When Reservoir Dogs was first released, it divided critics. It utilizes a type of intensity that wasn’t yet as commonplace as it might be now. Violence and profanity and few, if any moments where the viewer can simply catch his breath. But it isn’t a cut and dry gangster flick, nor is it a simple heist movie, or even the kind of obscene death porn that Eli Roth has made a name shoving at us. Reservoir Dogs is an examination of men under extreme duress who are no longer afforded the luxury of trust.
The film starts simply, with a group of anonymous men at a diner, elaborating on minutia of Madonna’s Like a Virgin and tipping. Classic Tarantino. From here we enter our title credits, then quite suddenly find a grunting, writhing and bloodied Tim Roth in the backseat of a moving car, driven by Harvey Keitel. Mr. Orange and Mr. White, respectively. There’s no time to gather yourself. You’re in it now. Tim Roth might die any second according to the pints of blood pouring out of him, and you don’t even know who you’re looking at. White and Orange arrive at a safehouse, where moments later they’re met by Mr. Pink (Steve Buschemi). Finally you get a little exposition: Jewel heist gone bad, people died along with some cops, Mr. Blonde went crazy and just started shooting, oh, and there’s a rat in the mix. But don’t let yourself get comfortable, because this isn’t a story about story, it’s a story about tension. Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) arrives to disrupt any sort of recess from disquiet, even bringing Mr. White to brandish a weapon for the first time. As the film progresses you learn that the elder Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) is the organizer, gathering together a group of professional thieves for a diamond heist with a big payout. You also come to discover that in fact, Mr. Orange is the rat; an undercover cop placed strategically to get at Joe Cabot. And in the end the tension reaches its apex with a good old-fashioned Mexican standoff. Inasmuch as this is Tarantino we’re talking about, it’s safe to assume that few of our original characters escape with their lives.
Among the number of things that Quentin Tarantino accomplishes here is his ability to have so much story live in, more or less, one room. Many first time writers have tried it to keep costs down and make their script more buyable using such a tactic, and should you ever feel so inclined, this is an excellent place to start. Another element of the film’s originality is how it plays with story structure (another Tarantino standby). Exposition comes in bursts that don’t live on a timeline. We simply learn what we need to learn as Tarantino sees fit. This is terribly effective because we are allowed to gain insight into the characters in the background of the real story. We see Mr. Blonde, or Vic Vega, at ease with Cabot and his son Eddie (Chris Penn). Mr. White, a.k.a. Larry Dimmick also has a longstanding relationship with Cabot, through which we catch a glimpse of some integrity. Even Mr. Orange/Freddy Newandyke is allowed to expand a little under the shelter of his undercover liaison. This is an intriguing way to develop characters and Tarantino obviously employs it to this day.
Reservoir Dogs looks and feels like a film from the early nineties, a time that as of yet I feel no nostalgia for. Still, it might just be one of the few films that takes that era and makes it seem classic. Because even though in some ways it feels like a film from another era, it still seems to transcend that distinction. Let alone that it is a renowned director’s first stab at the craft, and regardless of the stellar performances (perhaps Madsen’s best), this is a movie that forced everyone to reassess and reevaluate the notion of what a heist movie, or a gangster movie, or just a plain old movie, could be. For these reasons, Reservoir Dogs will surely be talked about years from now. It was that kind of a game changer.