From the moment this film begins, you become very aware that you are watching something very different. Writer-director (and sometimes actor) Quentin Tarantino’s debut showcases a lot of the styles and elements that would continue to recur in his body of work, making him distinct from a lot of other film-makers. Tarantino is known for being audacious with his films and making decisions that others might shy away from. The very first thing that you hear in Reservoir Dogs is a ballsy move on the director’s part.
Even before the opening credits have finished rolling, Tarantino starts to talk. He’s cast in his own directorial début, a bold move indeed. What seems to be his narration is in fact a conversation about the song ‘Like a Virgin’ and Tarantino’s character is giving his two cents on its real meaning, we start by almost eavesdropping on it and then effectively take our seat at the table to hear how this conversation will play out. We are also introduced to a main feature of Tarantino dialogue – pop culture references. Even more relevant to us today in a society that revolves around culture, characters discussing it relates to us directly, and Tarantino knows it. I can’t even count the times where my friends and I have discussed some form of culture in a cafe; it’s a clever way for us to engage and get to know the Dogs themselves. Profanity must also be mentioned as it is rife in Tarantino’s dialogue and here I think he overdoes it resulting in what affect it can have being lost.
The resulting conversation is incredibly well-scripted and sounds completely natural (swearing aside); Mr. Pink’s argument on tipping is a particular highlight. As a side note Tarantino’s character, Mr. Brown, giggles his way through a lot of the conversation. I like to think that’s just Tarantino geeking out and enjoying himself sitting amongst these great actors spouting his script. When the conversation is done, the next form of pop culture references come into play on the soundtrack. The film is interspersed with songs, sometimes introduced by a radio DJ playing some of the best of the 70s. It draws the characters together and puts real context to the collection of catchy tunes that we hear during the course of the movie. In his later films, Tarantino’s selection of music has become more refined and generally heightens his cinematic moments.
The use of pop songs leads me to the next element. Violence is prevalent in all of Tarantino’s films and it has its roots in his feature début. The basic premise of the film is a heist that has gone wrong and the aftermath of it. The next scene after the slo-mo walking credits intro, opens with a shot of Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) in the back seat of a car bleeding profusely from gunshot wounds, blood is splattered in the car and we know a violent confrontation has gone down, setting the tone. Throughout the rest of the film, people bite the dust mainly in a hail of bullets but these are not the most violent scenes. The often talked about torture scene seemingly made Reservoir Dogs infamous, even causing some people to walk out of test screenings. The character of Mr. Blonde (played skilfully by Michael Madsen) is left alone with a captured cop and proceeds to torture him, not to gain information, but simply because he finds it amusing. The cop is completely at his mercy, knowing that nothing he can say will dissuade Mr. Blonde. Most people cite the cutting off of the ear as the most shocking part of this sequence but I think it is the casual and almost lazy way that Mr. Blonde slashes at the face of the cop with a cut-throat razor. Whilst seeing the bloody remains of where the policeman’s ear used to be is grisly and repellent, the camera pans away when the ear is cut-off so I don’t believe it is as shocking by comparison. The casual slice emphasises the disturbing manner in which Mr. Blonde conducts the torture – gleefully, at points even dancing and singing along to ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’. It’s an unsettling scene. Overall the violence on display is tempered in comparison to its overblown nature in subsequent Tarantino films, but it is here where we see the director unafraid to shy away from controversial violence, but rather, daring enough to display it as a device in the story.
In story-telling, Tarantino uses a now popular method of developing the narrative in a non-linear fashion, using flashbacks to give us more information on the varied characters and how they came to be involved in the heist. By giving more time to each of the main characters, we understand more about their actions and motivations in the following scenes and it negates the need for clunky expository dialogue in the present, leaving the characters free to react to the current situation naturally. It keeps the story moving too, even though the action in the present is centred on a single sparse location, akin to a play. Themes in the story appear to be inspired by the noir crime thrillers of the 1950s, looking at crime, moral ambiguity, and black comedy – crime drama with a lot of irreverent attitude. This is fast-paced crime thriller fuelled by great performances as expected from the experienced cast.
Reservoir Dogs is by no means Tarantino’s best work and I think that’s rarely the case with any directorial debut. However, it does mark the emergence of his talent as a film-maker in bringing an individual style to the table. The film is a confident and unique crime thriller with plenty of flair and an interesting concept.
This review goes out to Matt, thank you for your suggestion. If you have any suggestions of films for me to write about, I’d love to hear them. You can email (firstname.lastname@example.org), tweet, or facebook me and I’ll endeavour to reply as soon as I can.
Lastly, for all you Tarantino fans out there, I had the pleasure of coming across a fantastic homage to Reservoir Dogs. Director Colin Ross Smith (@colinrosssmith) assembled a cast for a distinctly Scottish recreation of the famous opening scene. Well worth checking out. As with the original it contains strong language.