Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Quentin Tarantino's 'Reservoir Dogs', 1992

Fig. 1 Reservoir Dogs Poster
Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs is a stunningly structured heist movie where the audience never sees the actualheist. Gerald Peary described that "It's a fond genre movie that's forever chortling up its sleeve at the puerile idiocy of the genre: a heist caper without a heist, an action movie that's hopelessly in love with talk, a poem of the sexiness of storytelling, and a slice of precocious wisdom about life." (Tarantino, Quentin, Peary, Gerald, 1998:41) Indeed, this film seems to relish the opportunity to allow the characters to develop through their dialogue and actions and it is because of this that the story is so compelling.

Fig. 2 The main characters.

It is only a select few of these characters, Mr White, Mr Orange, Mr Pink and Mr Blonde, that the audience spend their time with but it is this that allows them to become so emotionally connected to them, despite the fact that they're clearly criminals and murderers. Peary goes on to express that "Tarantino loves to toy with the forms of his beloved action genre: with his favourite themes of professionalism. loyalty and betrayal; but most of all with us, flipping us from laughs to sympathy to horror and back again - he's the maestro of mood swing." (Tarantino, Quentin, Peary, Gerald, 1998:42)  This flip from laughing besides a character to sudden horror is no clearer than with Mr.Blonde, described as a 'psychopath' by Mr White. The theme of professionalism and loyalty is seen no more strongly than in Mr. White's character. Taking on the role of father figure, he repeats the need for professionalism in his job as he tries to make himself presentable, despite the blood all over his once white shirt. It's because of his relative calmness and emotional connection to Mr.Orange that the audience feel so strongly towards him, they just forget that he may have killed as many people as Mr.Blonde. Despite their differing personalities, they're all presented to the viewers in two ways, first a breakfast at a diner and secondly, and most iconically, a slow motion strut along a street to the very 'cool' 1970's track Little Green Bag.
Fig. 3 Opening breakfast sequence.
The use of slow motion is just one of the many techniques that Tarantino uses in this film to portray the narrative and create his desired atmosphere.  One of the most talked about aspects of his films are the ways he chooses to edit them and this is the prime example of this. Peary revealed that "Toward the end of Reservoir Dogs, there's a dazzling chain of scenes that pile one virtuoso piece of storytelling on another for the sheer pleasure of playing one narrative voice off the next." (Tarantino, Quentin, Peary, Gerald, 1998:45) This sequence is the 'big reveal' where the audience discovers who the 'rat' in the group is and the devastating effects that this is going to cause when they all find out. This way of storytelling is a regular occurence in Tarantino's films and it's referred to as non linear narratives.  This allows him to drop twists and turns on the unknowing audience, keeping them at the same level as most of the other characters.  Another unique storytelling technique is his use of the circular camera movement, seen in the very distinct opening sequence, during which all the characters are eating breakfast together. Jennifer Van Stijll believes that "It's as though the jewel thieves have pushed a chair up to the table and invited the audience to join in...The chair is pushed back from the others just a little, indicating privileged access, but not full membership." (Van Sijll, Jennifer, 2005:180) The audience is brought right in close to the characters as they discuss various topics, into a very intimate space, but they always feel as if they are looking over the characters' shoulders, never quite 'in' with them.  She also goes on to explain that this type of camera movement is "used to foreshadow a conspiracy that is later revealed.  Having the camera's motion physically externalize thematic ideas greatly deepens the audience engagement and overall power of the storytelling." (Van Sijll, Jennifer, 2005:180)  This supports the later discovery that Mr.Orange is infact the 'rat' among them.  This use of foreshadowing not only brings the audience right into the characters' space but keeps them alert.  Their constant movement disabling their ability to stay focused on one character for very long is interpreted as them still being kept from something important, that something is being held back from them.
Fig. 4 Mr.White comforting Mr.Orange.

Not only is keeping the audience close to the characters effective but also keeping them at a distance or in a position where they are unable to know who to focus on is just as effective too.  Asbjørn Grønstad's interpretation of the title choice is very significant:"The term reservoir implies a strict delimitation of space, a space that may potentially burst, and by way of associative contiguity the warehouse in Reservoir Dogs seems to evoke a similar confinement of spatial energy." (Grønstad, Asbjørn, 2008:158)  The warehouse that the characters return to for refuge is definitely a strict delimitation of space, even though Mr.Orange is dying they cannot leave the premises and thus leads to their 'safehouse' becoming a smothering cell of emotional friction.  It is this emotional friction that sparks the questioning of the males' masculinity, as Glen O. Gabbard expresses: "Masculinity is a performance always on the edge of disaster or violence." (Gabbard, Glen O., 2002:80) therefore, the characters revealing their emotional panic because of the dangerous situation could spark their need to compensate with violence.  Grønstad goes on to divulge that "The narrative of Reservoir Dogs comes close to suggesting that violence is constitutive not only of the expression of ethical experience but also of the enactment of masculinity."(Grønstad, Asbjørn, 2008:166)  One example of this is the character of Mr.White, who takes on the role of protector to Mr.Orange.  Except for his willingness to kill those in his way, he seems the most emotionally mature.  He wants to protect Mr.Orange as he shares a bond with him but as soon as his masculinity is questioned he takes out his gun to threaten those that question him with violence.  Another interesting point by Grønstad is that the "Key paradox in Tarantino's film is the unmasking, or de(con)struction, of the masculine through acts of playful performativity."  (Grønstad, Asbjørn, 2008:166)  This performativity is seen with the theatrical stand-offs between characters.  One is the fight between Mr.White and Mr.Pink where they're merely arguing and it ends up in them pulling guns on each other.  The most important piece of 'violent performance' is the stand-off between Mr.White, his boss and long-time friend, Joe and Joe's son, who is to inherit the business.  Joe wants to kill Mr.Orange because he thinks he's the 'rat', Mr White wants to protect Mr.Orange as he has built a relationship with him and Joe's son wants to protect his father. It is a very tragic sequence in which the audience watches as everyone that was left standing is either killed or disappears.

Reservoir Dogs was clearly lovingly crafted by Tarantino. Not only does it have excellent editing that reveals to the audience only snippets of what he wants you to know, when he wants you to know it, but it has become an icon for the way cinema can be reshaped, no matter how average the plot might seem.

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Reservoir Dogs Poster. At: (Accessed on: 16.02.11)

Figure 2. Reservoir Dogs (1992) The main characters.At: (Accessed on: 16.02.11)

Figure 3. Reservoir Dogs (1992) Opening breakfast sequence. At: (Accessed on: 16.02.11)

Figure 4. Reservoir Dogs (1992) Mr.White comforting Mr.Orange. At: (Accessed on: 16.02.11)


Gabbard, Glen O. (2002) Psychoanalysis and film. London: H.Karnac (Books) Ltd.

Grønstad, Asbjørn (2008) Transfigurations: violence, death and masculinity in American cinema. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Tarantino, Quentin, Peary, Gerald (1998) Quentin Tarantino: interviews. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi

Van Sijll, Jennifer (2005) Cinematic storytelling: the 100 most powerful film conventions every filmmaker must know. California: Michael Wiese Productions.