Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Starring Steve Buscemi, Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth
When I took a Faulkner class in college, we started with Flags in the Dust. It’s a messy book; right now, it’s notable almost entirely for a passage that Faulkner wrote about mules and the fact that Faulkner’s editors published it as Sartoris; in fact, Faulkner never saw Flags in the Dust published in his lifetime. The seeds of Faulkner, God of Literature are in there, and if you squint hard enough you can see them. Yoknapatawpha is in there, and the Sartoris family, and the way that people will repeat themselves and their mistakes across generations. He’s simply missing the expression and execution that makes a novel like The Sound and the Fury or Absalom, Absalom!, or Go Down, Moses an undisputed classic.
Reservoir Dogs has much the same problem. As a first film, it’s plenty good, and we all know where Tarantino ended up after the fact, but some of it just does not hit at all. Part of it is the cinematography and editing, which is occasionally inelegant. One wonders at the purpose of the many shots which take place far away from the characters as they do (although limiting close-ups generally is a strong stylistic choice, especially given the air of mystery about the identities of the characters). One shot in particular, fairly early in the movie, sees Mr. Pink (Buscemi) getting up to accost Mr. White (Keitel) about something; it’s a quick cut, and all I could think about is how when they were filming this, Buscemi would have to act out this line as if it were part of the conversation, and in real life he would have to get up from the chair quickly and modulate his voice to get the pitch he was looking for. That’s why I don’t remember what he said. I don’t know that there’s anything wrong with being a little distracted by a Joe Wright tracking shot or a long take from Steve McQueen or Michael Haneke, because those are statements of mastery, of setting up a shot to smoothly depict action or to allow one’s actors to really dig into a scene or to build mystery from what’s outside the camera’s range. This is just clumsy filmmaking, like a microphone falling into the shot. Even the screenplay fails to shine as often as we expect a Tarantino screenplay to do. The scene with Orange and White in the car together is awkwardly said, even for a situation as fraught as Orange’s gutshot. Mr. Blonde’s cop victim is surprisingly eloquent for someone who just got maimed. The repeated use of the n-word is, at best, curious. Even in 1992, were there that many white criminals running around and saying that? If there were, then I guess that makes some kind of sense, but it clangs almost as much as that badly edited shot; it feels more pretentious than anything else, like Tarantino wants to show you that he’s cool enough to drop that word at a moment’s notice.
All that aside, Reservoir Dogs is still a B+ film. More of that has to do with Steve Buscemi than I think he’s regularly given credit for, who is not technically the star of the film and still manages to run away with it; it is his absolutely his best performance outside of a Coen Brothers film, and in my opinion is up there with his role as Carl in Fargo as the very best of his work. It’s a shame that Buscemi and Tarantino didn’t really do much together; Tarantino’s typically motormouth style sounds better out of Buscemi than it does anyone else. No one does panic quite like Buscemi, and at the same time no one tells other people not to panic like Mr. Pink does. Clearly he is terrified. He tears down the sidewalk with the diamonds, head back like Eric Liddell turned to a life of crime, clearly petrified. And he is scared to death in the empty warehouse that serves as a rendezvous point for the gangsters. Interestingly, that also makes him the most lucid, clearheaded character in the film. Everyone else is scared (like Mr. Orange, who is pretty sure he’s going to die), confused (like Mr. White, who has been played pretty hard, or like Nice Guy Eddie, who has no idea what’s going on), or, in Mr. Blonde’s case, just being a total psychopath. Pink, with some exceptions, manages to play the smart game throughout. Did he need to help beat up the cop when Blonde drags him out of his trunk? No, not really; in that moment he gives his tension full control. But how much smarter it would have been to dump Orange off at a hospital, pick up the diamonds with White, and hole up in a hotel until things cleared up. The death toll, certainly, would have dropped significantly. This was Pink’s plan; it is no coincidence that he at least gets out of the warehouse alive. (I have a hard time believing he doesn’t get picked up by the cops; so it goes.)
Buscemi, amusingly enough, is also the best part of the film’s most famous scene where we don’t care about someone’s ear. Mr. Brown (Tarantino, who presumably couldn’t help himself) is hypothesizing about the true meaning of “Like a Virgin.” Mr. Blue wistfully pines for the old Madonna, the one who sang “Borderline.” (Mr. Blue and I are of one mind here.) Mr. Pink, on the other hand, holds forth about why he doesn’t tip at restaurants. He is, of course, completely wrong, but it’s a fabulous piece of work for Buscemi, who boosts some already pretty good dialogue courtesy of Tarantino. It’s honestly a more memorable piece of the script than the “Like a Virgin” conversation, and so much of that has to do with Buscemi’s reading. His voice is wheedling, sort of diffident, but not so diffident that he wants to hide the fact that he doesn’t tip. All this could be easily avoided if he would just pony up a buck for a tip, but Mr. Pink has a hard time stopping his tongue. He’s just got to tell everyone his unpopular opinion that boils down, essentially, to the fact that he’s a cheapskate who thinks he’s smarter than everyone else.
The truly good monologue, insofar as it really counts as a monologue, is the commode story. (Given the prominence of this bit, Mr. Pink calling it “the commode” earlier is a hiccup in the screenplay.) Not only is it more interesting than the “Like a Virgin” hypothesis (I wasn’t around in the ’80s, but is Tarantino’s talk all that unorthodox?), but it’s important to the plot and to Tim Roth’s character. Orange comes alive, ha ha (because he’s unconscious, get it?), after he kills Mr. Blonde. Almost all of his screen time beforehand has him squealing like a stuck pig. Afterwards he more or less has control over himself and his speech, though it couldn’t be clearer that he’s going to die. All that Roth has is this story about going to the bathroom with a bag full of weed and running into four cops and a German shepherd, hoping that they aren’t going to pick him up just because he has to take a whiz. The story seems to be a key element in getting White to fall for Orange, for lack of better teminology; White is taken with Orange from the drop, and the commode story seems to prove to him that this guy is cool under pressure, doesn’t quit, and can be part of a good time.
The movie takes a long time to get us to understand why White seems so possessive of Orange, absolutely certain that Orange isn’t the rat even when virtually all of the evidence points in his direction. The payoff is fine – after the “Mr. Orange” sequence, one can reasonably infer White’s avuncular attachment – but the problem is at least as much with Harvey Keitel as it is with the script. He is, in my limited experience, just better when the material calls for him to be sort of a ham. Winston Wolf is one of the best parts of Pulp Fiction because he’s totally ridiculous. Harvey Keitel as Judas is a casting decision that sunk The Last Temptation of Christ. In Reservoir Dogs, Keitel is more Judas than Winston, and it’s unfortunate for the film. The only redemption for it is the coolly uttered phrase, “Are you going to bark all day, little doggy? Or are you going to bite?” It’s the line that sums up the action of the movie in a few words; will the gangsters take action and dictate their own lives, or are they content to talk around the situation until it’s too late to do anything about it? While the film itself ends on a reasonably ambiguous air (although one could make a good case that everyone involved in the diamond heist is either dead or in custody by the end), the answer to Blonde’s sneering question is, emphatically, bark all day.