Movie buffs often run into people who swear they can’t sit through a film more than once. Too many movies, to be certain, aren’t worth even one viewing, but some demand an exception. In 1991 there was The Silence of the Lambs, and in 1992 there was Reservoir Dogs, a movie that seems perfect for video, where you can run it again and again. It’s not just its quality that requires multiple viewings; it’s the way the plot unfolds. Making his first movie, the young writer-director Quentin Tarantino plays with time and space, and part of the excitement is how he makes everything snap together. What sounds like meaningless blather about the pros and cons of tipping a waitress turns out to be the key to understanding a character; shots that seem gratuitous and show-offy turn out to reveal more than pages of script. Tarantino is by far a more assured plotter than a director — which is saying something, because he’s also a purer moviemaker than 80 percent of the competition. His natural mastery of film language isn’t half as exciting as his ability to use it to tell a crackerjack story. And he’s written himself a gem.
In Los Angeles, mob boss Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) and his effusive son Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn) assemble six thieves to carry out a jewelry-store heist. So that none of the crooks will know each other’s identities, Joe assigns them color-coded names. In flashbacks (they’re almost like dossiers), Tarantino gives us what we need to know about three of the thieves. Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), a veteran with a mild Southern accent, is the unofficial leader. He and Joe go way back, and Joe picks him because he’s level-headed and experienced. Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) has just been released from prison, where he spent four years because he refused to snitch on Joe. As payback, Joe and Eddie cut Mr. Blonde in on the heist. Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) is a peaceful sort who, when the movie gets underway, is screaming and bleeding in the back seat of Mr. White’s car. The heist, we learn, has gone bad: There was a shoot-out, precipitated by the ruthless Mr. Blonde, who lost his cool and started blasting innocents and cops alike. Two other thieves, Mr. Blue (Eddie Bunker) and Mr. Brown (Tarantino himself), are killed before they can make it back to the thieves’ planned meeting place at a warehouse. With the gushing Mr. Orange in tow, Mr. White speeds back to the warehouse; minutes later, Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), a callous, suspicious type, shows up and starts squawking about “a rat in the house.” The cops arrived at the scene too fast, he argues; they must have been set up. Which of the thieves is the rat? The plot isn’t nearly as linear as I’ve made it sound; Tarantino supplies it in gradual dribbles, and there are surprises — not just centering on who the rat is.
For a while, Reservoir Dogs seems to dawdle. Mr. White and Mr. Pink keep snapping at each other while Mr. Orange fades in and out of consciousness. This minimalist theatre of the absurd is expertly acted. Tim Roth continues the British tradition of faking American accents more convincingly than Americans can fake British accents. In the present-day scenes, he has a reason to overact; he is, after all, shot in the stomach, which, as Mr. White helpfully points out, is the most painful place to take a bullet other than the kneecap. In the flashbacks, Roth is loose and casual — in Mr. Orange’s words, “supercool.” But mostly he functions as an appreciative listener, and when he’s with Keitel there’s definitely something worth listening to. Keitel (who also coproduced the film) has trouble with his own accent, but he may be the best macho grandstander in movies. This former Marine has such physical authority that he never has to oversell his toughness. Yet he’s also funny, as when he takes Joe’s black book away. Berating Joe mildly, as if speaking to a beloved uncle, Keitel scores a big laugh while never overstepping Mr. White’s bounds with Joe. (Tierney, in his few scenes, is hilarious.) Keitel’s monologue about what to do if the jewelry-store manager causes trouble is already a classic. Steve Buscemi oozes untrustworthiness, so it’s a central joke of the movie that he doesn’t trust anybody. In a key exchange, Mr. Pink snaps at Mr. White, “For all I know, you’re the rat.” Angered, Mr. White shouts back, “For all I know, you’re the fuckin’ rat!” Mr. Pink doesn’t take offense at this: “See, now you’re using your head.” To Mr. Pink, everyone’s a fuckin’ rat. Buscemi is the movie’s cynical voice of reason; he’s the type of guy who says things like “I’m surrounded by idiots.”
The funniest performance, though, may well be Tarantino’s, though he only gives himself a few minutes onscreen. As Mr. Brown, a talkative young thief who will later drive one of the getaway cars, Tarantino dominates the pre-credits scene with his often-quoted dissertation on the meaning of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” He seems ecstatic to be holding forth at a table with some of his lifelong movie idols (Keitel, Tierney) sitting alongside him. (If you want to shoot the shit with your matinee heroes, hire them for your movie.) Tarantino’s monologue is aggressive, profane, and meandering (“What the fuck was I talking about?”), much like his directorial style. Some may wonder why Tarantino, having made a vivid impression in the first reel, all but drops out of the film soon after. But really he doesn’t. The first scene is his signal to us that even off-camera, he’s going to tell stories, make us laugh or cringe, freak us out.
Cosmetically, Reservoir Dogs looks like a macho multiple orgasm of a film, its characters swapping “fuck you”s (and then bullets) with absurd relentlessness. (After the fiftieth “fuck,” the word becomes white noise, the way it did in Scarface, GoodFellas, and Blue Velvet.) Yet Tarantino sneaks in a tender homosexual subtext, which makes the macho excesses even funnier. There seems to be more going on between Mr. White and Mr. Orange than a typical bond between thieves. The men are opposites in obvious ways (the colors that serve as their names, their physical builds) and in not-so-obvious ways (which Tarantino later makes obvious), but what they have in common is a fundamental decency. Tarantino reveals Mr. White’s compassion early on, when the veteran thief argues for the importance of tipping waitresses. (He’s the only one who sees it as a moral obligation.) Mr. Orange performs an act of mercy at risk of the wrath of the other thieves. There is something in Mr. Orange that draws Mr. White closer. The name Mr. Orange suggests he may be a different, more humane person underneath his streetwise exterior, his “peel.” Mr. White responds to this — he wants to peel away his own fake identity and relate to somebody, anybody, on human terms. Under duress, he tells Mr. Orange his name (Larry) and where he’s from. In movie terms, that’s the start of a beautiful relationship. When Mr. Orange is dying of a bullet in the gut, Keitel and Roth do their most intimate acting. On request, Mr. White holds Mr. Orange, comforting him; spontaneously, he takes out a comb and gently untangles Mr. Orange’s sweaty hair. The scene has an erotic spark that Tarantino doesn’t shy away from. The way Keitel murmurs “You’ve been brave enough for one day” has an unmistakable nurturing tone. If Mr. Orange asked to be tucked in and kissed goodnight, Mr. White would probably do that, too. Maybe even without being asked. Of course, this is only possible when no other men are around; and the joke of this mini-subplot is that these two can only find intimacy when one of them is on the brink of death and bleeding buckets.
The clues to the other characters can be found in the names Joe gives them. I’ve already discussed Mr. Orange. Mr. White, of course, is the film’s moral (but not always rational) center. He’s not a role model, but in this movie’s terms, he’s close to it; he’s a professional, not “a fuckin’ psychopath” like Mr. Blonde. That fuckin’ psychopath, incidentally, might take his cue from “Blondes have more fun.” Nothing troubles Mr. Blonde (at least not in the scenes we see; if we could see his behavior during the heist, we might get a far different impression). The heist is a game to him, and so is sadism. Preparing to mutilate a cop, he boogies to the beat of “Stuck in the Middle with You.” He entertains himself and seems almost hurt that the cop isn’t entertained too: How could you not enjoy being tortured by such a fun guy? (Michael Madsen proves himself a master at smooth-faced evil; he also proves that evil is most terrifying when it’s soft-spoken.) Mr. Pink, a role Tarantino originally planned to play, bristles at the homosexual scent of the name. He’s possibly the most cold-blooded of the thieves; he’s no sadist (sadism is a fuckin’ waste of time, man, let’s just get the job done), but he lacks ordinary human empathy — he’s the one who made a big thing about not tipping, and he doesn’t care all that much whether Mr. Orange dies. He’s like a street-punk Mr. Spock: Logic and professionalism are more important to him than humanity, and he’s in it totally for himself. So his name, which suggests softness and femininity, seems ironic.
Of the two lesser characters, Mr. Brown also balks at his name (“It sounds too much like Mr. Shit”); Mr. Blue’s name may make sense if you know the backstory of the actor who plays him — Eddie Bunker, an ex-con who served as this film’s consultant and wrote the book (No Beast So Fierce) on which the excellent Dustin Hoffman drama Straight Time (about a thief) was based. The other men are playing veteran hard-asses; Bunker actually is one. Bunker may have been attracted to this project because Tarantino turns his tragic recividist theme from Straight Time (thieves are psychologically incarcerated in or out of jail, helpless to break their criminal patterns) into black comedy. The central event in Straight Time, incidentally, was also a botched jewelry-store heist — though in that film it was shown in tense detail, whereas Tarantino keeps his heist on a hearsay level. For Tarantino, the heist holds less fascination than what happens before and after.
Critics emphasized what a camera whiz Tarantino is, but as directorial debuts go, this isn’t all that show-offy. He does some smooth Scorsese pans in the opening scene, and when Mr. Blonde goes to work on the cop, the camera tilts upward and to the left, as if it couldn’t bear to look. Mostly, I was aware of Tarantino’s superb command of economic craft: Not a shot is wasted. When Mr. White and Mr. Pink are pointing guns at each other, the camera pulls back slowly, at length; at first it seems like a self-conscious visual allusion to how small-minded these hoods are (as well as a distancing tactic). But the camera, it turns out, is pulling back to reveal Mr. Blonde, who sucks on a soda and watches the men with quiet amusement. Suddenly he looms large in the frame, while the other two look like squabbling insects in the background.
What I consider Tarantino’s masterstroke is the men’s-room scene. This is a made-up story told by one of the thieves about the time he was waiting to sell some weed, went into a bathroom, and ran into four cops and a pot-sniffing German shepherd. Time stops as the thief tries to look nonchalant, taking a piss and washing his hands while the dog barks at his gym bag, which is full of grass. What’s great about the scene is that not only do you forget it’s a flashback — you forget it’s a bullshit flashback. It seems to be true and happening now, and you find yourself tensed up and sweating right along with the thief. Tarantino even pauses to let one of the (fictitious) cops tell a story about some guy he almost blew away, and you half expect the film to splinter off and dramatize his story, too.
By this point in the movie, it’s clear that Tarantino loves artifice as much as realism. The script is loaded with pop-culture references: Music constantly comments on the action (and is also commented on); at least two characters talk about Charles Bronson; Lee Marvin, Charlie Chan, John Holmes, Pam Grier, and even the Thing from the Fantastic Four rate a mention. There’s also a nod to Method acting, a debt to the structure of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, and perhaps a titular tip of the hat to Straw Dogs (nobody can seem to agree on what exactly a “reservoir dog” is). The cop’s mutilation may be a tribute to Blue Velvet (as well as Un Chien Andalou); the conversation between Nice Guy Eddie and Mr. Blonde in Joe’s office is a better-written variation on macho rants from a lot of bad prison movies; and so on.
Reservoir Dogs has its share of obvious humor, mostly centering on droll throwaways or crude insults. Sometimes the fierceness and abruptness of the violence is funny; sometimes it’s the single-mindedness of the thieves. (You feel bad for the woman Mr. Pink yanks from her car, but the desperation of his action is so perfect that you laugh.) You can’t help laughing during the sickest part of the torture scene, when Mr. Blonde lifts the severed ear and speaks into it: “Hey, what’s goin’ on? Can you hear me?” (I tend to think more people are bothered by the sight and sound of the spluttering torture victim after the fact than by the actual torture.) Mostly you respond to the sustained tone of absurdity. As if to underscore the point, Tarantino hired the master of absurdism to provide running commentary — Steven Wright as the laconic DJ of the station that plays “Super Sounds of the ’70s.”
The movie keeps building to the ultimate absurdity — when the heated exchange of words becomes a crossfire of bullets — and, sure enough, it happens, but Tarantino puts a wicked spin on it. The action is so sudden, so simultaneous, and so defiantly uninterested in a routine prolonged action-film shootout that it’s hilarious. Tarantino, whose character dies earlier in a more realistic way, has the last laugh on the other thieves, which led some critics to peg him as just another hot-shot with some style and no heart. But he doesn’t laugh at the men; he laughs at their macho code, which depends on the gun and ultimately can’t stand up to the gun. These dogs may finally be all bark and no bite, but that can’t be said of the movie.