“Reservoir (medical): A population which is chronically infested with the causative agent of a disease and can infect other populations.” —from the Oxford English Dictionary.
Spent any time in prison lately? No? Well, I can do something about that. Or rather, director Quentin Tarantino can. His film Reservoir Dogs (1992) isn’t a movie. It’s Judgment Day. It’s a sentence to serve two hours of very hard time. Two hours packed with a lifetime’s worth of greed, violence, betrayal, and blood. Two hours to be served with the kind of men for whom prison is a mere way station on the road from the first petty crime to the final crash & burn into oblivion.
I was all set not to like this film. I suspected that it was going to be another one of those execrable pictures that reveled in violence and cast a perverted halo of glory over those who commit it. Such twisted glamour is rarely even intentional; it is just that the medium itself—the Big Screen—is so effective in generating it. Mix together savvy direction, creative editing, powerful acting, & a memorable soundtrack, and you get a juggernaut that obliterates rational judgment. Two recent, and wildly popular, films strike me as examples of such juggernauts. Did Tarantino’s latest work, Pulp Fiction, actually make anyone out there think deeply about crime & criminals? Or was everyone too mesmerized by the dialogue and the performances of Travolta, Thurman, and Jackson to think at all?
And what about Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. Great music, eh? Probably introduced more people to Leonard Cohen than a thousand appearances on Morningside and CNN could have done. This might be the best-sounding, best-looking movie about mass murderers ever made. That Stone fellow has really done his cinematic homework. There’s even a Big Message: Media Exploitation of Violence is Insidious. Too bad everyone’s was too busy listening to Leonard Cohen and marveling at the camerawork to give that message a second thought.
I was wrong, though, about Reservoir Dogs. I liked this film. Or at least, I respected it. “Like” is a strange word to use for a film I will probably never watch again. To return to my initial metaphor, watching Reservoir Dogs a second time would be akin to volunteering to go back to prison for another year because the first experience you’d had there was so intense. Yeah, sure. Open up them gates and let me in. Brutalize me a little more.
No thank you. Once was enough. Reservoir Dogs stays with you for a very long time after it’s over. It stays because there is no glory. There is only death and waste. The central characters are not clever or larger than life. They are role models for no one—not even for wannabe delinquents or small-time hoods. And yet the acting and direction are powerful.
Reservoir Dogs stimulates thought, rather than hypnotic fascination, because its characters are so clearly failures. Their lives and deaths will leave no trace outside of a few forgotten police and courtroom files. Even though they are armored with an utter lack of guilt in respect to their crimes against society, their sociopathic nihilism cannibalizes itself. They are simultaneously predators and carrion. The prison system will never reform them because they feel that they owe society nothing. They are like the French thugs of the earlier part of this century who tattooed dotted lines on the backs of their necks so the guillotine wouldn’t miss. And who as often as not never had the chance to try out their tattoos because they were taken out by one of their own.
If these guys are such losers, what makes a film about them worth watching at all? Simple: Tarantino and his actors manage to keep their characters in focus as human beings. They’re not archetypes or stereotypes or caricatures. They’re not just reservoir dogs. Nor are they victims. They offer no pleas for mercy or understanding. They are fully responsible for initiating the violence which destroys them.
That violence is casual and terrible. It comes as unexpectedly in Tarantino’s film as it does in real life. There are no cues. The single most horrific act in Reservoir Dogs hits the viewer at a moment when the dramatic screws seem to be backing off a little.
The lead actor is Harvey Keitel, who should be given an Academy lifetime achievement Oscar for convincingly-human-portrayals-of-lower-rungs-of-the-evolutionary-ladder. For his sake, we’d better all pray that life doesn’t imitate art.
There is no weak casting in Reservoir Dogs. If anyone out there is looking for even more realism than Keitel offers, they might try looking closely at Lawrence Tierney’s face. He’s the older actor who plays the crime boss. He made his first gangster picture in 1945. Roger Ebert compares Tierney’s face to a Mack truck. Ebert also rightly insists that he’s incapable of saying anything which doesn’t sound authentic. His life does imitate his art. Tierney’s been in and out of jail, and in 1973 was stabbed in a barroom brawl in Manhattan.
I’d call Reservoir Dogs one of the best movies about criminals since Howard Hawks’ coldly brilliant Scarface, made in 1932. One final note: Reservoir Dogs should be mandatory viewing for all those who complain of prisons looking like luxury condos. As Jean- Paul Sartre said in No Exit, hell is other people. Buckingham Palace would be hell if you had to share it with the men in Tarantino’s film. Spend two hours with these reservoir dogs, and you might be a little less eager to urge that more juvenile offenders and petty criminals be tossed into their cages.
You won’t enjoy this film. You will remember it.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
Profane. Professional. Nearly perfect.
I’m glad that I lied when I said I’d never watch this film again.
One doesn’t expect a master class in genre filmmaking from a first-time director, but that’s exactly what we have here. I needed to go back to Reservoir Dogs a second time to get past the initial shock and fully appreciate everything Quentin Tarantino pulled together for this film: casting, editing, storytelling, score, and dialogue. I think that Rolling Stone critic Pete Travers hit the nail on head when, in a review recorded for the 15th anniversary double-disc edition of Reservoir Dogs, he said that from the opening scene of the film he didn’t have a clue where it was going. That’s not supposed to happen with a genre movie. The very definition of genre implies a certain satisfying predictability. What can you do with a heist film that hasn’t been done before?
A helluva lot, as it turns out.
There’s a genuinely tragic arc to Tarantino’s film, even if at least half of the characters are scumbags and psychopaths. For tragedy, one needs a relentless chain of events that never needed to happen at all, and a couple of characters one cares about. And, of course, almost everyone’s gotta die or be made less than whole. Check, check, and check. Had no one triggered the alarm during the robbery, the whole crew would have been taken down at the warehouse with minimal or no loss of life. As an undercover cop, Tim Roth’s character is a decent, brave man who ends up orchestrating the scenario that costs the lives of a dozen police officers and innocent bystanders—including the woman he himself shoots in a self-defence reflex. Harvey Keitel’s character, while not hesitant about blowing away anyone who threatens him, actually has a code of honor that destroys both him and those the code was designed to protect. And almost everyone dies, knowing what an utter waste it’s all been. All that blood for a bunch of diamonds insured to the hilt, that’ll end up being a couple of entries in the company’s ledger books.
Following up a little further on the idea of tragedy, one could say that some of Tarantino’s dialogue in Reservoir Dogs plays the same role as Shakespeare’s Fools did in his plays. Somewhere along the line, one has to pull back a little so that the darkness isn’t utterly overwhelming. And then double up to make it even more devastating. When Mr. Pink argues with Joe Cabot about his color, or Mr. Brown parses “Like a Virgin,” the audience relaxes just enough to be nailed to the floor when it finally realizes that nothing’s going to stop fate from drowning everyone in blood.
I said that Reservoir Dogs was nearly perfect. Although I loved the way the story was pieced together with fragments and flashbacks—and the fact that we never saw the actual heist and its bloody aftermath—there’s no getting around the fact that there’s no way that the police—who had the warehouse under surveillance—would not have moved in as soon as the gutshot Freddy turned up there. “Mr. Big” be damned, they’re not going to let a fellow officer bleed out while they wait for a more satisfying bust. Then again, good people have been sacrificed for less. We never see who’s pulling the strings behind this sting operation. What price are they willing to pay to wipe the slate clean?