Wednesday, July 27, 2011
A Gut Shot to the Heist Genre: Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992)
The story of Quentin Tarantino has become mythic by this point. Nearly 20 years after his first movie, Reservoir Dogs, the fast-talking film fanatic remains a major player. His seven features pay homage to a wide array of genres, particularly the low-budget gems of the past. Much has been written about Tarantino and Reservoir Dogs, so I won't bother posting a straightforward review of his debut film. Instead, I’m going to consider it in the realm of the heist genre and its standard formula.
Tarantino has cited Stanley Kubrick's The Killing as one of the major influences for Reservoir Dogs, so I decided to re-watch it after catching that early gem. I actually hadn’t seen this film since college, and it holds up really well. Considered in the broadest sense, it’s a straightforward heist film that follows the genre’s basic format. A group of hardened, talented professional killers band together for one big score. The attempt goes horribly wrong, and they turn on each other in the aftermath. There’s also the traitor — an undercover cop who sets the trap that starts the gang down a path toward complete destruction. This figure isn’t always a cop, but there’s usually someone who places the others in jeopardy, willingly or not. In his debut film, Tarantino takes this model and employs several daring tactics that induce much-needed mayhem into the predictable formula.
First of all, Tarantino rips up any semblance of a linear structure and shifts the pieces around to complicate (and deepen) the film. We begin at the aftermath of the botched heist, and it’s jarring to leap right into the unknown situation. Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) is driving a getaway car while his cohort Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) writhes in the back seat and bleeds profusely from a gut shot. They arrive at a vacant warehouse, which is the primary setting for the movie. Most heist films introduce us to the characters and focus on their preparations for the big robbery. Tarantino does flash back to the time prior to the heist, but he’s not interested in their specific plans. Instead, he’s concerned with briefly setting up these professional thieves and their backgrounds.
Although heist movies typically focus on criminals, there usually is a lead character (or a group of characters) that we identify with and want to succeed. A good example is Sterling Hayden’s Johnny Clay in The Killing, who stands out as a solid guy. In Reservoir Dogs, it’s not clear who we should root for because Tarantino scrambles the narrative. If the story was told chronologically, we’d likely connect with Tim Roth’s undercover cop, known by the alias Mr. Orange. In this structure, however, we don’t learn his identity and back story until more than an hour into the movie. By that point, we’ve grown to like Harvey Keitel’s Mr. White, especially because of his loyalty to his comrade. Steve Buscemi’s Mr. Pink is also interesting, though he’s a bit too manic and doesn't tip. After we see the lengthy interlude of Orange’s preparations to infiltrate the gang, we feel sorry for the guy, but he’s not really our hero. Tarantino is taking a real chance by stopping the forward plot so late in the game.Watching Orange rehearse his made-up story is a classic segment, but it only works if we’re invested in the story. Tarantino trusts that we’re interested enough in this world to stick with him until the final shootout.
Another departure is the extremely graphic violence, which keeps us on edge throughout the movie. Unlike gangster films, heist movies usually spend more time on the characters and machinations of the heist and don’t include brutal killings. Tarantino actually moves some of the grisliest moments off-screen, but the overall nastiness remains. The prime example is Mr. Blond (Michael Madsen), who’s recently spent time in prison and has returned with a crazy streak. In the movie’s signature scene, he tortures a helpless cop, cuts off his ear, and prepares to burn him with gasoline. There’s no motive for this action beyond inflicting pain in the most vicious way possible. Strutting to the sweet sounds of “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel, he delivers a frightening, yet cool depiction of a psychopath. This is not your everyday working-class thief. We also spend a lot of time watching Orange bleed to death. He lies prone on the warehouse floor during much of the movie, and the blood grows to cringe-inducing proportions.
The final change that Tarantino injects on the genre is his over-the-top dialogue, which has become more renowned because of Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and his more recent projects. Reservoir Dogs opens with a lengthy conversation about the meaning of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”, led by Tarantino himself as Mr. Brown. This type of pop-culture discussion from his characters would become a signature part of Tarantino’s movies going forward. Heist films aren’t generally known for their dialogue, so this was quite a dramatic change and widely expanded the audience for this movie. Characters mention Lee Marvin, Marlon Brando, the Thing from the Fantastic Four, The Lost Boys, and other enjoyable references. These guys may be involved in a daring crime, but they’re still people with other interests. Throughout Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino injects his own unconventional style into the genre and delivers an energetic, original film.