Mere Anachrony: Reservoir Dogs

Reservoir Dogs

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.

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5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Douglas on November 3, 2009 at 11:06 PM

    I don’t mean to imply that any two movies have to be judged by the same standard, or that one quality alone determines a movie’s greatness, but don’t you think that Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction easily surpass Inglourious Basterds in terms of “emotional subtext” or “depth [of[ the overall story”?

    One of my issues with Inglourious Basterds is that it seems to be little more than a captivating re-imagining of history. This is admittedly a minor issue because, after all, it is a very captivating re-imagining of history. However, the characters seem to lack depth and are largely static. It’s hard to continue this critique because I don’t want to chastise Tarantino for abandoning certain elements of narrative convention. For example, we never learn what inspired Aldo to so passionately despise the Nazis, leaving him somewhat flat from his introduction. One can easily imagine a very hackneyed flashback scene or teary-eyed monologue in which Aldo recalls some horror he experienced at the hands of Nazis; that sort of thing often ruins a scene or film. And while categorically we may be inclined to dismiss those things as trite, they can serve a purpose and they can be done well (recall Butch Coolidge’s entertaining flashback explaining the sentimental value of his watch). Nothing in Inglourious struck me as forcefully as Mr. Orange’s confession, or the death of Vincent Vega, and even the film’s most complex and enjoyable character (can we agree it’s Landa?) doesn’t really evolve in the same way that other Tarantino protagonists/antagonists do.

    Having said that, I’d still list my preferences as 1) Pulp Fiction, 2) Inglourious, and 3) Dogs, which reiterates my point that character development doesn’t function as the sole standard for a film’s quality.

    Your thoughts?

    Reply

    • Posted by John S on November 4, 2009 at 2:41 AM

      I don’t really agree that Inglourious Basterds lacked emotional subtext. I just think it didn’t really have anything to do with Naziism specifically.

      As I discussed with Dan in the comments thread for that post, I viewed the Nazis in the film as mere stand-ins for bad guys. And, honestly, at this point in time, little has to be done to justify a character’s hatred for Nazis. As you point out, any flashback meant to “deepen” Aldo would likely have sucked the fun out of the character. Nevertheless, I think Shoshanna’s story did have real gravitas. It wasn’t sentimental or drawn out, but the initial scene with Lando in the French house was one of Tarantino’s greatest scenes, and it lends power to the whole film in the same way that Orange’s confession and Jules’ conversion lend power to those films. Now, the fact that Shoshanna’s story and Aldo’s story don’t really coalesce so much as they inadvertently collide may be a hindrance to the film, but I would say it’s a minor drawback.

      With that said, I’d put Reservoir Dogs at #2 behind Pulp Fiction (and Inglourious Basterds probably ahead of Kill Bill, but I’m not sure; Kill Bill is underrated, though I haven’t seen it in a while). On rewatching it, what really stands out is how tightly packed Dogs is. Most of the film takes place within a 40 minute time frame which gives it a sense of urgency Basterds lacks. It’s incredibly well-paced and forceful, without any extraneous scenes or shots. The dialogue is also better than the dialogue in Basterds. Although I’m not sure anyone’s given a better performance in a Tarantino film than Christoph Walz gave as Lando.

      Reply

      • Posted by hi on June 8, 2010 at 12:28 AM

        Heres my review of the movie.

        Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” is a big, bold, audacious war movie that will annoy some, startle others and demonstrate once again that he’s the real thing, a director of quixotic delights. For starters (and at this late stage after the premiere in May at Cannes, I don’t believe I’m spoiling anything), he provides World War II with a much-needed alternative ending. For once the basterds get what’s coming to them.

        From the title, ripped off from a 1978 B-movie, to the Western sound of the Ennio Morricone opening music to the key location, a movie theater, the film embeds Tarantino’s love of the movies. The deep, rich colors of 35mm film provide tactile pleasure. A character at the beginning and end, not seen in between, brings the story full circle. The “basterds” themselves, savage fighters dropped behind Nazi lines, are an unmistakable nod to the Dirty Dozen.

        And above all, there are three iconic characters, drawn broadly and with love: the Hero, the Nazi and the Girl. These three, played by Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz and Melanie Laurent, are seen with that Tarantino knack of taking a character and making it a Character, definitive, larger than life, approaching satire in its intensity but not — quite — going that far. Let’s say they feel bigger than most of the people we meet in movies.

        The story begins in Nazi-occupied France, early in the war, when the cruel, droll Nazi Col. Hans Landa (Waltz) arrives at an isolated dairy farm where he believes the farmer (Denis Menochet) is hiding Jews. He’s right, and a young woman named Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) flees into the woods. It is for this scene, and his performance throughout the movie, that Christoph Waltz deserves an Oscar nomination to go with his best actor award from Cannes. He creates a character unlike any Nazi — indeed, anyone at all — I’ve seen in a movie: evil, sardonic, ironic, mannered, absurd.

        The Hero is Brad Pitt, as Lt. Aldo Raine, leader of the Basterds. Tarantino probably wants us to hear “Aldo Ray,” star of countless war films and B pictures. Raine is played by Pitt as a broad caricature of a hard-talking Southern boy who wants each of his men to bring him 100 Nazi scalps. For years, his band improbably survives in France and massacres Nazis, and can turn out in formal eveningwear at a moment’s notice. Pitt’s version of Italian is worthy of a Marx brother.

        The Girl is Shosanna, played by Laurent as a curvy siren with red lipstick and, at the film’s end, a slinky red dress. Tarantino photographs her with the absorption of a fetishist, with closeups of shoes, lips, a facial veil and details of body and dress. You can’t tell me he hasn’t seen the work of the Scottish artist Jack Vettriano, and his noir paintings of the cigarette-smoking ladies in red.

        Shosanna calculatingly flirts with Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), a Nazi war hero and now movie star; he persuades Joseph Goebbels to hold the premiere of his new war film in her theater. This sets up a plot that includes Tarantino breaking several rules in order to provide documentary footage about how flammable nitrate film prints are.

        A Tarantino film resists categorization. “Inglourious Basterds” is no more about war than “Pulp Fiction” is about — what the hell is it about? Of course nothing in the movie is possible, except that it’s so bloody entertaining. His actors don’t chew the scenery, but they lick it. He’s a master at bringing performances as far as they can go toward iconographic exaggeration.

        After I saw “Inglourious Basterds” at Cannes, although I was writing a daily blog, I resisted giving an immediate opinion about it. I knew Tarantino had made a considerable film, but I wanted it to settle, and to see it again. I’m glad I did. Like a lot of real movies, you relish it more the next time. Immediately after “Pulp Fiction” played at Cannes, QT asked me what I thought. “It’s either the best film of the year or the worst film,” I said. I hardly knew what the hell had happened to me. The answer was: the best film. Tarantino films have a way of growing on you. It’s not enough to see them once.

        10/10

        Reply

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