really cooking-as in the following scene, when Tierney is handing out aliases-there's no one better.