2019 Film Essays

Once Upon a Time in Tarantinoland: ‘Reservoir Dogs’ Is an Inventive, Whip-Smart Calling Card

Welcome to John Brhel’s “Once Upon a Time In Tarantinoland” — a look back at all eight of Quentin Tarantino’s feature films, in anticipation of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s July 26 release.

The hype is real for Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s ninth feature film. People have already begun nitpicking the teaser trailer and dunking on the terribly photoshopped poster art, and it comes down to reputation and timing. One, Tarantino’s not just a director, he’s a brand. He could put out a stop-motion romantic comedy and the marketing wouldn’t necessarily focus on the movie, but rather that this A TARANTINO PICTURE. It’s fitting that a guy who built his career mining (stealing?) from pop culture has himself become a pop-culture fixture. Two, while Tarantino makes big, sprawling films, he isn’t the most prolific director. Nine feature films in 27 years? Not bad, but he does like to take his time. So, for fans and cinephiles alike, it’s a big deal that Tarantino has a new movie coming out. It’s not on the level of, say, Avengers: Endgame — but you could call Once Upon A Time In Hollywood an event film.

With that in mind, what better time to take a look back through Tarantino’s oeuvre. What is it about his films that keep people coming back, that have made him a household name? How have Tarantino’s films evolved since Pulp Fiction disrupted cinema in 1994? What themes and techniques are consistent throughout his work? Has Tarantino evolved or is he on a downward spiral? This series will examine Tarantino’s films individually and contextually within his filmography, ending with an in-depth discussion of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.

It’s all there from the very beginning, that distinct PopCultureUltraViolenceNonlinear formula that has defined The Tarantino Film.

Mr. Brown’s motormouth, “dick-dick-dick” analysis of Madonna’s “Like A Virgin.”

Mr. Orange passed out in a pool of his own blood, ghastly-looking.

Introductions in flashback.

The MEXICAN FUCKING STANDOFF.

This kind of stuff is now commonplace in TV and film — grisly violence set to upbeat pop hits, bad guys talking about trivial stuff like regular ‘ol Joes — but back in 1992, when Reservoir Dogs was released, it was a singular, shocking and refreshing vision, and it encapsulates all of the things that would define Tarantino’s filmography.  

SMALL SCALE, BIG IDEAS

It’s not surprising that Tarantino was going to shoot Reservoir Dogs with his friends, on a measly $30,000 budget, before his longtime collaborator/producer Lawrence Bender stepped in, got Harvey Keitel on board and helped secured $1.2 million. The young director was hungry to make his mark on cinema, and he went FULL TARANTINO here. Reservoir Dogs isn’t some off-brand, forgettable stepping stone to a director’s more recognizable works; this isn’t Steven Spielberg’s Amblin’ or James Cameron’s Piranha 2: The Spawning. It’s as essential as anything in Tarantino’s filmography, possibly his most iconic film. It’s not often one can look back to a director’s first feature and see all of the elements already in play. But Tarantino is firing on all cylinders, at the outset, as if he might not get another chance to put his unique vision on screen. If someone were to ask me what film best embodies Tarantino’s style, I might just point to Reservoir Dogs, his very first feature — and that’s wild.

What makes Reservoir Dogs stand out amongst Tarantino’s body of work is its scale. His films would become more sprawling over time, cross-crossing countries, spanning years and featuring dozens of characters. Reservoir Dogs is a small film, more akin to a stage play (I checked — it has been adapted for the stage more than once, and I need to see an adaptation ASAP). The film’s simplicity isn’t a detriment, but a strength. The majority of Reservoir Dogs takes place in a small warehouse, where the various dogs (can we call them that?) meet following a botched diamond heist. But Tarantino never actually shows the heist. There’s the before, the after, but never the heist itself (which makes it hilarious that this film features regularly on “best heist movies of all time” lists). But that’s what makes Reservoir Dogs interesting. Tarantino’s film features some brutal violence and ample amounts of blood, but it’s not about the action. It’s about bad guys in a confined space pointing fingers, making accusations, wondering about the underlying truths. It’s drama and tension, simplified; the Tarantino formula distilled to its most essential elements.

TWISTED CHARACTERS AND NARRATIVE

At the center of Reservoir Dogs are Mr. White (Keitel) and Mr. Orange (Tim Roth, with a crummy American accent). Their relationship, though tenuous and hinging on nothing more than a shared criminal act, is fascinating. Under extreme duress, these men form a bond, despite orders from their boss, Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) to not get too personal. Mr. White reveals his real name to Mr. Orange. It’s a mistake, but it’s a human one. How could anyone expect guys to spend hours together, in close proximity, planning a job, and never reveal anything personal about themselves? Mr. White is not without compassion. Sure, he guns down cops and cuts people’s fingers off, but he’s the same guy who believes that waitresses should be tipped; and he tries to get medical attention for Mr. Orange, even if he’s not willing to drive him to a hospital.

Tarantino humanizes these awful, racist, sociopathic guys. They rob and murder, but they get down to “The Night the Lights Went Down in Georgia” and watch The Lost Boys. They stop for a soda after shooting up a bunch of people at a jewelry shop (Mr. Blonde). Tarantino isn’t showing John McClane climbing through an air duct to take down a bunch of terrorists; his focus is on the criminals. These guys are villains, but the real bad guy is the one who ratted them all out. Viewers take this sort of thing for granted now, but you generally didn’t see thugs talking pop songs before Reservoir Dogs. To see bad guys as more than stock characters, with insecurities and ho-hum interests, was novel. Tarantino acquaints viewers with these guys at the start of the film as they talk about mundane stuff like tipping and Madonna. When experiencing Reservoir Dogs for the first time, it’s not obvious that these guys are about to pull a job. They could be insurance salesmen for all anyone knows, but this banter brings them to life as characters, and when shit goes down, there’s reason to care.

There aren’t many movies that twist the linear narrative. Where Reservoir Dogs could have ended up a quirky-yet-rote crime drama, Tarantino’s film becomes something more through its unconventional structure. There’s really not much here in terms of a plot — some guys try to rob a jewelry store, they mess up and then regroup at a warehouse. It’s threadbare. But Reservoir Dog’s non-linear structure gives the film depth. Tarantino would take the technique to greater heights in Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill and Inglorious Basterds, but the template, the post-modern spin on narrative storytelling (“Wait, that guy just died and now he’s alive on screen!”) is here. Flashbacks offer new information, new ways to process the stuff that’s already been introduced — Mr. Orange is revealed to be an undercover cop, Mr. Blonde actually goes way back with Joe and Nice Guy Eddie. Tarantino plays a game, toying with the audience in ways that wouldn’t have been possible or as interesting if he’d told the story in a linear fashion. It helps to keeps the audience in suspense.

PUSHING THE ENVELOPE

Tarantino has long-been criticized for the level of violence in his films, and Reservoir Dogs shows that he was pushing the envelope from the get-go. The film’s most iconic scene, in which Mr. Blonde (Madsen) tortures a police officer to the cool sounds of “Stuck in the Middle with You,” was shocking at the time of release (people walked out of theaters), and it’s no less unsettling (or deviously fun) now. The nonchalant way in which Mr. Blonde goes about his deed only amplifies the character’s lunacy, and he makes the audience almost complicit in the act. It’s cringe-inducing when he cuts off the cop’s ear, but the horror is cut by humor a moment later when Madsen holds up the ear and talks into it. Tarantino excels at that back-and-forth blend of humor and violence; it makes the jokes funnier and the violence more pulpable.

From a visual standpoint, Reservoir Dogs bears some of the inventiveness that would define Tarantino’s style, despite its low budget. There’s the first appearance of the now-ubiquitous “trunk shot,” which Tarantino would use again in Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill and Death Proof. There’s a great long-take in which the camera follows Mr. Blonde as he leaves the warehouse (music cuts out), grabs a can of gasoline from the trunk and returns to the warehouse (music returns). My favorite shot comes around the mid-way mark. Mr. White and Mr. Pink are having it out, guns pointed, when the camera slowly pans back to reveal Mr. Blonde, sipping his drink like a total badass. It separates Mr. Blonde from the crew and presents him as an other — someone to be feared. And don’t tell me he doesn’t come off as menacing and cool when he says, “Are you gonna bark all day, little doggie, or are you gonna bite?”

While Tarantino has maintained his trademark style, he’s gotten bigger and attracts bigger stars. The low-budget Reservoir Dogs seems almost quaint in comparison to his later, more sweeping efforts. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood stars three of the biggest movie stars on the planet (Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie); it’s the farthest thing from some little indie film.

Quentin Tarantino would get more bloody (Django Unchained, Inglorious Basterds), more vulgar (Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown) and more structurally and visually inventive (Kill Bill), but Reservoir Dogs is an impressive debut that reflects his unique, postmodern style and points towards things to come.

John Brhel (@johnbrhel) is an author and pop culture writer from upstate New York. He is the co-author of several books of horror/paranormal fiction, including Corpse Cold: New American Folklore and Resurrection High, and the co-founder of independent book publisher Cemetery Gates Media. He enjoys burritos and has seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom way too many times.

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