If one is to “talk shop” about film in the past quarter decade, you really cannot avoid writer-director Quentin Tarantino. No filmmaker has staked out his own public identity in quite the same way, and for better or worse, no filmmaker has been copied and misinterpreted nearly as much. The things that constitute a “Quentin Tarantino” film are vocal and known to many people, even those who don’t much care for cinema at large. He is one of the few directors who is both overrated, in that he really ought not be the first or even the twentieth director anyone mentions when talking about cinematic masters, and underrated, in that both those who like him and those who don’t generally misinterpret his films and seldom realize their true, fundamental genius. Considering how ubiquitous Tarantino has been for the past quarter decade, it’s somewhat shocking how misread he often is (then again films of great subtext and depth open themselves up to being misread, and Tarantino in all fairness courts more than he challenges misreadings). Few people really understand his essential identity as a director, and even though Reservoir Dogs is very much a testing ground for better things to come, it is essential cinema, and furthermore, it is essentially Tarantino in a nutshell.
And, as with any good Tarantino film, we begin with a concept that is cool in a hand-basket. Eight men in a diner, breakfasting and verbally getting it on, before we learn they are to plan and execute a heist. They are: Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), Mr. Blue (Edward Bunker), Mr. Brown (Tarantino himself, never much good as an actor), Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn), and ringleader Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney). We do not witness the heist itself, but things go awry. Some of the men live. Some die. But none are out of the woods, nor are we. A few meet up in an abandoned location, the specifics of which are never mentioned, and we watch them lose themselves to the simple confusion of a good heist gone wrong.
Tarantino’s breathless rush of hard edits and long, quavering takes is omnivorous in its identity, casually showing off its seasoned, professional mastery of cinematic language without ever losing the gut-level freshness only a youthful creature like a debut film can provide. At some level, it’s a fundamentally realist film, perhaps the most realist work Tarantino ever made, and the least explicitly fascinated with its own essential artifice and filmic-ness. This is partially to the film’s benefit; it feels less ambitious and romantic than his other works, but this only affords it a hard-won, street-level grit lost in some of the director’s more ambitious cinematic essays. But it’s not a work “of realism”, and this I think is a key distinction from the fact that it is often more realistic than Tarantino’s other films. It ably recalls films from other time periods in specific aural and visual gestures, but the more pressing matter is the wonderful way in which Tarantino has studied the essence of the American New Wave crime films of the late ’70s, not to mention the lean, mean French killers of Melville that sometimes seem to have parented the whole cloth of American cinema during the 1970s. Older works like Kubrick’s The Killing and Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle are clear precedents as well, and Tarantino is not above his own homages.
But that is precisely what makes Tarantino such a revitalizing force in the filmic landscape, and this was maybe never more-so true than in his first full length film when he was still cutting his teeth and hungry for more: Tarantino knows that life is a movie, and he absolutely loves every second of it. Thus, his dialogue crackles with the whip of everyday people delivering poetry in their simply morning musings as if perking themselves up on the power of their own words. There’s a definite theater-play hovering around Reservoir Dogs, a knowing reverence for the spirit of theater and old cinema that often saw fit simply to pluck a handful of people out of the world, set them in a location, and push play. There’s a reason Tarantino tacitly avoids the sense of Los Angeles as a “real place” carefully scurrying from location to location with an economy of production and a scrappy minimalism; this is not “Los Angeles” per-se but fictional LA of crime films both new and old, and the reality of the location, the sense of geography from place to place, doesn’t much matter.
Another reason for the minimalism: Tarantino’s film is a work of character, but it is also a deeply process-oriented film about men who define themselves based on their goals. They are types, men reared on a masculine identity that teaches them to focus on success and to cut away emotion and human identity in favor of the manly types they find in the films they grew up on. Tarantino’s film, essentially, is a work about these types in crisis, about men who need logic and rigid, mechanized persistence to the plan to retain their sanity, and about men who have failed to meet these goals. Left desperately to pick up the pieces of their masculine identity, they wallow and generally lose any sense of how to communicate with one another, how to define themselves around other men in a world that has taught them to do so only through the masculine conceptions of cool they have been trained to identify with.
Thus, as is often the case with a born filmmaker, Tarantino’s film is at once a loving homage to cinemas of the past and a noble critique of their place in society. Everything expresses this duality of being both highly ordered and undercutting its own order. This is true right down to the story structure which is at once highly ordered and precise in what it shows and doesn’t show, itself like a machine, but is also entirely and actively not the machine you might expect it to be as it vocally avoids the “process” of actually setting up the heist and executing it like we would expect. It gives the men their sense of order, but not the order they want, using it to strangle them with their own failures, their own inability to be free from the order they live their life by, rather than to satisfy them.
It’s easy to reduce Dogs to its essential manliness, but in addition to the generally anxious and nervy way in which this manliness fails them time and again throughout the film, the subtle, somewhat remarkable undercurrent of homoeroticism throughout the film is a hard sell to anyone wishing to think of the film as merely a manly gangster pic. Specific scenes, such as the play-fighting between Nice Guy Eddie and Mr. Blonde interspersed with off-color jokes about homosexuality, implicitly expose the men’s latent homoeroticism and the way they go from laughing off homosexuality as a way to preserve their hetero-identities to pursuing the masculine male-on-male way of making love: fighting with one another. The relationship between Mr. White and Mr. Orange, meanwhile, almost hinges on an unstated sexual tension where the two only let out their real emotions in an act of bonding that visually bears an unmistakable resemblance to post-coital rest or romantic bonding. This is not to mention the shot of Mr. White unbuttoning Mr. Orange’s pants, nominally to free his stomach wound from the constricting force of clothing.
Earlier, there’s a wonderfully sly line where Mr. White, when asked about a female crime partner he used to have, responds “you push that man-woman thing too long and it gets to you after a while”, a real corker that works on three separate levels. Firstly, it plays on the history of films about men-women team criminals and the entire Bonnie and Clyde myth to comment on how in all those films and the myth around them the act of crime for the male/female team was itself a form of foreplay, titillating with violence and sexually exciting for the partners in a way that allowed filmmakers to comment on sex without actually showing it. Secondly, it relies on this knowledge to shift the meaning of “man-woman thing” from “man-woman criminal team” to “man-woman sexual relationship” (thus the vagueness of the phrase “thing”). Third and finally it flips the meaning back onto crime, after having already flipped it from sex to crime and then back to sex already, to reveal that the way in which these men plan out crimes with each other is itself their form of romance in a society that only affords them such violent outlets for male bonding. In the context of a film that openly revels in and then critiques its masculine identity, a work which poses itself in direct lineage to the “dude” films of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s and then undercuts the idea that these men really do have it together after-all, the subtext seems a lot more meaningful in the way the film both values and critiques the history of the crime pic.
Reservoir Dogs is not Quentin Tarantino’s most audacious, transformative film (Pulp Fiction), his most mature (Jackie Brown), his most giddily watchable (Kill Bill), his most subversive and nihilistic (Inglorious Basterds) or the work with the most to say about cinema (Django). Of all his films however it is the work that succeeds most fully at accomplishing what it set out to do: construct a real barn-burner of a closed-casket inverted heist film that boils its characters down to types, subvert the types, plays a little with storytelling structure, and has a boatload of streamlined, gnarly fun with itself while it’s at it. It’s a dynamite little gem of a character study while it’s at it too, taking the long history of cinema that moves people from reality and into its own director-controlled universe, pitting them against each other in a heavily constrained situation to see what fun comes out. It is Tarantino’s first film, and he would go on to bigger and better things, but it is absolutely a work fully aware of its own filmicness, fully aware of its genre and entirely willing to do harm both with it and by it. This is essentially the most Tarantino thing a film can do, even though this is seldom associated with the director by the masses of cinematic cretins who utilize his style for their own misbegotten movie misfires. It’s easy to argue that Tarantino hasn’t been a positive force in the cinematic world, but that should not diminish one’s opinion of the man’s films. Reservoir Dogs is a great modern work, alive with spirit and pulsations aplenty. Not bad for a handful of actors, a couple sets, and a boatload of nervy, alert filmmaking prowess.