Reservoir Dogs

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USA, 1992

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Production: Live America Inc., A Dog Eat Dog production; color, 35mm; running time: 99 minutes.

Producer: Lawrence Bender; co-producer: Harvey Keitel; executive producers: Monte Hellman, Richard N. Gladstein, Ronna B. Wallace; screenplay: Quentin Tarantino; photography: Anrzej Sekula; editor: Sally Menks; assistant directors: Jamie Beardsley, Francis R. Mahoney III; production design: David Wasco; sound editors: Curt Schulkey, Chuck Smith, Dave Stone; sound recordists: Ken Segal, Dave Moreno, Matthew C. Belleville, Mark Coffey.

Cast: Harvey Keitel (Mr. White/Larry); Tim Roth (Mr. Orange/Freddy Newendyke); Michael Madsen (Mr. Blonde/'Toothpick" Vic Vega); Steve Buscemi (Mr. Pink); Chris Penn (Nice Guy Eddie); Lawrence Tierney (Joe Cabot); Randy Brooks (Holdaway); Kirk Baltz (Marvin Nash); Eddie Bunker (Mr. Blue); Quentin Tarantino (Mr. Brown); Steven Wright (K-Billy DJ).



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* * *

With Pulp Fiction, his second film as writer/director, Quentin Tarantino has clearly "arrived," though how long he will stay is another matter. In the present (anti-)critical climate, where reviewers seem motivated primarily by the desire to demonstrate how much they are "with it" rather than by any vestigial sense of the need for responsible evaluation, the latest idols pass by like comets, a brief blaze followed by a swift fizzle: the Coens (Barton Fink) seem already on the way down, and David Lynch (Blue Velvet) has already sunk below the horizon. Pulp Fiction, a work of phenomenal cleverness and very little intelligence, does not strike me as the realization of the promise of Reservoir Dogs, the embodiment of the kind of creativity that endures and develops. But creativity is scarcely nourished by the values of contemporary critical "taste": cynicism, nihilism, the irresponsibilities of postmodernism, "sick" humour. Pulp Fiction gives the critics exactly what they appear to want.

Reservoir Dogs (although discernibly the work of the same artist) is another matter. The essential difference between the two films is epitomized in the two torture scenes: that in Reservoir Dogs is genuinely appalling, while that in Pulp Fiction is clearly offered as funny. The earlier film's relative modesty, combined with its force, tautness and precision, suggests an underlying seriousness of purpose that its successor fritters away in adolescent self-indulgence; it is a far more impressive debut than the first films of Lynch or the Coens. Its distinction lies not only in its formal perfection (the intricately nonchronological narrative structure) and the single-minded rigour with which its thesis ("reservoir dogs" end up eating each other) is worked out, but in its very particular relation to the contemporary crisis of "masculinity." The threat to masculinity represented by feminism—the growing emancipation, independence, and activeness of women—has evoked a range of responses in the culture which are mirrored in the Hollywood cinema. There has been the attempt (almost invariably compromised and recuperative) to depict strong and "liberated" women, and the corresponding attempt to define a new version of "Mr. Nice Guy," the sensitive and caring male. The alternative response is the hysterical overvaluation and exaggeration of masculinity represented by Schwarzennegger, Stallone, and Norris (often spilling over, at least in the case of the first two, into knowing but uneasy parody that allows us sophisticates to indulge ourselves while not taking it all too seriously). Reservoir Dogs carries this almost to the point of a kind of mass psychosis, the characters (not one of whom remains alive at the end) are destroyed by the very drives that make them so destructive.

Women scarcely appear in the film: one is brutally dragged from her car (required for a getaway) and hurled to the ground, the other is shot dead on the rebound by the gang-member she gut-wounds (who turns out to be an undercover cop). The references to women in the dialogue define them exclusively as sex-objects (there are no marriages or families). The men's total and apparently unanimous inability to relate to women on any other level has two inevitable consequences: the repression of their own femininity, and the constantly lurking threat of homosexuality. (Tarantino's films, and for that matter his interviews, are shot through by homoerotic reference, and less frequently by its converse, homophobia. See especially his account of Top Gun in his cameo appearance as an actor in Sleep With Me). Unable to love women, the men are evaluated in terms of their ability (or in most cases inability) to love each other. The poles are represented by the characters played by Michael Madsen and Harvey Keitel. The former is the film's explicitly psychotic character, incapable of relating to anyone except by violence. When, during the notorious torture scene, he slices off the cop's ear with a razor, his immediate taunt defines the act's essentially sexual nature: "Was that as good for you as it was for me?" This is answered at the end of the film by the erotic tenderness with which Keitel cradles and embraces the gut-wounded undercover man (Tim Roth), who responds to this sudden intimacy by confessing his identity—whereupon Keitel shoots him.

—Robin Wood