“Clowns to left of me, jokers to the right,
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you”
– “Stuck in the Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel
The quintessential modern masterpiece and the thrilling debut by a young Quentin Tarantino is considered by many not only one of his finest works, but perhaps second to that of Pulp Fiction. It has been well loved in its 24 years of existence as a classic crime thriller with humorous black comedy dialogue, interesting characters and use of non-linear storytelling. It is also known to me as the “What the fuck is wrong with you?” film as that is the response I get from everyone when I say I haven’t seen the movie. Yes, it is true. I am about the same age as the film and I had never seen it before. As we have established before I am A) cinema impaired and B) an idiot. Enough of my poor choices in life, let’s get on to Reservoir Dogs. For full effect, the video below should be played.
This film follows a group of men before and after a heist gone wrong. This men with names only Crayola could envy are Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), Mr. Blue (Eddie Bunker), and Mr. Brown (Tarantino himself). Under the guidence of their boss Joe Cabot (Lawrence Teirney) and his son “Nice Guy” Eddie Cabot (Chris Penn), they do the job until Brown is killed, Blue has run off, Orange is shot and under the care of White. Pink is waiting for them in a nearby warehouse for the two to arrive contemplating whether the heist went wrong because of a set-up by the cops or because of Blonde’s psychopathic shooting spree. This leads to revelations about the backgrounds of each character, the motives of their actions, the outcomes of fates and a hell of a lot of blood. There’s also dark humor a plenty. After all, it is a Tarantino film.
With that premise and after time has passed since its release, the question that remains is if the film has stood the test the time.
The short answer is “yes.” The long answer is “oh, fuck yes.”
It is a rare feat that any film still feels fresh after all these years, especially a crime film. Technology changes, times passes and the world of crime is always changing. This film, however, keeps it simple and focuses on the character. It doesn’t go into dramatic details of how they did the heist. Hell, the heist is not even shown, but through the character’s conversation, the audience has an idea about how everything went down. The film is a character piece as the idea is to get an understanding of who these guys are and Tarantino does it the only way he can: through dialogue.
There is a rule for writers known as “show, don’t tell.” With Tarantino, he knows this and can wow a crowd with the simplicity of words with a result. He tells us who these guys are by telling us what they are capable of and allowing us to draw some conclusions. Basically, the dialogue is a bit like foreplay in that it teases the audience a bit to draw some interpretation show that when the film shows us what they can do, it feels worth the wait. A prime example is Mr. Blonde as a character because the audience sees a calm and collective guy upon first sight.
When White and Pink talk about his shooting rampage, there is a bit of a shock and it increases when he appears drinking a soda as if nothing has happen. Once White and Pink exit the film for a tad, the audience sees the true Blonde as he becomes more than cool, but becomes a near monster with the most famous torture scene. It’s bloody, horrific and kind of humorous. Tarantino blends it all together in one scene that pays off big.
The other actors make the dialogue and story just as rich. There is never a dull moment as these guys all have been veterans on the job and seem to be about as calm. In the moments of panic though, they show their vulnerability and ruthlessness. The highlights include Pink nearly going over the edge, White as an older vet attempting to be the straight man and Orange, writhing in pain as he bleeds out, trying to keep his composure. These are real emotions on display and never come off as phoned in.
The opening scene is much more lighthearted than the rest of the film displaying what these men are like outside of the job. They are normal guys that love to bullshit, relax and talk about pop culture and their views on the world. Even in those moments, they go from being criminals to just regular Joes like everybody else. Eveything from an interesting interpretation of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” being about dick to Pink refusing to tip while playing a small violin for those struggling to make it, these guys just sound like a couple of guys that see this as another day in the life.
When getting to the backgrounds of the main men, these also ground them in reality with a sense that these guys can still be around today just being themselves. It’s not overblown with dated ideas or cliches, but rather ones that can allow this to be performed today and still feel new. The only thing a bit dated is the soundtrack, but even that works as these guys all listen to tunes of the 70’s and genuinely enjoy it. It actually connects them all together in a strange way. The music is an extension of their bond.
Reservoir Dogs is a great and timeless thrill ride. It captures all the cool of the heist without showing it, all the drama that comes with its downfall through its performances and delivers a bloody good show that rivals Gallagher’s Watermelon routine. It is a great piece of independent film making and shows what was to come for the rest of 90’s cinema, for better or worse.
Thus concludes The Greatest Films…I’ve Never Seen month as we journeyed into Kurbrick’s vision of space in 2001: A Space Odyssey, listened to the sounds of Mozart in Amdeus, witnessed an affair to remember in The Graduate and got stuck in the middle with Reservoir Dogs. Next month, Film A Week decides to explore Black History on Film. The next four films will look into the way Black culture has shaped cinema and the impact made and there is no better way to begin it by going Straight Outta Compton. See you, Wednesday, February 3.