“Reservoir Dogs” is Quentin Tarantino’s Bloody Rosetta Stone

Reservoir Dogs

(Every month, we at The Spool select a Filmmaker of the Month, honoring the life and works of influential auteurs with a singular voice, for good or ill. Given that July sees the release of Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, the ninth film from Quentin Tarantino, we’re exploring the filmography of one of 20th-century cinema’s most breathlessly referential directors. Read the rest of our Filmmaker of the Month coverage of Tarantino here.)

Approaching Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs for the first time in 2019 is like approaching the raw rough drafts of any early artist. It is a peek into the early, visceral sketches of an artist in their youth. The rhythms and choices of the early work echo forward throughout other films. Reservoir Dogs is pure unrefined Tarantino: ninety breakneck minutes of visceral violence and unapologetically toxic masculinity. More than that, it’s a descent into the ways Tarantino shapes and creates compelling worlds filled with ugly men gleefully engaging in their most masculine, violent excesses. It’s unpolished, pure-strain Tarantino, for both good and ill.   

The plot is simple: a jewel heist has gone terribly wrong for Joe Cabot’s (Lawrence Tierney) motley crew of suited thieves. Leaving many members of the gang dead and dispersed, Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) and his fond and bleeding friend Mr. Orange (an affecting Tim Roth) crash at the safe house with the persnickety Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) as they await Mr. Blonde (a vicious Michael Madsen) to arrive to solve a simple question: Which one ratted to the police? 

Given that this is a Tarantino film, we’re immediately inundated with the tropes that we come to expect from his cinema. Colliding timelines and narrative intertitles? He makes his first-ever use of these with the three distinct backstories of Mr. White, Mr. Blonde, and Mr. Orange, as we understand how they came to that specific tense moment in that safe house. Before Tarantino explored diegetic music in Pulp Fiction, he makes copious use of the diegetic classic radio station K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the 70s (voiced by the ironically droll Steven Wright) to underscore some of Dogs’ most powerful moments. 

As always, Tarantino artfully constructs this world through lyrical, heightened violence. If Van Gogh painted with watercolor and oils, Tarantino paints with caustic language and visceral painful imagery, accented with his dark humor. He experiments with deep emotional moments of character punctuated by arrays of F-Bombs that are jarring even today. Just listen to Penn’s profanity punctuated monologue at the end defending Madsen of treason, powerful in its certainty and ferocity. The gangsters are characteristically Tarantinoesque motormouths: curses and strident language are traded in equal parts with revelatory character information and world building. In the film’s initial roundtable conversation about Madonna’s sex life and hit single “Like A Virgin”, Mr. Blonde casually threatens Mr. White’s life – it’s a bullshitty quip, but it speaks volumes about their dynamic.  

Reservoir Dogs is pure unrefined Tarantino: ninety breakneck minutes of visceral violence and unapologetically toxic masculinity.

Violence is also the viewpoint from which we enter the world. The 90-minute sprint is a series of guttural punches lead by the work of longtime QT collaborator Andrzej Sekula. Sekula’s cinematography captures the frantic feeling of when moments go south: a long steady shot of Buscemi sprinting down the street in a shootout with the fuzz; the tension of Roth in the restroom with cops about to be exposed; the way the climax’s Mexican standoff captures the height of tension. 

It would be remiss not to mention Reservoir Dogs’ most iconic stroke of violence. In the iconic torture of Officer Marvin (Kirk Baltz), Madsen bares the soul of Mr. Blonde with a delighted barber’s blade and a swivel of the hips as he minces Marvin to agony to Stealer’s Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You”. It’s a horrifying ballet of pain and tension, not the casual violence of a Marvel flick or even a horror film but of someone who is accentuating the horror of disfigurement via psychopath by a cheery face and catchy pop tune. In the mad world of Tarantino and Reservoir Dogs, violence can be repugnant, captivating and funny all at once.

Granted, Tarantino’s world of violence hasn’t aged all that gracefully. Tarantino’s curses hit the ear fine enough in 2019, but the casual racism, sexism, homophobic slurs, and repeated droppings of the n-word are more troubling than world building at this point. Yes, these characters are dangerous people, yet in the moment they don’t feel nearly as purposeful or aware as everything else. It creates further distance from the piece that very clearly situates this film in 1992, just on the precipice of the LA Uprising. 

To this day, Reservoir Dogs is the skeleton on which the rest of Tarantino’s work hangs. The structures we take for granted in a Tarantino film — intertitles, pop culture reference-laden conversations, multiple narratives — are found in the bones of his first film. Sure, the brand hasn’t aged well; as much as Tarantino’s entire body of work is roundly criticized for fetishizing a certain brand of hypermasculine tough guy, Reservoir Dogs is the Rosetta Stone for his worst excesses. Even so, it’s hard to deny the way his distinct voice and idiosyncratic filmmaking techniques are slowly, messily worked out in his debut feature. 

Reservoir Dogs Trailer:

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