Reviewed by Louis Black, Fri., May 12, 2000
Reservoir DogsD: Quentin Tarantino (1992); with Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Chris Penn, Steve Buscemi, Lawrence Tierney, Edward Bunker, Quentin Tarantino. Re-watching Reservoir Dogs last night, I was struck by how good a film it was. Pulp Fiction I've seen dozens of times, certain scenes more than that, and Jackie Brown a half dozen. But I've avoided Reservoir Dogs. The ear scene stood too large in my memory. The other day, I realized it was time to watch it again. The recent addition of an iMac DVD to the family influenced this. The best time to watch movies in my house is after my son is asleep and before my wife has gone to bed. But I like loud, dumb movies as well as loud, smart movies, and my home is not the environment in which to watch loud movies late at night, as people are trying either to sleep or get ready for bed. All the years of rock & roll have affected my hearing, so if the volume isn't up, even on quiet movies (keep in mind I like movies with lots of explosions), I can't hear the dialogue. Over time, this has heavily impacted what I watch at home. But now, in the study, I can watch movies on the computer with the sound way up, and it can't be heard. My wife thinks I'm insane. As shot as my hearing is, my memory is worse. Watching late at night, by which time the brain cells are more than fading, I frequently forget what I've seen the night before or remember it like fragments from a dream. With the DVD, I go to the scene selection, review what I've watched (fast-forwarding through any scene which I am particularly vague on) and dive back in. In the abstract, I would argue this was the exact antithesis of the film-viewing experience. It is, but it sure meets my needs. So, after warming up on a lot of entertaining junk movies (Replacement Killers, Hit Squad, 13th Warrior), I decided it was time for the more serious stuff.
Reservoir Dogs is a great film, showing what a mature level Tarantino entered the directoral arena at (before this one, he had directed one never-really-finished feature). This is the story of a heist gone wrong. The tale is a fairly straightforward caper film in which a group comes together to pull a robbery. They are introduced to each other only by a code name -- Mr. Blue (Bunker), Mr. Brown (Tarantino), Mr. White (Keitel), etc. They meet and plan the hold-up. It goes terribly wrong. Some of them get shot up. Some of them shoot others up. They flee. Only Tarantino would start the film with the gang discussing the meaning of Madonna's "Like a Virgin" before the robbery, followed by a scene with Mr. White in a car with a wounded Mr. Orange (Roth), blood smearing all over the back of the seat, fleeing from the botched job. The scene goes on painfully long, allowing us both access to the characters and arguing against the standard, rapidly edited package of most Hollywood violence. Cutting back and forth in time, throughout the film, Tarantino builds the richness of the story by giving it to us in such a convoluted manner. His narrative strategy is that of a cinematic storyteller. A linear story would not be as rich in subtleties as this telling is. Ironically, for a director who has a reputation for brutal violence and quick cuts, Tarantino loves to nourish a scene. He gives you far more information than most directors do simply by letting a scene play too long. As cinematic a director as he is, Tarantino cherishes the effects of duration as much as those of montage. Told more briskly, Reservoir Dogs would be more of a slick caper film with none of the richness that spills over from the scenes of characters just talking to each other. In the era of high-concept, Tarantino brings an almost European fascination for the mundane. Stylistically, he's been influenced by everything he's ever watched -- from the French New Wave to Hong Kong gangster movies, although I haven't read enough about the influence of Robert Siodmak. This film very much echoes, but does not imitate, Siodmak's two film noir masterpieces on the heist and double-cross: The Killers and Criss Cross (remade by Steven Soderbergh as The Underneath). At times, the film seems almost a deliberate mimicry of cinematic style, as though imitation is an act of directoral education. Given Tarantino's terrific writing, he has a great ear for dialogue, and none of this is dull. His willingness to let a scene roll on and on just indicates the depth of his sensibility. This movies rises and falls on its characters and this intimacy assists its triumph. The cast guarantees it. Keitel, Roth, Penn, Tarantino, and Tierney are terrific. Buscemi, as always, is outstanding, his dialogue about being labeled Mr. Pink a real set-piece. Madsen is the surprise, a classic cold-blooded psychopath. Seemingly calm, he achieves the film's most horrifying moment in his ear-cutting knife dance. "Stuck in the Middle With You" will never sound the same. The closing song is Harry Nilsson's "Coconut," a song I can't stand but which seems bizarrely appropriate. Re-watching Reservoir Dogs really brings home what a coherent body of work Tarantino has directed, including Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown. The films are connected stylistically and thematically, and I can't wait to see what he does next.