WARNING: This post contains spoilers. You should only read it if you’ve seen Reservoir Dogs, or if you have no interest in seeing the movie but for some reason want to read a review of it.
I was not a fan of Reservoir Dogs when I first saw it.
The first time I saw it was at summer camp when I was 14 years old. A friend of mine had sprained his ankle in the middle of the summer, which prevented him from doing pretty much anything the rest of us did. It’s hard to play basketball or soccer when you can’t really stand up (unless you’re Willis Reed, I guess). So he basically spent all of his time alone in his bunk watching movies on VHS.
Most of these films were generic comedies of the 1990s, like American Pie, Ace Ventura and Friday, but one day he head tossed in Reservoir Dogs, and I walked in about halfway through.
Now, it’s never ideal to start in the middle of a movie, and this is a perfect example why. I don’t remember exactly when I started watching the film attentively—I had gotten pretty used to tuning the movies out by that point, they were on all the time—but at some point it got my undivided attention. It is incredibly hard to ignore a Quentin Tarantio movie. They are so visually arresting and the dialogue is so sharp that they demand your attention.
But while I was engrossed in the film by it’s ending, I was ultimately disappointed by the conclusion. The final scene seemed abrupt and unsatisfying. It was a flashy, intense, bloody ending with little emotional value. Mr. Sprained Ankle agreed.
As is often the case with Tarantino movies, though, the film stuck in my head for a long time after seeing it. Reservoir Dogs is such a visceral movie that it’s hard to forget for the same reasons that it is impossible to ignore. Eventually, after watching Pulp Fiction and deciding that I hadn’t given Tarantino a fair chance, I rewatched Reservoir Dogs from the beginning and realized it was a truly great film.
My initial feelings about Dogs were not all that different from the complaints a lot of people have with the film, and with Tarantino in general. It’s hard to argue that the film is not stylistically immaculate, but it appears to lack depth.
Let’s start, though, with the immaculate stuff. A few months ago, in discussing Inglourious Basterds, I implied that Tarantino is better at making scenes than he is at making movies. The reason for this impression is that Tarantino is very good at the visual the component of his films. For all the discussion of the strength of the dialogue that he writes, most of the best parts of Tarantino movies have no dialogue at all: Butch’s search for a weapon in Pulp Fiction, The Bride’s battle with the Crazy 88 in Kill Bill Vol. 1, the movie theater shootout in Basterds.
The best examples of this phenomenon, however, come Reservoir Dogs. The initial “hero walk,” for example, is one of the coolest intros in any movie ever—never has eight guys walking down the street been so compelling.
More impressive, though, is the scene the movie is best remembered for, in which Mr. Blonde tortures and cuts the ear off of a police officer:
The way this scene is shot maximizes the power of it. From the beginning, in which we see the cop impotently squirm in his chair as Mr. Blonde points a gun at him with no intention of shooting, we instinctively understand the immense pleasure Blonde is getting from this. Once the music comes on and dancing ensues, the party really starts.
Two decisions Tarantino makes in this scene pay dividends. First, there is his decision to pan away from the action while Blonde cuts off the cop’s ear. Now, the reason a lot of people give for this is that it allows us to “imagine” it, and our imagination can be more gruesome than anything Tarantino could have filmed. But I don’t really think that’s right. What panning away really does is give the viewer hope. We don’t know what exactly Blonde is planning, and panning away maintains that suspense—and allows us to delude ourselves for a brief second that it won’t be that bad. When it is revealed, all we see is the aftermath, and Blonde’s smug sense of satisfaction. The image becomes horrifying and playful, instead of gruesome.
The second decision that works is the decision to follow Blonde out of the warehouse to his car. This brief respite for the torturous domicile interjects a suburban calm into the proceedings. The ease—and pointlessness—with which Blonde is going about his performance is already unsettling. To see it taking place in a larger, tranquil world is even more twisted.
Where, however, is the gravity of this scene? What makes it more than just a instance of sick voyeurism?
Well, the simple answer is the plot twist that comes in the end. Just when Blonde is about to light the cop on fire, Mr. Orange mows him down, revealing himself to be an undercover cop.
Now, when I first saw this movie, that’s all I thought this was: a plot twist. Mr. Orange is a cop and he set the whole robbery up from the beginning. Then the other bad guys find out, and the movie ends in fiery bloodshed…albeit well-written fiery bloodshed with good cinematography.
The true emotional weight of the final scene, however, comes from the bond between Mr. White and Mr. Orange. When I first saw the final scene, I figured that the White/Orange relationship had been developed, but I certainly didn’t think it had been such a trial by fire. The relationship is not one that is borne out of shared jokes and experiences on the job—all eight of the participants have that, but only White ends up attached to Orange. The relationship really begins when Orange gets shot in the gut. The fact that White and Orange have no real relationship prior to the shooting of Orange makes the connection more impressive, not less; it highlights how much of a limb White went out on to vouch for Orange.
It is only all the more sad since we now know that White is wrong, that Orange is, in fact, a cop. White, however, is too moved by the compassion he feels for a wounded comrade to see that. This short-lived bond sustains the movie. Due to the nonlinear storytelling, White and Orange begin the film together—in the first scene after the credits, White is holding Orange’s hand and then cradling him in his arms after his gunshot wound—and end it together, with Orange confessing to White that he is a cop.
I would be lying, of course, if I said that this thread is what makes the movie great. White’s sympathy for Orange, and the ultimate sense of betrayal he feels, is touching, but it doesn’t exactly carry the emotional gravity of the final scene of The Godfather Part II. What it does, though, is add depth to the overall story’s arc, allowing scenes like the one we get with Mr. Blonde and the cop and the initial confrontation between Mr. Pink and Mr. White to function as something beyond a stylistic exercise. It’s these parts of the movie that are hard to get out of your head, and, thanks to the emotional subtext that runs through the whole movie, you don’t really want to.