Reservoir Dogs ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Quentin Tarantino’s directorial debut Reservoir Dogs proved to be one of the most influential films of the 1990s, signalling a new kind of hip, amoral crime thriller as much concerned with sly audience manipulation as character or plot. It was the perfect post-modern heist movie and made the former video store clerk turned director into the hottest property to emerge from American independent film. Critics responded well to the violent, clever film as a new direction in American film and layers of significance and meaning were attached to the film. Its use of music, pop culture references and graphic violence brought a new amorality to cinema. The most aberrant actions were treated with knowing humour and the vilest human beings were made to seem almost cool. Yet amidst this subversive attitude lay a probing dissection of the collapse of an honour code and a film about a white criminal subculture in the process of self-destruction, where trust and betrayal are as ruinous to the individual as is a psychotic love of violence. The fascinating film was almost too good, certainly one of the most stunning directorial debuts ever. For many years it was something of a standard for aspiring filmmakers.

The plot of Reservoir Dogs concerns the aftermath of a robbery gone wrong. A group of criminals gather together for a final lunch before their plan is to take effect. After the robbery goes disastrously wrong (which we never see), they stick to their apparent plan to rendezvous in an abandoned warehouse (a morgue apparently). As one of them (Tim Roth), shot in the stomach, slowly bleeds to death, two (Harvey Keitel and Steve Buscemi) bicker and argue, waiting for their employer to come and sort out the mess. As they talk, they believe that there is a snitch amongst them and paranoia runs rampant. A third (Michael Madsen) shows up with a cop in the trunk of his car. They take him out and tie him up. Whilst two leave to fulfil the plan, the third jovially tortures the police officer and is shot by the bleeding man. Finally, the boss (Lawrence Tierney) comes down with his son (Chris Penn) and there is a showdown over the identity of the traitor. Although that is the through line for the movie, much of it consists of flashbacks to the planning for the robbery and the relationship between the key characters as well as flashbacks exposing the undercover cop amongst them. To give the film such a linear synopsis is to almost negate the inventive narrative games the film plays with temporal order, games that would be even more present in the structure of Tarantino’s next film, Pulp Fiction. Reservoir Dogs is never predictable and its freshness makes for a captivating experience to audiences who truly do not know what to expect.

To synopsize Reservoir Dogs is an attempt to categorize a film that is best experienced without forehand knowledge, although there are few today who have not seen or heard of this movie. Its temporal games are intriguing, for much of it takes place in the one location with strict time unity, occurring over the length of time it takes for one character to slowly bleed to death. Yet it breaks this with flashbacks to events leading up to their predicament, and we discover in pieces the complex character relationships that lie behind their almost constant verbal barrage. The flashbacks flesh out the characters, particularly the policeman who is given a substantial back story and is arguably the anchor of the movie. The characters themselves are repellent people but are arguably “cool” in their attitude and in terms of the criminal code of honour that is so central to the film. Indeed the film effectively inverts any moral code that operated in previous films of the genre. Whilst there was always a code of honour between criminals, here it is vicious, brutal and psychotic, in effect dooming the characters. Yet in terms of that code, the undercover policeman (as is pointed out in one of the critical responses to the film) is almost the villain in the film’s world, the agent of these people’s destruction. In that sense, the characters’ disintegration makes for a sly twist on the notion of honour amongst thieves, and the film is firmly within its genre, as otherwise revolutionary and deconstructionist as it may be. It is a very cine-aware movie, made for viewers bred on decades of movies.

Much of Reservoir Dogs is theatrical, especially the scenes in the warehouse, and yet Tarantino is an expert audience manipulator, hence the inclusion of the film’s most controversial torture scene, which critics have come to consider in terms of a kind of musical interlude in the drama. Yet there are interesting twisting relationships between the characters, particularly in the bond between Harvey Keitel and Tim Roth, which Keitel must hold onto as a certainty in the collapse around him. In the midst of such disintegration, their repellence comes ever more to the surface and we realize how horrendous these violent, foul-mouthed, sexist and homophobic people are, in a vision of Patriarchal collapse. It is an exciting, relentless movie which purposefully jumps around in time and narrative progression, as invigorating in structure as it is in invention, proving the continued capacity for genre re-invention that exists within American cinema. Truly abominable people are treated with comedic distance and the film is most disconcerting for some because of an apparent moral indifference to such people, finding them a source of inventive and perhaps disposable amusement. As that, the film is perhaps best thought of as a sly and rather despairing black comedy. Whatever arguments may exist against the film on moral grounds, its place in American film history is definite and its influence can be seen throughout the genre movies that followed it and Pulp Fiction.