Reservoir Dogs

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Paul: Much like the structures of the films themselves, my introduction to Quentin Tarantino was out of order, starting in the middle. I was far too young to see or even know about his first three films (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown) when they were released. My interest in cinema only took off around the time of the Kill Bill movies, when I saw Pulp Fiction in an edited-for-TV version. Next, I pursued Reservoir Dogs, but not until I caught the ending of that film on television. I find it very appropriate that I saw the ending of this film before seeing it in its entirety. It’s a testament to how great the ending is that my eyes were glued to the screen even though this constituted a “spoiler.” This movie, more than anything else I’ve seen, makes me think that “spoiler” is too strong a term. Reservoir Dogs might actually be unspoilable. It reminds me how fleeting the experience of seeing a movie for the first time, not knowing its ending, is. If a movie’s worth seeing at all, isn’t it worth seeing twice?
As the start of Tarantino’s career, Reservoir Dogs is already legendary at twenty years of age. Like any great debut, it combines the experimentation and confidence of youth with foretastes of what’s to come. Tarantino’s style (both of filmmaking and fashion), his interest in violence, the relationships among criminals, and pop music from his youth are all vividly presented. From the opening scene, an endlessly watchable breakfast conversation among the black-suited jewel thieves, Tarantino makes us care about these men without softening their viler aspects. From here, in typical Tarantino fashion, the story will jump around in time. Do you think the structure of this film holds up after the first viewing, or does it feel more like a simple trick to hold our attention?

Daniel:  This movie has never failed to hold my attention, even after several viewings. To attribute this “jump around” style to cheap tactics to hold our attention is to call Tarantino’s entire filmmaking career a gimmick, which undoubtedly some do. I, however, do not hold to that school of thought. Tarantino is one of the most unique, yet mainstream, filmmakers out there. His signature style of showing scenes “out of order” and the way he has his characters banter on about a sundry of different subjects that are entirely separate from the film as a whole sounds like a terrible idea. But it works, and has worked for Quentin Tarantino’s entire career. The dialogue and the way it’s delivered allows us to know the characters in a more subtle, but intimate manner. We don’t have to be introduced to the characters, rather we get to observe them as they go about their business. These characters are much too busy to stop and introduce themselves to each other, let alone an audience. This is the case with Reservoir Dogs.
One thing to be said for this film is that it feels much more grounded than most of Quentin Tarantino’s movies. While certain aspects are very much over the top, it has the most natural feel of any movie of his that I have seen; to the extent where one might think that this could happen in real life, putting this movie on a different level of drama than we’re used to seeing. The actors in this film embody each of their roles so entirely, that you might be just as entertained watching them read the script in a room as you are watching the story unfold in front of you. This isn’t far from what the movie actually does, as the majority of the movie takes place inside a warehouse, relying almost entirely on the talent of the actors to carry the bulk of our attention. The actors individually were great, but together they were phenomenal. Rarely do you see a cast display this level of synergy creating emotions that are always tense. Harvey Keitel as Mr. White and Tim Roth as Mr. Orange displayed one of the strongest emotional bonds I have ever seen; and of course, Steve Buscemi is always a delight to watch on screen and this role suited him very well. Were there any characters that you particularly enjoyed watching? Any you found distracting to the overall tone of the movie?

Paul: Everyone is good, even Tarantino himself. I know some people criticize him as an actor, but he’s basically just playing himself, and after the “Like a Virgin” speech he pretty much disappears from the movie. Keitel, Roth, and Buscemi are all solid. I’ll make special mention of Michael Madsen’s performance, though. Mr. Blonde (NOTE: since most of these characters have never met, they are given code names to protect their identities) is one of the most memorable psychotic villains I’ve ever seen. This is especially impressive considering that most of Mr. Blonde’s horrifying acts occur offscreen. Madsen’s physical presence leaves no doubt that he’s capable of just about anything. Other than the opening scene, in which he jokes about shooting Mr. White, we don’t see him interacting with the other guys prior to the heist, so there’s an added sense that he’s separate from the group. On the other hand, his wrath is really only ever directed at the police and the customers in the jewelry store. I get a sense that he is completely loyal to the mission – he’s a sadist and a murderer, but he’s no traitor. So when it’s suggested that one of the team is an undercover cop and Buscemi’s Mr. Pink rules out Mr. Blonde, I agree with his reasoning. Madsen really gives a fascinating performance; it’s probably the highlight of his career.
Tarantino’s dialogue was already masterful in his debut. As I said, some of the violence happens offscreen, including the heist of the jewelry store itself, but the way these events are described makes them just as memorable as anything we see. What were some of the bits of dialogue, conversations or jokes that stood out to you?

(Some potential spoilers ahead. If that really matters to you, watch the movie already!)

Daniel: In terms of dialogue that advances characters, Tim Roth’s persistent practice and increasingly convincing delivery of the “Commode Story” is pretty powerful. It demonstrates a visual maturity for his character. At one point Mr. Orange (Roth) is required to convincingly take a short anecdote and make it his own. We see him struggling with reading the words on paper, to a scene that shows him completely engrossed in the story, so much so that it visually starts happening around him as he spouts out every emotion and detail of his story.

The complexity of the relationships between characters was another strong point. As the film progresses we see just what the relationship is with each of the other characters. As the idea of a traitor is being introduced we see alliances form between each of the criminals. Directly after the opening credits we realize that something has gone horribly wrong. One thief is shot and in excruciating pain, some are dead and everyone that made it out of the heist alive is trying to figure out A) what happened and B) what to do next. Like you said, the majority of the heist is seen off screen, relying on the planning and oratory explanations from the characters to fill us in. because so little is seen, we are forced to gain our understanding of each person’s motives by observing each individual’s relationship with another.

Paul: The “commode story” sequence is a great example of elliptical storytelling, because we move from scenes of Roth working on his delivery to the visualization of the event without going over anything a second time. It’s also a great piece of filmmaking. I still marvel at the intensity of the story’s climax, despite the fact that, for one thing, Mr. Orange is simply recounting what already happened, and for another, well, it never actually happened at all. The audience already knows this, but we get sucked in by the script, Roth’s performance, the sound effects and pacing. That’s the level of care that Tarantino devoted to this film. The sequence is crucial because it’s what gets Mr. Orange accepted into the group. The icing on the cake is that the sequence also reminds us how powerful the illusions of movies can be.
Loyalty is a central theme. A few characters also emphasize professionalism, but given how chaotic everything becomes, that sounds more like a joke than anything else. Loyalty and trust, on the other hand, are treated with the utmost seriousness – over and above the fact that these guys are thieves and killers. You touched on the relationship between Messrs. White and Orange. I think the plot revolves entirely around that. In fact, while it seems to make sense that the heist is the story’s central event, I’d argue that the pivotal moment is when Mr. Orange gets shot. Everything after that point proceeds chronologically, whereas a couple moments between the robbery and Mr. Orange being shot are shown in flashback. Until Mr. Orange is wounded, both cops and robbers still have every reason to believe they’ll succeed with just a few casualties. But at that pivotal moment, Mr. White’s primary goal changes from the group’s common goal to saving the man who has become his friend, which is the first step toward disintegrating the group. And Mr. Orange is forced to wait helplessly while the others find out who he really is. So the story moves down the path to tragedy.

Daniel: While the issue of professionalism is scoffed at, it’s interesting to note that amidst all the chaos it is that trait that pays off. Loyalty, trust, friendship, betrayal; all these things cause some of the most dramatically poignant scenes to play out, however all these are ultimately no match for logically considering all the information and separating oneself from the situation. Mr. Pink drives this point home during the film’s first real conflict. If loyalty is a central theme, but it leads to tragedy where does that place professionalism? It’s looked at almost as a joke, as you said, but in the end it was the only true payoff; one that prevents devastating heartbreak and a violent death.

(End of potential spoilers. Why haven’t you watched this movie yet?)

As is the case with all of his films, Tarantino makes special use of the music selected for the film. The selection is so off the wall, but so completely perfect for the scenes they’re used in. I can no longer hear the song “Stuck in the Middle With You” without my thoughts immediately turning to the scene where Mr. Blonde eerily dancing around to the pop song in front of a bound and gagged police officer. Were there instances of music and/or sound clips that were used in an unconventional or unexpected way that you found particularly creative? Or perhaps gimmicky?

Paul: The music is used to great effect, and the ironic use of pleasant music over violent scenes has been imitated to death since. I think we see a progression in Tarantino’s career. In his first film, the music is all from the 70s, and it’s all played on radios in the film so that characters listen to it and interact with it. By Kill Bill, Tarantino was using music in a great range of styles, and if I remember correctly, very little of it was “diegetic,” as they say. The music of the soundtrack is not present in the world of the film itself. In Reservoir Dogs, however, the “Super Sounds of the 70s” radio station is something that connects several of the main characters in their shared nostalgic enjoyment. You picked my choice for best musical moment. The “Stuck in the Middle with You” scene is rightfully the most famous from the movie. It’s also one that calls attention to the fact that the music is part of the scene as opposed to being played over it. Mr. Blonde exits the room, and we stop hearing the song. When he walks back in, the song picks up at just the right point for the amount of time that elapsed. Of course, the way that scene ends is easily the best thing about it, but we won’t go into why. Another great song is the one played over the opening credits (“Little Green Bag” by George Baker Selection) as the guys walk in slow motion in their sunglasses and suits. That moment works pretty well as a definition of “cool.” But then, when it comes to music, I think basically whatever Tarantino touches turns cool.
Reservoir Dogs still works. It’s easy to put it in the box of “important” films, for launching Tarantino’s career and inspiring other filmmakers of his generation. But the movie is also vividly entertaining, gruesome, hilarious, and packs a lot more of an emotional punch than Tarantino is usually given credit for. Some argue that he hasn’t made as good a movie since. I don’t quite agree, but it certainly remains one of his very best.

Daniel: I have to agree that this is one of his best works, while at the same time being his most simple. The budget for this film is estimated at $1,200,000; a fairly large number until contrasted with Kill Bill Vol. 1 which was estimated at over $30,000,000. The film is one of those rare treats in which the audience gets to witness a project where the filmmaker is not only excited and ambitious about his product, but is also extremely talented at conveying his vision, despite limited resources. This was, essentially, Tarantinos “garage movie”, a film that required a small budget, and easy shots. The dramatic scenes are powerful, the direction is exact, the editing works great and the film is entertaining. The movie delivers on every level, the talent displayed by every member of the cast and crew shows the dedication to the film as an art rather than a consumer product.

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2 Responses to “Reservoir Dogs”

  1. Personal Milestones Measured in Movies » Popcorn and Peril Says:

    […] year. If you would like the read a discussion on the movie between myself and Paul Boyne do so by clicking here) 1998 – The year I was Baptized The Truman […]

  2. Personal Milestones Measured in Movies « Popcorn and Peril Says:

    […] year. If you would like the read a discussion on the movie between myself and Paul Boyne do so by clicking here) 1998 – The year I was Baptized The Truman […]

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