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Reservoir Dogs

Reservoir Dogs (Tarantino, 1992)

This review contains spoilers for this movie and Pulp Fiction.

For the past few years, I didn’t spend a lot of time rewatching movies. Quite frankly, the thrill of discovering something new (and the risk that it might not be all that good) outweighed the pleasures of the familiar ninety-nine times out of a hundred. Yet this year, perhaps because it’s been so miserable on the whole, I’ve spent a bit more time revisiting films I’d already seen. In some cases, it was to relive the joy of seeing something I already liked or loved. But in other cases, perhaps because I’d been easier to please on average, I would go back to things I’d felt somewhat at a distance to in the hopes that I would finally be won over. Full Metal Jacket finally clicked with me (seeing it in a different aspect ratio did the trick) and I’ve warmed up to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 as much as I probably ever will. With that in mind, and prompted by a bizarre dream in which I watched it on Netflix in the wee hours of the morning, I ended up waking up stupid early and giving Reservoir Dogs another viewing. (The dream wasn’t terribly interesting, although it did involve me watching the new Scream, which had magically already been completed and was available on Netflix. There was a lot of yellowish, Fincher-esque lighting and Alison Brie got thrown over a railing at one point. As someone who enjoyed the fourth, I was upset by that turn of events, but dreams can be upsetting. In the words of the Shogun Assassin in Shogun Assassin, “bad dreams are only dreams.”)

I don’t think my opinion changed all that much with this viewing. I still feel that it’s one of Tarantino’s weaker films, lacking the confidence and depth of his next few films. I think Tarantino’s career is generally discussed as being split into his earlier, more story-oriented or reality-grounded films and his later, more indulgent genre pastiches, but I think this one lacks the focus that kind of discourse implies. The characters are barely fleshed out and the directorial touches aren’t as purposeful or effective as they would become in his later work. But at the same time, it’s still a stylish and highly entertaining affair, with a great cast giving some very good performances and delivering some punchy, very funny dialogue. It’s pleasures and limitations are obvious and have been better discussed by those more eloquent than me, so I don’t know how deeply I’ll delve into them. (On a side note, I felt a strange pang of nostalgia revisiting this despite it never having been a favourite of mine. It was very big among the internet crowd I first started discussing film with as I first got into the subject, so it’s hard for me to separate those feelings from the actual movie. I got the same feeling watching Boogie Nights a few weeks ago, despite never having seen that film until now.)

But what I did chew over a bit more this time around is how the movie positions the characters’ morality. We know that Tim Roth’s Mr. Orange is the “good guy”, the undercover cop who kills the psychopathic Mr. Blonde played by Michael Madsen. But at the same time he betrays the trust of Harvey Keitel’s Mr. White. Mr. White is sort of a “good guy” too, but foolishly risks his own fate and those of his associates as he bonds with someone who sets him up. Mr. Blonde is a sadistic psychopath but also extremely loyal, having refused to rat out his friends while serving a tough prison term. Steve Buscemi’s Mr. Pink is entirely business-minded and self-interested, but is that really any less honourable than the intentions of those around him? Chris Penn’s Nice Guy Eddie loves his father, Lawrence Tierney’s Joe Cabot, who is the closest thing to a paternal, authoritative presence in the movie, but both are also extremely ruthless, not to mention racist. Tarantino’s relationship with race is complicated (he’s been criticized for his use of the n-word, particularly in a certain scene in Pulp Fiction, and while I do enjoy his performance in that movie, I’m not sure I can defend a certain line of dialogue), but here the characters’ rampant use of racial slurs seems like a clear indicator of their (lack of) character. (These characters also freely use homophobic slurs, but such language was unfortunately a mainstay of macho dialogue at the time and doesn’t seem as pointed a comment on their natures.) Even when Mr. Orange praises the connection he used to get in with the criminals, another character is quick to point out that the connection is ratting out his friends. There’s some moral relativism in my argument here, but the movie invites that line of thought. Reservoir Dogs is about a bunch of lowlife crooks and despite the extent to which we may identify with them, it never lets us forget that.

In that sense, it’s in clear contrast to some of its influences. Ringo Lam’s City on Fire features the same plot but emphasizes the value of brotherhood between the criminals, so that the betrayal there stings extra hard. Tarantino highlights the meaninglessness of such appeals to solidarity. (Bizarrely, Tarantino has denied having seen that other film despite the hard to ignore story similarities. He even dedicated the screenplay to Chow Yun Fat and pulls the image of a dual wielding gunman in sunglasses from that actor’s oeuvre and has made a brand of pulling from his influences, so I’m baffled why he’d deny this one instance.) Jean-Pierre Melville’s work features gangsters in tailoring adhering to strict codes and conducting themselves with honour in dire situations. Tarantino points out the futility of such codes. His next film handles these dynamics even more elegantly. In Pulp Fiction, John Travolta’s character is a villain in one segment and a hero in another, while Samuel L. Jackson’s character reflects on the dishonourable nature of their work and decides to walk away at the end.

Where I think Pulp Fiction succeeds in handling that theme is that it gives us a sense of Jackson and Travolta contemplating (or failing to do so, respectively) their choices and having something resembling actual worldviews (however limited, as in the case of the latter). The characters in Reservoir Dogs in contrast are drawn in shorthand from gangster cliches so that our identification with them is limited. Mr. Orange should be our audience vantage point, but Tarantino fumbles a key scene in which he relates a made-up story to ingratiate himself with the other criminals. It should be about how Mr. Orange wins their trust, which would help make later speculation on his loyalty more dramatically potent, but in choosing to actually depict the proceedings in the story onscreen, Tarantino makes it about the cuts and shot choices he energetically deploys. It’s not a badly directed scene on its own, but the wrong one for the movie. Yet in other scenes, like the opening in the diner, he’s able to elegantly paint character detail while letting us enjoy the surface pleasure of the dialogue. Mr. Pink refuses to tip as an extension of his business-minded nature. Mr. Blonde volunteers to shoot Mr. White, jokingly revealing his bloodthirst. Mr. White takes things too personally (”You shoot me in a dream, you better wake up and apologize”). Joe Cabot struggles to remember a name, implying that his criminal instincts are slipping. The movie shuffles its timeline in the vein of The Killing to draw out these contrasts between the characters and to build to a tense and memorable climax, yet had more of the individual character moments been as deftly handled as this first scene, the film might have landed with me more strongly. That being said, there’s a nonzero chance I’ll come back to this in a few years, hoping it will finally click.