Despite my fondness for Quentin Tarantino, I’ve never been a Reservoir Dogs fan. Back in 1992, the writer-director’s feature debut seemed to me little more than a clever and grotesquely violent one-act play, gussied up with structural whimsy. Yes, the opening scene — black-suited crooks bantering about Madonna and the ethics of tipping — was funny. But the characters played like a collection of tics and attitudes rather than real people. And as the pop-cultural references piled up, the film seemed to lose energy and flirt with pointlessness. I knew this guy Tarantino was going places, but this felt like an exercise, not a movie.
As they say, things change. Reservoir Dogs is returning to the big screen, in a beautiful new 35mm print, and a recent revisit made the picture come alive for me. I still don’t quite buy any of these characters, but I’m not sure I was supposed to. Consider the sequence that now seems like the film’s central moment: the “amusing anecdote about a drug deal” that Tim Roth’s Mr. Orange (really Freddy, an undercover cop) has to memorize and tell in order to convince the crooks he’s one of them. As his superior Holdaway (Randy Brooks) explains, after handing him a four-page script for the anecdote, “An undercover cop has to be Marlon Brando.”
The references to acting (and, by extension, to filmmaking) aren’t coincidental. As Freddy rehearses his script, Tarantino turns the progression of the anecdote into a depiction of the character’s development: First we see Freddy in his room, practicing, pages in hand. Then we see him in front of a graffiti-covered wall, essentially performing on a makeshift stage for Holdaway. Then we see him in a bar, as Mr. Orange, actually relating the anecdote to the other robbers. Finally, we see him in the story itself, living through the made-up events, which turn out to be about encountering some cops and their drug-sniffing dog in a men’s room.
It’s also not coincidental that Freddy’s tale itself is written very much in the Tarantino vernacular — complete with random digressions and details, because, as Holdaway explains, “the details’ll sell your story.” In essence, this sequence explains the unusual, slightly stilted, two-degrees-removed-from-reality atmosphere of Reservoir Dogs, which is all about performance and posturing.
Everybody in this movie, with their made-up names and their tough-guy talk, is playing a part. And it goes beyond just these particular crooks. Those endless pop-culture references help expand the film’s scope beyond the people onscreen, speaking to the way that, by 1992, we had come to build our own characters and realities — through the details and the attitudes we collected around us. Tarantino pulls the rug out from under his characters, but he turns his lens toward us. He transforms an unremarkable story into an existential treatise.
Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
Opens May 19, Film Forum