RESERVOIR DOGS C+
USA (99 mi) 1992 ‘Scope d: Quentin Tarantino
USA (99 mi) 1992 ‘Scope d: Quentin Tarantino
I don't give a good fuck what you know, or don't know, but I'm gonna torture you anyway, regardless. —Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen)
Quentin Tarantino came out of nowhere with this astonishing film debut, playing mostly to arthouse crowds, but exhibiting an unusual command of David Mamet-style profanity-laden dialogue, camera placement, complex storytelling, period music, and terrific performances, all evident from the start. Something of a horrific, one-act, modernist play, a revisit of Sartre’s No Exit, a heist gone wrong story told out of sequence, where it’s an action flick without the action, never showing the actual robbery, becoming instead a psychological examination of the male participants, all cast in their own conflicting moral dilemmas, where these guys are seen leading dead-end lives, so used to staring death in the eye that they become nihilistic, hardened cynics where life itself has little meaning. It’s an ultra violent, excessively bloody but uncompromising work, a kind of pathetic existentialist reflection on the state of masculinity, as seen through the eyes of a gang of outlaws. Opening with a big dick joke, veering into “nigger” jokes, a work where women are discussed almost exclusively as sex objects, the film is an impressionistic portrait of criminal outsiders living in a heavily stylized, artificial world where male tastelessness abounds. While disguised within the context of male criminal mentality, much of these offensive views appear throughout the work of Tarantino, where for whatever reason, he’s deluded to think a white guy can tell “nigger stories” without evoking an offensive racial response. Tarantino goes further and uses the same obnoxious tastelessness with stories about Jews, Asians, blacks, and women, all meant for laughs, where in his mind cleverness rises above the derogatory nature of his commentary. Nonetheless, the offense is still there onscreen. It’s not much different than doing a scene in blackface, which Spike Lee did in his own film BAMBOOZLED (2000), but even from a black director it’s still abhorrently tasteless. Some may think the laugh overrides the offense, which is easy to think, so long as the noxious joke is not on you. The director’s self-indulgent insistence, however, to inflict his own brand of adolescent callousness upon the public only undermines the overall significance of his work.
The film challenges the pervasive view that there is a code of honor among thieves, as personified by mythical outlaws like Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), who captured the nation’s attention during the Depression by becoming identified with American folklore, or a bond of loyalty owed to seemingly invincible outlaws like James Cagney’s iconic gangster Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1949). Instead this film suggests every man is not a superhero, but simply a man, where if pushed far enough, they’re subject to a psychological meltdown. In the manner of John Huston’s ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950), a film noir written by crime novelist W.R. Burnett, the story concerns a group of men planning a jewel robbery, becoming a study in crime. While Huston’s film is hyper-realistic, reflecting the mindset of a near perfect crime that quickly unravels at the last moment leaving every man paying the ultimate price, Tarantino creates a vacuous netherworld that takes place nearly entirely inside an empty warehouse. More importantly, one of the gang takes a bullet in the gut and can be seen slowly bleeding to death, laid out alone on a ramp receiving no medical attention, a reflection of the fate that awaits each and every one of them. This fatalistic exercise goes through various stages, introducing in segments each of the main characters, developing introductory insight into each man, bringing a unique kind of insight into their master plan, where the audience only sees the aftermath, where information spills out little by little. The characters themselves are memorable, headed by Joe (Lawrence Tierney), the aging leader of the pack and his hot-head son Eddie (Chris Penn). The rest are identified only under alias names, where stalwart gangster Harvey Keitel is Mr. White, the more nervous Tim Roth is Mr. Orange, manic psychopath Michael Madsen is Mr. Blonde, while the always pissed off Steve Buscemi is Mr. Pink. Of interest, Blonde’s actual name is Vic Vega, the brother of Vincent Vega, John Travolta’s character in Pulp Fiction (1994), where Tarantino always wanted to bring them together in a film, but never did.
What’s unique about the film is how different each character is, though all are unlikable, where there’s no real emotional connection to any one of them, mostly seen only after the failed robbery is over, where the mystery is observing how they each react to the ultimate failure of their mission. Perhaps the most inventive aspect is Tarantino’s imaginative use of flashbacks, gaining insight into the principal characters, where especially intriguing is an extended men’s room joke that is completely made up, that is part of an original flashback scene with Tim Roth, but is then used again as a fictitious personal anecdote told as if it actually happened in another sequence. Tarantino brings a great deal of sympathy to each character, all brilliantly realized by the cast, but the film itself is a slow burn of increasing anxiety, where initially only three characters (one of them bleeding to death, Mr. Orange) make it to the warehouse, the supposed meeting place, though others eventually arrive, where both Mr. Pink and White are positive they were set up, that one of the insiders is a rat. Both are amazed at the crude, Neanderthal behavior of Mr. Blonde, who they claim is a psychopath that just went berserk during the heist, causing the whole thing to blow up in their faces, with some killed and others lucky to make it out alive. The audience gets to observe the personal workmanship of Mr. Blonde firsthand in the most horrifically gruesome sequence of the film, where he is seen sadistically enjoying the torture of a captured police officer, all set to the Bubblegum pop music of The Jeff Healey Band’s “Stuck in the Middle With You.” Certainly an essential difference between this film and Pulp Fiction is contrasted by the two torture scenes, one raw and graphically appalling, completely uncompromising, while the other is staged with a humorous turn of events, becoming part of the overall audience pleasing entertainment. References to both Lee Marvin and Pam Grier appear here, as they do in later Tarantino films, becoming part of the ingrained interior mindset of the film’s cultural landscape, perhaps a response to the threat of feminism, nearly banishing women from the screen, becoming instead a distorted exaggeration of masculinity, perhaps leading to the satiric nightmarish delusions of David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999), where Tarantino builds a mythical male refiguration through sick humor, contemporary tastelessness, outright cynicism, and an utter disdain for the responsibilities of the modern world.