I've regularly had a go at Quentin Tarantino for being bloated, self-important and indulgent. Both instalments of Kill Bill are overlong, baggy and poorly written, and Death Proof comes across as totally desperate and inept. But as much as I will criticise Tarantino for not delivering on the promise of Jackie Brown, there can be little denying the power and biting originality of his early work. Reservoir Dogs is Tarantino at his most disciplined and efficient, and it still feels edgy and gripping after 20 years.
Reservoir Dogs is frequently cited as the point where American independent filmmaking began to experience a revival. Empire magazine even voted it the Greatest Independent Film of All Time back in 2008. The film had secured most of its funding through the efforts of Harvey Keitel, who had loved Tarantino's script, signed on to play Mr. White and called in a few favours. After it shocked audiences at the Sundance Film Festival, it was snapped up by Harvey Weinstein's company Miramax, and the rest is history.
When reviewing low-budget films, you're always on the lookout for directors who can achieve a great deal of visual depth with minimal means of creating such depth. On this level Reservoir Dogs is very impressive, with each of its locations feeling like they have a character unique to the film, when most of them had probably turned up on screen a hundred times before. The warehouse in which most of the action takes place looks tumbled-down and blood-spattered, as if it was showing its age from having been used in these kinds of stories so many times.
But while the buildings may be creaking under the weight of generic convention, the film itself is pretty light on its feet. Tarantino's use of hand-held camera puts us right in the centre of the action so that we feel part of the conspiracy and are hit by the fall-out like all the others. It is as though we take over the role of Mr. Brown from Tarantino, who appears in the first couple of scenes but then is never seen again. The film calls us to observe the action as well as picking up on all the nods to different films, and its movement away during the ear-slicing scene reflects our own repulsion.
This scene leads us nicely into the amount of references to other films Reservoir Dogs contains, and more importantly the manner in which they are conveyed. Just as the film never breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly, so it doesn't drop references clumsily into conversation, with the performers constantly winking at us. Instead, there are little motifs scattered throughout which film fans will pick up on, but which don't undermine the mechanics of Reservoir Dogs as a heist film.
In most cases the references are twisted to accommodate Tarantino's own creative decisions, something which is less present in his later works. The plot is lifted by and large from Stanley Kubrick's The Killing, but with the middle section involving the heist being taken out and the opening act of planning the heist being truncated. The naming of the characters after different colours comes from The Taking of Pelham 123, but instead of Mr. Blue being the head honcho and present throughout, in Reservoir Dogs he is pretty much dead from the start.
In an interview for the AFI surrounding Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction¸ Tarantino talked about different crime directors putting their stamp on the criminals in their films through the suits and accessories that they wore. He contrasted his penchant for black suits (which is cemented in Pulp Fiction) with Sergio Leone's dusters, Jean-Pierre Melville's trench-coats or John Woo's recurring use of doves. Tarantino's aesthetic stamp achieves the same as his predecessors, in elevating his characters above the norms of generic convention, so that even as we are aware of where they come from, they still feel like real people that could exist.
At its heart, Reservoir Dogs is a study of the structure of heist films. It's not about the twist, or who's the rat, or where the diamonds are, or who if anyone gets out alive. It is about the way in which we get to those kinds of plot points, showing the action out of order so that we understand how these scenes function, rather than just taking them for granted. Tarantino would develop this idea further with the hit-men in Pulp Fiction, showing us all the scenes we would normally never get to see and doing for the crime film what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead did for Hamlet.
Reservoir Dogs puts a fresh stamp on the heist genre through two aspects which have become Tarantino's motifs. The first is the discussions about pop culture, which led to comparisons with David Mamet and Barry Levinson; early reviews pithily described the film as "Tin Men with guns", or "Diner with guns". One of the best scenes comes right at the beginning, where the gangsters are arguing over the hidden meanings of Madonna's 'Like A Virgin'. Later there is a chat in the car about the actress Pam Grier, who would later work with Tarantino in Jackie Brown. We hadn't really seen a heist film in which grown men had these kinds of discussions with straight faces before, and even after it's been copied a thousand times, the original still works well.
The second aspect is the distinctive use of music. The slow-motion shot of our rogues walking into shot to the tune of 'Little Green Bag' has become iconic in its own time. The drawling delivery of comedian Steven Wright, host of 'K-Billy's Super Sounds of the Seventies', provides an ironic running commentary on events and allows Tarantino to vary the pace of the action. Most effective, and affecting, is the image of Michael Madsen's psychotic Mr. Blonde, dancing around in the warehouse to 'Stuck In The Middle With You'.
This scene was a major talking point when the film was first released. It prompted walkouts at several screenings, including horror director Wes Craven and American Werewolf make-up artist Rick Baker. The issue was whether we are supposed to enjoy the violence, with the upbeat music making us feel good even as horrible things happen. The answer is that this and the other bloodbaths are intentionally repulsive, balancing the stylised nature of the plot with the brutality forced upon its players. You might even argue that this scene is blackly comedic, with the shot of the 'Mind Your Head' sign being analogous to the A Farewell to Arms joke in Evil Dead 2.
Within Reservoir Dogs there is an sadly underplayed discussion about the insecure position of white criminals in a town increasingly populated by other races. The gangsters in general, and Mr. White in particular, have a strong hatred not just of the police, but of blacks and gay people. Jason Reitman recently picked up on the irony within this, staging a rehearsed reading of the screenplay with all black actors, on the grounds that the characters "all sounded like black dudes to start with". If we accept this, the ending of the film gains a little extra meaning; the whites are betrayed by their own kind, and cease to control the town.
Not everything about Reservoir Dogs is perfect. Tarantino's dialogue is occasionally a little samey, with characters seeming to blend into one. And there are times when it is too clinical, not letting us get under the skin enough to make the film more emotionally resonant. But as debut efforts go it is hugely encouraging, being an efficient, sharp and gripping piece of filmmaking. Whatever Tarantino does in the next 20 years, it will still remain a damn fine first attempt.