I don’t think anybody is going to ask me “Why cover Tarantino?” because honestly one of the questions I get asked more than anything is “Why haven’t you written about Tarantino yet?” These people have a point: he’s not only well within my wheelhouse as a fan of modern genre-bending cinema, but for people from my generation a cultural touchstone of movie fandom that we can’t hope to escape the gravitational pull of. Be it a childhood of post-Pulp Fiction noiry post-modernism, or the sudden ubiquitous cultural Asian action touchstones post-Kill Bill, the shadow cast by Tarantino is long indeed.
The reason I’ve been avoiding it for so long, then, is because to try to tackle it without some distance would be impossible for me. You see, if it wasn’t for Quentin Tarantino I probably wouldn’t even be writing about movies today. I can count the movies that influenced me to care about who makes movies and why on one hand, and the second time in my life it ever happened was when on one snowy day a seventeen year old decided to go to the movies and see something, anything, and randomly picked (the only time in my entire life I’ve ever just showed up a theater and picked a movie at random) something called Kill Bill off of the listings because it sounded cool. I was unprepared, but quickly got on board the Tarantino train, and that obsessive watching and rewatching of his movies and discovering how his films referenced classic cinema is much of the reason why I delved into ‘old’ movies and ended up where I am today. Without Tarantino, I can’t imagine I’d ever be half the movie fan I am.
So we’re dealing with formative movies, which is always prime for a lot of emotions associated with them. But we’re also dealing with movies that I haven’t seen in years, most of them not since 2006 or so when I did my last big Tarantino rewatch (usually when friends hadn’t seen his movies and I had to share them) and then haven’t really watched them or even thought about them since. So while every one of these movies is something I’ve seen before (with the exception of True Romance, which I’m probably going to include in this project as an excuse to finally watch it), I’m also going into these ready to have my nostalgia all go wrong and revise my opinions on the other side of half a decade and 1500 or so movies between now and then.
Which is good policy, I know, but given how today’s movie is going to go, is going to be something of a necessity.
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
In the post-internet era independent film is a complicated but pretty flourishing subset of movies. But even as recently as 1992 that wasn’t necessarily the case. Distribution in the 80s was much more studio-centric, and for the most part independent cinema eschewed genre to dwell firmly in the non-commercial realm that’s often and cruelly lumped together as ‘arthouse’. This, more than anything, is why the world needed a Tarantino. With no formal training and an encyclopedic knowledge of obscure art and trash cinema from growing up with TV and VHS, Tarantino was part of a new breed of directors that came out of the gate knowing genre and technique not through study or training, but through making movies part of their blood.
Which, as it turns out, is the source of all of Reservoir Dogs’ best and worst features. Tarantino’s debut film is by far his most uneven, his most baldly image- and tone-grabbing, and for all of its general sense of coolness, it’s amazing soundtrack and the unmistakable Tarantino pop-culture dialogue, it contains with in it still all the messes of a young writer and a first-time director, a movie that careens between moments of brilliance and cringe-worthy amateur voice. Which, arguably, is as it should be. But if you had asked an 18 year old version of me, I would have sworn up and down that this film was basically perfect. Growing up means letting go over your darlings. Teenager me was really dumb.
Let’s start with the opening, which means starting with the good. The opening sequence of Reservoir Dogs, perhaps the second most infamous scene of the movie behind the ear-cutting, is still essentially an eight minute lesson in how to write characters that are distinct and interesting. Sure, the Madonna speech is typical pop culture riffing (without even the reinforcing themes like that sort of stuff takes on in his later films) but it shows us half a dozen guys, all identically dressed, and immediately lays out who they are and what they’re about without making it feel like that’s what they’re doing. From Lawrence Tierney’s Joe, with his forgetful obsessions and general abrasiveness, to Tarantino as Mr. Brown and his lengthy musical diatribe, everyone gets a moment. Michael Madsen’s Mr. Blonde has his charming, slick hand gun gesture that predicates his later violence and unstable facade. Keitel’s Mr. White is the father figure and consensus seeker. And there’s the infamous Mr. Pink tip speech, instantly revealing him to be a total asshole, and everyone else (despite being criminals) as being the ‘good guys’ in how instantly disgusted they are with him for not tipping. In fact, the only one who doesn’t really have a moment is Tim Roth’s Mr. Orange, a telling bit of screenwriting on subsequent viewings.
The problem is, the movie that this introduces has little of this cleverness, as it careens quickly into its botched heist fallout set primarily in the relatively dull, obviously theatrical empty warehouse where most of the movie takes place. Here the movie dives deep into its crime drama obsessions, everything drenched in screeching histrionics and a kowtowing to French New Wave aesthetics that manage to miss the forest for the trees by adopting looks but not emotional content or structural depth. Instead, you get Steve Buscemi and Harvey Keitel shouting their emotions at each other for an interminable amount of time (“ACT LIKE A FUCKING PROFESSIONAL!” “I AM A FUCKING PROFESSIONAL!” and on and on) while Tim Roth does a piss poor job of hiding his accent as he flops around bleeding for literally the entire run time of the film.
The problem is that the conceit—to have a heist film that doesn’t involve the actual heist—manages to be one of those ideas that’s far better on paper than in execution. Not that it couldn’t be done, to be sure, but the reality is that the movie talks around things that would have managed to play out much more interestingly than the slightly meandering chaos that ensues after the heist goes bad. And most of that is undoubtedly a young screenwriter’s fault, though it’s very likely that a more experienced writer never would have even attempted to make a movie like this. The whole habit of breaking the action for chapters introducing the back stories of the men involved reeks of bad prose writing, over-sharing stuff that for the most part doesn’t matter and drives the whole momentum of the actual plot to a screeching halt.
I understand why the choice was made: it creates tension over who the undercover cop might be as people are slowly eliminated from the running. But honestly that’s a reveal that barely works as is, coming as punctuation of a much more memorable scene (does anybody remember that the ear cutting ends with Orange outing himself via a hail of bullets?) and managing to be the only real plot twist the movie has, for all the typical twists and turns the genre typically has. But it’s a lot of setup for payoff that likely would have worked just as well done another, more cinematic way. Just because it barely works doesn’t excuse what it does to the rest of the movie, especially since we’re forced to sit through multiple scenes of actors lamely yukking it up with Chris Penn and Lawrence Tierney.
That said, the Tim Roth memory sequence is by far the next best part of the film. It’s a scene worthy of modern Tarantino, a piece of meta-textual nerdery that comments on the very act of performance in a performance in another performance. It also manages to be funny as hell and visually more kinetic and interesting than the rest of the movie, with the ambitious montage that accompanies Roth’s recital of the drug story taking him from rooftops to his apartment to weird stage-like spaces in front of graffiti murals and to the actual moment of telling itself, sitting in the bar with the criminals he’s hoping to infiltrate, until he descends into the story itself. It’s the sort of layered reality approach that Tarantino will end up making his whole directorial mandate in later films, as reality and fiction blur so deeply that people try to peg his movies as taking place in an alternate history reality. And that story manages to be cool without being vapid, attempting to say something about the human condition in its setup and execution. It is the one moment of genuine feeling in the second half of the film because of it, and to me the most memorable scene after the aforementioned opening.
That said, the movie isn’t without its delights, and obviously its impact can’t be denied. People cite the soundtrack frequently, but honestly aside from the Steven Wright radio intros most of the music feels relatively uninspired compared to later choices in Tarantino’s filmography. The one exception, of course, is “Stuck in the Middle with You,” the pop bubblegum Stealers Wheel hit that takes place over the infamous ear cutting scene. For all the splash it made at the time, that scene today barely registers (at least to me), aside from how restrained it actually is. It’s the type of violence that has impact because it’s so simple and mostly implied, the pan away from the actual moment of cutting a prudishly discreet moment that manages to turn something that would have been cartoonish on screen into a moment of controversy. I feel like it’s been discussed to death, but I will say that it remains perhaps the most affecting bit of violence in all of Tarantino’s filmography to date, which is interesting considering some of his later subject matter but to be expected given how detached from reality his films have become.
Ultimately, then, Reservoir Dogs has become over time more of a curiosity than anything. Is it distinctly QT-esque? Certainly. But the flaws only become more glaring now that I’ve seen many of his influences. Tarantino detractors always go out of their way to deride him for relying on bald homage (or outright stealing) instead of saying anything of worth. It’s an accusation that I still think is silly, but this is the closest I’ve ever come to feeling like I agreed with where they’re coming from. Then again, for a first film from an untrained director? It still holds up as a striking debut, and lays much of the groundwork that exists even up into today.