Friday, April 12, 2024

Reservoir Dogs and the Straight, White Asshole Condition

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Not too long ago, I mentioned in passing that Kill Bill is my favorite Tarantino movie (and one of my favorite movies, period), even though I know it has… Issues. Own thine problematic faves and all that. Now something that has always happened to me when I talked about Kill Bill as probably my favorite movie, period (if seen as one very long movie), is that people started rolling their eyes and telling me how much better Pulp Fiction is. To which my usual reply was shrugging, because, gasp, I have never seen Pulp Fiction.

And now I have decided to change that! Come and join me on a chronological journey through all the feature length Tarantino movies for the next four months or so!

Now, important criteria out of the way: For this rundown, I only consider feature length movies (no shorts, no segments) that Quentin Tarantino has written and directed himself. Well, and if you count the Kill Bills as one movie, he also has an acting credit in all of them, but that’s more incidental here.

This is largely due to the fact that I really, really don’t want to sit through either From Dusk Till Dawn or Sin City again. Once was enough. That also means I will not be covering Four Rooms or Grindhouse, though the latter comes with a hearty recommendation if you happen to be into the genre.

With these ground rules taken care of, the list comes down to the following 8 titles in chronological order:

  1. Reservoir Dogs
  2. Pulp Fiction
  3. Jackie Brown
  4. Kill Bill Vol. 1
  5. Kill Bill Vol. 2
  6. Inglorious Basterds
  7. Django Unchained
  8. The Hateful Eight

(Yes, I consider the Kill Bills to be one movie. But I know myself well enough to predict that once I get going, I won’t be able to shut up about them, so splitting them up from the get-go is probably a good call. Also, look at the list again. How can I not make it a full eight reviews?)

Out of this list, I have watched half of them before (the Kill Bills, Basterds, and Django), some of them several times, and half of them not at all. I go into this mostly unspoiled, despite how memetic Pulp Fiction is in general, because I can’t even tell apart what gif belongs to which movie, so until the next section of the review where I start talking about Reservoir Dogs, I have no idea whether the things I know or have seen scenes or gifs from are from Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs.

This also means that until we get to the Kill Bills, this is me, for the first time writing about something I have no deep emotional connection to. Should be fun.

General Expectations

So first of all, what are key components of Tarantino movies? Why is this dude and his body of work so immediately recognizable?

The most obvious thing is the over the top, gratuitous violence, that on occasion borders on comical just from how gratuitous and over the top it is, which in turn, at least for me, always makes the violence easier to swallow. In general, that is. From the movies I have seen, I’d single out Django for violence I didn’t find easy to swallow, but, well, we’ll get there when we get there.

Tarantino’s work is also usually made up of homages to older movies or TV shows, usually from the 70ies. In a similar vein, if set during modern times, everyone seems to have very deep thoughts or at least a general knowledge of comic book heroes. I mean. The climax of Kill Bill is a character analysis of Superman. The guys in Reservoir Dogs know the Fantastic 4 by name long before it was cool. Wait, were those ever cool? I lost track.

Closely related to that, there is also always something super indulgent about these movies. Conversations are allowed to drag on and on and on where more conventional movies would start cutting, about topics that are maybe tangentially related to the plot at large, if at all. See also previous point about Kill Bill.

Other people are quick to point out non-linear storytelling as a feature, but as of right now, I consider this to be a less obvious feature. There’s also a difference between non-linear storytelling and just inserting flashbacks when appropriate.

Oh, yeah, and due to the ridiculous over the top violence, these movies have one hell of a body count, and I will enter them with the general assumption that almost nobody makes it out alive.

So, a warning: As is the nature of the beast, mentions of very graphic violence and images featuring lots of fake blood going forward.

A Summary

Reservoir Dogs, the first movie on my list, is basically a heist movie in the form of a bottle episode. Roughly 85% of the scenes take place in the same warehouse, and we do not get to see the heist itself, just the aftermath of it.

The movie opens with 8 white dudes sitting in a diner and analyzing Madonna’s “Like A Virgin”, making, let’s be diplomatic, interesting assumptions about female sexuality. At the end of the day, they talk about everything and nothing, until one of them goes to pay, everyone else is expected to chip in for the tip, and Steve Buscemi’s character gets to rant about how tipping is bullshit.

I am at a loss on what we are supposed to think about this character. The refusal to tip and two minute monologue about it make him out to be an asshole. His arguments are that if waitresses want to make more money than minimum wage, they should just get better jobs. The other characters around that table point out to him that he’s being an asshole, and how tips are the only way waitresses, usually non-college educated women, are even able to scrape together a living.

They make pretty compelling arguments, but Buscemi’s character, Mr. Pink for most of the movie, only caves in when their collective boss, employer, or whatever term won’t get your ear cut off, points out that if he pays for everyone’s breakfast, Mr. Pink can part with a dollar.

Yes. This dispute was about one dollar. Also, because I am like that, I actually did some research. Minimum wage was indeed a thing in California in 1992, though I guess this movie was written before that. Anyhow. Minimum wage in California in the early 90ies was $4.25 per hour. After inflation, that’s around $7.50 in today’s money, $2.50 shy of California’s current minimum wage, which is still under what is considered a livable wage for a single adult today, and since this is California and they’ll all be chased by the LAPD in a minute, probably wasn’t one 25 years ago either. Mr. Pink is an asshole, short and simple.

Mr. Brown, we hardly knew ye

The entire scene has a bit of a ‘locker room talk’ feel to it, even though most of the men wear suits and occasionally threaten to shoot each other. First surprise: They all make it at least until the opening credits before anyone does get shot.

Of course, even before the opening credits are done, we hear someone screaming in pain, and are greeted afterwards by the sight of Mr. Orange bleeding out on the backseat of a car after being shot in the stomach. Mr. White is driving them to the aforementioned warehouse, which is some kind of safe house for the criminal operation the dude who paid for breakfast, Joe Cabot, is running.

This is where the bottle episode-ness sets in. They are joined in this warehouse by every single named character eventually, except for Mr. Blue and Brown, who died off-screen. Well. Mr. Brown died more or less on-screen, because Quentin Tarantino needs to make sure that we know the character played by him never makes it out alive.

Mr. White tries to convince Mr. Orange that he’ll stay alive long enough to get treatment for his wound, even without taking him to a hospital, until the prodigious asshole known as Mr. Pink returns to the scene and start yelling about how everything has been a set-up, one of them is a rat, and why is he the only professional in the room. I kind of love this, because he is so not helping, and Mr. White is so not having any of his shit.

I mean, it’s too bad that Mr. Pink also ends up being right about everything, but for the moment, I am very happy. I get even happier when Mr. White starts beating the crap out of him for being insensitive in the presence of a dying man. I’d have greatly approved of this going on, but unfortunately they are interrupted by Mr. Blonde, played by Michael Madsen at his most puppy dog eyed.

No, don’t stop there, dammit!

Previous conversation established that this is the dude who escalated the situation at the heist, shot at civilians, and generally made the situation as shitty as it is at the moment. He also took a police officer hostage which Mr. Pink and Mr. White gleefully beat the shit out of the man, first just for fun, and then to get information out of him, right until Eddie, Joe Cabot’s son and right hand man from what we can tell, also enters the scene, tells them all to get their shit together and maybe not park the vehicles they stole to flee right in front of the safe house.

And Mr. Pink is the one insisting he is the only professional in the room…

Mr. Blonde is left alone with the still bleeding out Mr. Orange and also the police officer, who we later learn is named Marvin Nash. Eddie also pointed out how torture never works, because people will eventually tell you anything just to make it stop. So the extended sequence of Mr. Blonde torturing the police officer is there basically just because.

No, really. The torture involves slashing up Nash’s face with a straight razor, cutting off his ear, pouring gasoline on him, and also several minutes of

The whitest kind of torture.

Michael Madsen dancing to “Stuck In The Middle With You”. When he attempts to light Nash on fire, he is shot by Mr. Orange, who is only mostly dead and still bleeding out. Several gallons of blood that consistently pool around his usually limp body. You’d think he’d be done bleeding out at this point, but no, we need to be informed of backstory!

Well, okay, this is not the first flashback we get. Others are of Mr. Pink fleeing the scene in a car with a smashed windshield (so subtle, very professional) and the diamonds they attempted to steal, of Mr. White being recruited by Joe Cabot, of Mr. Blonde being recruited after he spent four years in prison for the Cabot operations without ratting them out for a deal, of Mr. White taking Mr. Orange under his wing and the two of them running away after things go awry (featuring Tarantino’s character’s death), and also my personal favorite.

In one technically totally irrelevant scene that spells out the heist plan that has so far only been alluded to, Joe Cabot assigns everyone their names. Mr. Pink argues he doesn’t want to be pink and why not let everyone pick their own colors. Cabot says he tried that, but it usually ends up with everyone fighting about who gets to be Mr. Black, which is so true, it actually made me laugh. Mr. Pink also isn’t allowed to be Mr. Purple, because there’s a Mr. Purple in a different operation.

Makes you wonder whether the base color names are just available because the people they were previously assigned to all died. This is set in Tarantino-verse, after all. And also whether there’s another group in which people have names like Mr. Periwinkle, Mr. Lavender, Mr. Eggshell, and Mr. Magenta.

Mr. Orange, he’s so dreamy!

Anyhow, the relevant flashback that led me on this tangent was soon-to-be Mr. Orange being schooled in how to be an undercover cop by the only black character with a speaking role in this movie. Yeah, he’s the mole, Pink’s assumption in the first twenty minutes was right.

When the others return, he tries to convince them that Mr. Blonde wanted to set everyone on fire and then take the diamonds for himself. Unfortunately, Eddie has backstory with the dude, shoots the police officer dead for good, and starts suspecting Mr. Orange immediately, leading to more yelling in the warehouse and things almost coming to blows. Or shots. Again.

Then Joe Cabot himself gets his own dramatic entrance, tells them all that Mr. Orange is the mole, and he, Mr. White, and Eddie engage in a Mexican standoff because Mr. White won’t believe that Orange would rat them out. They bonded, okay? And Orange took a bullet for them! Well, no, he was shot in the gut by a random woman they dragged out of her car after he shot her back, but still. Bullet!

Joe shoots, White shoots, Eddie shoots, they all end up dramatically sprawled on the floor. Mr. Pink decides he’s had enough of that bullshit, takes the diamonds, and runs, making him the clear winner of the movie and me an unhappy camper because fuck that guy.

Later, bitches!

White is however only mostly dead for the moment, gets a last touching scene with Orange, in which Orange reveals that he’s the cop who set them up. We end the movie with the police storming the warehouse, White pointing a gun to Orange’s head, and then gun shots.

Roll credits! Accompanied by that Coconut song. “She put the lime in the coconut, she drank it all up.” Because I should have mentioned musical dissonance as another typical Tarantino thing.

General Observations

So, if we’re doing the homage thing, this one is an homage to gangster movies, isn’t it? Right down to most of the cast wearing suits and ties for most of it.

Speaking of that cast, it’s literally 8 white dudes tearing each other apart. There is one black character with a speaking role, and he’s Orange’s mentor on how to bullshit your way into a crime syndicate. Not a single line was spoken by a woman, and there were only two female actors credited; one got dragged out of her car and thrown to the ground, the other shot Orange, was shot in return, dragged out of her car and thrown to the ground. They’re credited as “Shocked Woman” and “Shot Woman”.

So, needless to say, this isn’t exactly a movie I would have been interested in if not for this little project I’m starting here.

Mr. Blonde, your adorable neighborhood psychopath.

I don’t know enough about guns or medicine for this to have any merit, but while they were shown reloading their guns, their bullet supply still seemed endless, and even if you can’t get him to a hospital, couldn’t someone at least tried something to stop Orange from bleeding out? Because with the amounts of blood he lost on screen, he should have been dead before the end scene.

Then again, exaggerated amounts of blood squirting all over the screen is also a Tarantino thing, and magically never ending bullet supplies are, too, so… While this movie feels a lot more down to earth and rooted in realism than the other Tarantino movies I watched, I mean, it’s still one giant reference to the kinds of movies and TV shows who didn’t pay attention to these things, so sure, I’ll bite.

Odd Staging Choices

I mentioned before that most of the movie is set in the Warehouse of Safety, and that every single character gets to show up there in some dramatic fashion. And by dramatic fashion, I usually mean a cool one-liner to break up the scene that happened until he showed up.

This formula is in place for Mr. Pink, Mr. Blond, Eddie, and Joe Cabot, each in their turn. It feels a bit more ridiculous than even the over the top violence (though, I mean, with nothing but gun shots and one cut-off ear, this isn’t exactly a splatter fest and relatively tame by Tarantino standards), more like someone was writing a stage play than a movie.

Not pictured: The person talking.

Actually, a lot of this felt like a stage play. Very limited sets, and while there were action packed flashback sequences, what we saw play out in the warehouse was basically the internal tensions between these men boil over during a moment of severe stress. Very character-driven in that way, and also a choice you see more often in stage plays.

Also, the way they all fall dramatically down after being shot felt like the ending to a play more than a movie, at least to me, someone who only has an approximate knowledge of all of these things.

Speaking of things I noticed but can’t really explain because I lack a background in cinematography, the camera work in this one stood out to me in two ways. One, most of the time, the camera was very static. We got one angle on a scene, almost no cuts, and the camera only started moving when shit was about to go down. Which, I mean, was often, but this movie is also very, very dialogue happy, so we got the single shot conversation thing a lot.

In a similar vein, most movies and TV shows follow the convention to have the camera focus on the person who’s talking. This movie at several points has characters walk out of frame and keep talking, has the camera focus on a point of the set where no one is talking right now, of just gives us things from an angle that make seeing the people who are talking difficult in the first place. This static camera work contributes to the feeling that you’re watching actors on a stage, or at least that’s what it felt like for me.

An Outsider Looking In

I have mentioned several times already that this is a movie about 8 white guys talking shit and shooting each other. I’d go one step further and say that this is also a movie for white guys who like talking shit and think shooting people while wearing suits and robbing jewelers is kinda cool. I mean, the suits are doing it for me, too, but, well. This movie was not made for me.

That’s not even criticism, not exactly. All the interactions in this movie, with the exception of Orange and his black mentor, take place between straight white guys. And the interactions have a certain… Tone to them. Namely that women are most commonly referred to (and only ever talked about and not to) as bitches. Which is, you know, jarring, and alienating to a female audience, but the most jarring and alienating fact is that the characters, or at least some of them, throw around the n-word like it’s some sort of candy anytime they (seemingly randomly) decide to talk about black people.

And they do that a lot, while making gratuitous use of AAVE at the same time, and then insulting each other for using AAVE in the same breath. Other people claimed that this is due to the fact that the movie is actually about race relations in some way, and there’s been productions that recast everyone as black, because, well, they already talk like that when they’re not insulting each other for this, but I don’t know.

This is not even remotely something I am qualified to comment on, but, I mean… There’s a reason to use slurs in Django Unchained. I’m not the right person to give a thumbs up or thumbs down as to the execution, but, well, there’s context that’s definitely not endorsement, so, that’s a thing.

This movie, though? Feels like they threw in the n-word just to be edgy. Which is a pretty much canon concern for most of the characters from the get-go, so they might do it just do feel hardcore, but the need to do this on the part of a writer or director seems… Questionable to me.

Again, I’m not exactly an authority on this field. It was jarring and alienating, and I’d like to question its necessity.

Now, the most common “justification” for this kind of thing is usually “but that’s just how guys talk! They don’t mean it!” to which I say bullshit because it should never be okay to talk like this, but it contributes to the overall tone of this movie.

I was surprised by the second scene, the one where White takes Orange to the warehouse, by just how physically affectionate these two men were being. Sure, one of them was bleeding out, but after I had decided to hate all of them during that first scene, I was immediately touched by the display of feelings between these men. Men don’t get to touch much in most action or gangster movies.

Stop making me feel things, dammit.

The same goes for Eddie and Mr. Blond. In their flashback scene, they alternate between saying truly, truly vile things to each other that don’t warrant repeating, and then basically making out. Well. Cuddling and also wrestling and then making sure that the audience got that there was #nohomo besides maybe some implied prison rape.

And if I suspend my general disgust for the tone the characters use while talking to each other, this becomes a fascinating movie about interpersonal relationships and dealing with those under stress. Which I’m sure is part of the point, but I probably didn’t get the intended take-away from all that.

Depiction, Endorsement, Implications, and Assholes

Mr. Pink. He’s just so punchable!

Getting back to the opening scene and the ridiculously asshole-ish way in which Pink refuses to tip. At the time, I believe you’re meant to agree with literally every other character who calls him out for his dickishness. The next time he gets to shine is while yelling conspiracy theories while Orange is dying and White is severely annoyed with him. And I felt with White there. Pink was so not helping.

But the thing is, Pink is the one who lives. The one who wins. Mostly by not engaging with everyone else’s personal drama and just running away with the diamonds when everyone else lies down dying, but he still wins. Furthermore, his theories about moles and conspiracies is proven right, too.

So are we meant to agree with his bullshit? Or is this an “honor gets you killed”-style of showing that in real life, the opportunistic assholes win?

I mean. Probably. This movie as a whole feels somewhat nihilistic that way. Literally everyone but this dude dies.

Not that they were particularly likable in the first place, so you don’t exactly feel sorry for them. I mean. These men are still hardened criminals working for a crime syndicate, and while Orange was an undercover cop, he still shot the woman who shot him, so instant karma, I’d say.

The only person I actually liked, and probably the one at least framed the most like a protagonist, is Mr. White. Back to that confrontation with Mr. Pink in the beginning again; White gave away personal information to a dying Mr. Orange, which Pink calls him out for because it’s unprofessional. White responds that he doesn’t care; it was the decent thing to do.

“What was I supposed to tell the kid? That I’m not allowed to disclose that information?”
—White, about giving away his real name.

As someone who wants to punch the nihilistic asshole types in the face, Mr. White was the one I emphasized with the most. You know, as much as you can emphasize with someone who casually explains how to break employees at a jewelry store until they do what you want, but, hey, it’s not like the bar was exceptionally high in this movie, okay?

And yet, Mr. White is the one who’s wrong here. He’s the one who defends Orange, and while he survives the longest out of all the casualties, well, he also probably dies while shooting Orange for betraying them all, making everything he did kind of a moot point.

…This really is the “honor gets you killed” shit, isn’t it? And 20 years too early, even. Amazing.


Mr. White, the real MVP here.

So… Did I like this movie?

Kind of? Hard to say. I disagree with the general message and did I mention the guy talk was gross, but, I don’t know. I mean, I wouldn’t like the other Tarantino movies if I wasn’t a sucker for the general atmosphere in these things, and the suits do in fact do it for me.

I have to ignore a lot of stuff I don’t agree with to find something I enjoyed, but did I mention I really liked Mr. White and Harvey Keitel’s performance? Because I did! And Steve Buscemi plays the punchable asshole exceptionally well. And, uh, Michael Madsen dancing would be adorable if it wasn’t during a torture scene?

I mean. I didn’t go into this expecting to find a masterpiece about the goodness of humanity or whatever. It’s an enjoyable movie for what it is, and that’s basically perfectly adequate.

Next up: Pulp Fiction. Can it even remotely live up to the hype?

Images Courtesy of Miramax

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