Quentin Tarantino may be considered a blood-and-guts fetishist, but Reservoir Dogs shows he's got some affection toward living, fully intact humans, too.
Everything we've seen of Quentin Tarantino's upcoming Django Unchained suggests that it will be hyper-referential, irony-laced, and whip-smart. His latest twist on an expired genre, the film is a spaghetti western set in the Deep South, in which a former slave (Jamie Foxx) teams up with a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) to rescue his still-enslaved wife (Kerry Washington) from an evil plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio). Political correctness will be violated, and people will die in upsetting ways. Zingers will be ample. Such is the way of the Quentin.
There are those, like IndieWire's Rodrigo Perez, who have grown tired of his antics. Perez isn't hoping for a message movie from Tarantino—"that would be dull. But so too would be a simple revenge picture with the latest genre exploration, with incongruent pop cultural music moments and overly clever dialogue. That would be all too familiar," Perez writes. "Then again, with n-words abounding and situations like whippings and slave fights to the death, perhaps ... Django Unchained will act as something more than reprisal via stylish violence. At this point, we can only hope." Far from scathing, Perez does allow that Tarantino's early work "practically upend[ed] movies and the zeitgeist as we know it," but that his overriding virtue is his genre experimentation.
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Perez and other Tarantino doubters would be well-advised to embark on a reprisal of their own: revisiting Tarantino's first movie, Reservoir Dogs, which turns 20 today. It's loaded with painful, unexpectedly moving observations about not movies or violence or culture but rather people, offering a brutal rejoinder to the common perception of Tarantino as a live-action, redundant cartoonist more interested in upsetting convention than in creating real characters.
Yes, in Reservoir Dogs, we have nervy banter, jarring intrusions of homophobia and racism, and savage violence. But we also have a pair of quasi-paternal bonds that constrict and compromise the characters: the ill-fated friendship of Mr.'s White and Orange, and the unswerving loyalty between their boss and the unstable Mr. Blonde. Misplaced loyalties lead these men to misjudge one another, mistake their intentions, and fail to hear common sense. So the film's unsettlingly tragic conclusion give you a sense of Tarantino as, yes, a master of excess, but also as a writer whose characters' personal defeats matter as much, if not more so, than the bloody mess that meets them at the end.
The plot's like this: A diamond heist goes way bad and the thieves are left to pick up the pieces back at their warehouse headquarters, all the while suspecting that a traitor in their midst sabotaged the operation. The film opens with a scene of controlled, garrulous chaos. Six contracted stick-up men in black suits—each given a color-based moniker chosen by their employer—and their two bosses finish up breakfast at a greasy diner. They're carbo/grease-loading, gabbing about the subtext of Madonna's "Like a Virgin," and easing up for what would seem to be a manageable, by-the-book job: robbing a local diamond wholesaler. There's a comfortable rapport, casual, risqué wisecracks—all things that would become hallmarks for Tarantino.
After the legendary opening credits sequence—the suave crew walking out of the diner in slow motion, set to the George Baker Selection's super cool "Little Green Bag"—everything falls apart. We cut right to Mr. Orange, played by a pallid, brilliant Tim Roth, screaming in agony as his guts bleed out all over the back seat of a car being careened around town by the ruddy Mr. White, breathed into tragic life by a heartbreaking Harvey Keitel.
In a flashback later in the film, we see the two growing close, trading lewd jokes and building a nearly endearing sense of camaraderie as they talk through the intricacies of the heist. Of course, veteran thief White doesn't know Orange is actually (spoiler alert—but, come on) a damn good undercover cop. The simple decency White feels towards Orange, his sense responsibility for the man's mortal plight, is not the stuff of thieves and killers. It's their bond that gives the film its unexpected bit of soul and relatability.
In what still ranks among Tarantino's most inventive, simple set pieces, Orange learns and performs an elaborate "amusing anecdote about a drug deal" gone almost disastrously bad. Tarantino compresses Orange's evolution into one, long, uninterrupted sequence: rote memorization of the monologue, rehearsal, and, finally, performance before the gang. But Tarantino also shows us the almost-botched deal as Orange recounts it for the lowlifes—even though it never actually happened:
The sequence shows us Orange's knack for this kind of unglamorous, dangerous work—that he's a God-fearing professional. The frantic, gangly Mr. Pink, played by a perfectly neurotic Steve Buscemi, desperately urges his colleagues to remember that grappling with the unpredictable is something they do. They, too, are supposed to be professionals.
Mr. Blonde is an entirely different sort of professional. Played by a terrifying Michael Madsen, he arrives at the warehouse with a captured cop stuffed in his trunk, and shrugs off his culpability for sparking the shootout back at the heist that led to the crew's predicament. They had figured Blonde for the sane, balanced type. Why else would he be on the job?
Loyalty. Blonde is a lost boy looking to come home. In another flashback, gangster boss Joe and son Nice Guy Eddie, played by the late Chris Penn, welcome a just-back-from-prison Blonde with playful wrestling, a stiff drink, and the promise of steady work. He's family, the sort of son or brother that tortures cops and burns them alive (tries to, at least), to the tune of Stealers Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle With You." (The less said of the scene, the better. Its power to horrify has not diminished.) His penchant for gruesomeness and an unrequited zeal to do horror on men in uniform is what makes Joe value and love him, perhaps. But it's that same tendency that spells the crew's demise.
The film concludes with a Mexican standoff that goes poorly for everyone. Only when a shot-up, dying White takes Orange in his lap—a distinctly Tarantino-y version of the pietà—does he learn his protégé's secret identity. The destroyed White, who risked it all to try to save Orange, raises his gun to Orange's blood-sodden temple as the cops bust in, and pulls the trigger. In a pantheon of stories and characters that includes the revenge of Shoshanna Dreyfus, the wasted life of Budd (a.k.a. Sidewinder), and the love of Jackie and Max, for my money, the end for White and Orange is Tarantino's most painful, simple moment.
And so from the start, we see that Tarantino was as interested in humans as he was in kitsch and gore. Rather than just becoming a splatter artist forever worshipping at the altar of camp, Tarantino has long wanted us to know whether his cartoonish killers and tragic heroines prefer crunchy or creamy, how the bad guys wile away the flaccid hours between jobs, and the names of their go-to karaoke songs. He dares to invest buffoons and killers, with an interior, frequently mundane life and in doing so, dares us to invest in those same buffoons and killers. To ignore his fascination with thugs and vigilantes in crisis is to ignore something fundamental.