Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Modern Classic Movie Review: Reservoir Dogs

The performances in Quentin Tarantino’s debut feature Reservoir Dogs are so good they may be the real glue that holds the film together. Tarantino’s writing, both structurally as well as dialogue, is fantastic, but I wonder where it would have taken him as a director without the phenomenally believable acting of his ensemble cast. The first step in the right direction was getting what might be the perfect cast. The principal leads are Harvey Keitel, who was instrumental in getting the film made after reading the screenplay, Michael Madsen, who has since gone on to a modestly successful Hollywood career, and Tim Roth, a virtual unknown before Reservoir Dogs. Reports suggest that James Woods fired his longtime agent for not bringing the project to his attention after learning that Tarantino wanted him for Roth’s role.

That bit of trivia has always been quite amusing to me because from the first time I saw that iconic opening credits sequence of the gang walking in slow motion, I always thought Tim Roth in sunglasses looked a lot like a young James Woods. Anyway, I think Woods would have been too old for the part of Mr. Orange, the undercover cop who infiltrates a gang of would-be jewelry store robbers. Orange needs to be young and unsure of himself, in need of the fatherly protection of Keitel’s Mr. White. Their friendship is the driving force behind the dramatic part of the narrative. After cutting through the action, foul language, and bullets, we’re left with a cop and a criminal who have forged a bond that continues through the slow death of one from a gunshot wound to the belly.

Madsen’s turn as the psychotic Mr. Blonde might be the juiciest and most memorable. He gets the famous torture sequence in which he taunts a kidnapped police officer, cutting off his ear with a straight razor and then dumping gasoline on him to burn him alive, all while singing and dancing along to Steeler’s Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You.” What should be disturbing to most people is all part of Tarantino’s twisted ironic sense of humor as Blonde sings “clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right” and beats on a young cop. The humor-infused scene forces us to question our own attitudes toward violence in cinema. As a society we devour explosions and bullets in big action spectacles without considering the consequences to real people in such situations. Tarantino places the consequences front and center and slaps us in the face with our own nonchalance by encouraging us to laugh at the horror. It’s an absolutely brilliant scene and many people forget that the horrific ear slashing takes place off-camera.

The other truly memorable and oft-quoted scene is the opener. This is the well-known “Like a Virgin” monologue delivered by Tarantino as Mr. Brown. Then it closes with Mr. Pink’s (Steve Buscemi) explanation as to why he doesn’t ever tip. Tarantino uses more than just clever dialogue to make this scene memorable. It’s the interaction of the eight characters, their relaxed attitudes, the foreshadowing of tension between White and Blonde, the brief snapshots of Mr. Pink’s weasel-like character. Then there’s the camera movement which glides fluidly around the table creating the impression of a long unbroken take the first time you see it. When you can sit back and pay closer attention after you already know the dialogue by heart you realize there are several cuts made. This is the work of Tarantino’s longtime collaborator and editor, the late Sally Menke. Her keen eye for detail turned this scene into something truly special.

The structure of Reservoir Dogs is also much talked about. Tarantino has a tendency to re-order timelines in his movies and although it’s begun to feel gimmicky in recent years, we should remember that in this and his second film, Pulp Fiction, it serves a very specific narrative function. I’ve already expounded at length on Pulp Fiction, but Reservoir Dogs does something quite different. It presents an event – a jewelry store robbery – without ever depicting the action of said event. Everything we see takes place either before in the planning stages, or in the immediate aftermath as the thieves try to put the pieces together. In that respect, it bears some resemblance to Kurosawa’s great Rashomon, although that film is constrained by the tight focus of telling the same story from the points of view of four different witnesses. There’s some of that in Tarantino’s film, but it’s more loosely presented. Take Mr. White and Mr. Pink’s first conversation recounting the events of the robbery – they rehash the order of events together, but differ on one particular detail, the suggestion being that memory is unreliable and we can’t necessarily trust one character’s explanation over another’s. Throughout the film, Tarantino’s screenplay takes time to go back and provide some back story for White, Blonde and Orange. We see Orange’s preparations for going undercover and convincing the crew that he’s one of them. We learn that Mr. Blonde is recently released from prison, having served four years after doing something illegal for Joe and Nice Guy Eddie, the two planners of the robbery. The broken timeline is more than just a ploy. It fills in gaps at key moments and keeps certain information from the audience until it is most dramatically useful.

With the exception of casting himself in a role, Tarantino put together what might be a perfect cast. I’ve already talked about Keitel, Madsen and Roth, but then there’s Buscemi to consider in the key role of Mr. Pink. He’s wiry, hyper-kinetic, and dead-set on maintaining a level of professionalism on the job. He’s the one who fingers one of the crew for a rat working with the police. He’s got it all figured out before arriving back at the warehouse meeting point. Lawrence Tierney is Joe, the leader of the operation. Tierney was a veteran of mob and crime films of the 40s and 50s who had a personal criminal history to boot. Mr. Orange accurately describes him as looking just like The Thing from “The Fantastic Four.” He is a hulking presence with a large bulbous head. His raspy voice suggests he’s spent a life shouting down his enemies.

Almost equally as interesting a casting choice, though his role Mr. Blue barely has any presence in the film, is Eddie Bunker. His face has a map of the world on it, helped along by a stint in San Quentin as a young man. His presence adds texture if not a lot of substance. Finally there’s Chris Penn as Eddie, Joe’s son and heir to the family crime business. His casting may have been made mostly on his physical resemblance to Tierney, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t carry his share of the weight when he’s on screen with Keitel and Madsen. He does better than hold his own in the tense climax.

Add to all this an eclectic soundtrack of barely remembered hits from the 70s as comedian Steven Wright provides the deadpan and monotonous voice of a radio DJ presenting “K-BILLY’s super sounds of the 70s weekend” and you have one of the quintessential entries in the new independent cinema movement that unfortunately came to a close only a couple of years after this. Tarantino rode that wave and ushered in a new era in which studios sought indie film makers. Remember that a lot is owed to this little low-budget gem that made a big splash.

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