Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Crime Week: Reservoir Dogs (Heists)

Quentin Tarantino has something of a longstanding association with crime, one that goes back to his first feature film Reservoir Dogs. While this low-budget early film displays a lot of the trademarks that easily define Tarantino's later films, such as the rapid-fire dialogue and non-linear storytelling, it often stands out due to the curious way he approaches its subject matter. The story centres around a botched heist, specifically an organized attempt to steal diamonds which does not go quite as planned because one of the people involved is an undercover cop. Tarantino's approach to making a heist film, however remains somewhat unusual.

In the hands of any other director, the plot would likely be much more linear. Most likely, the heist would be the climax of the film. The story would focus on Joe (Lawrence Tierney) finding out about the diamonds and his efforts to recruit a team of professionals to pull off the heist, as well as their efforts to learn about the bank's security systems and to devise the appropriate countermeasures for each. Then at the climax, the actual heist would be shown, where the viewer would see how everything comes together. Then it might be played as a twist when the cops turn out to be ready for them, with the ending focusing on the attempted getaway that leads to them double-crossing each other and everything falling apart. This would be a conventional narrative for a heist film.

Instead, Tarantino opts for something very different. He begins the movie just before the heist is to occur, and then moves straight into its immediate aftermath. In fact, the heist itself goes entirely unseen. All information about what happened comes from what is described by the characters afterwards, many of whom have conflicting accounts of the precise chain of events such as when the cops showed up. Tarantino could have made Reservoir Dogs a more conventional heist film, but he chose not to because he was not interested in the heist itself. What he was clearly more interested in is the characters and their interactions. 

The cast is in general very minimalist, with few other characters besides the central thieves. This group contains a total of six men: Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), Mr. Brown (Quentin Tarantino), Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), Mr. Pink (Steve Buschemi), and Mr. Blue (Eddie Bunker), as well as their employers Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) and "Nice Guy" Eddie (Chris Penn). Most of the film focuses purely on these individuals. Their association is also marked by the choice of wardrobe: all six of the thieves wear an identical suit, with slicked-back hair and similar pairs of sunglasses. 

This wardrobe serves to mark their association with one another. The only ones to deviate from this pattern are Joe and Eddie, both of whom are dressed casually. This creates an obvious contrast between the two different levels of the crime business, and separates the employers from those who are actually performing the theft. However, this is also deconstructed as the movie progresses. After the heist, each of the characters begin to shed parts of their uniform. The sunglasses come off almost immediately, hair becomes messy, and suits become dirty, torn, or altered (such as Mr. Blonde removing his jacket). These changes give each man a more distinct appearance, and with it a distinct personality.

There are next to no female characters in Reservoir Dogs, which may seem like a strange move given Tarantino's later films, and only one black character in a supporting role (Randy Brooks). The only women who make an appearance are the girl Mr. Pink pulls out of her car and the woman who shoots Mr. Orange (Tarantino actually shot a scene with a female cop, but it was removed because he felt it revealed too much about Mr. White too early). Of course, only six of the responding officers are actually seen: Marvin Nash (Kirk Baltz), the three who chase Mr. Pink, and the two that are shot by Mr. White. Considering that it was heavily implied that there were a bunch of other cops besides these, it is entirely possible that there were female officers present offscreen. 

This may not be totally unjustified, however, as it fits the personalities of the main characters. These guys are anti-heroes, and are hardly treated as nice people. Joe in particular is shown to be a very old-fashioned criminal, and makes several remarks that indicate he is racist, sexist, and homophobic, and the others are not much better. At one point, Mr. Pink outright states that black and white women "ain't the same" and relies on stereotypes to justify this. The film even draws attention to this at times, with details such as Mr. White's anecdote about working with "Alabama" (who according to him is an exceptional thief), not to mention that the woman confronted by Mr. White and Mr. Orange actually makes an effort to defend herself (and ends up shooting the latter). 

It is likely that Joe, being a closed-minded old man, simply would not hire a woman. This would be consistent with much of the rest of the film, which highlights flaws in the criminal lifestyle. Joe is not exactly an effective planner. He is stubborn and refuses to accept any way other than his own (as is shown when he refuses to refer to Mr. Pink as anything other than his assigned nickname). This was after all the same guy who considered a complete psycho to be a good addition to the team, and the other guys involved do not exactly fit together.

This is established in the film's opening scene, where the thieves are eating breakfast and talking. This particular moment establishes each of the central characters through their dialogue. This particular scene marks the only appearance of Mr. Blue, and is one of only two scenes (not including the credits) to show Mr. Brown. Neither of these two are given a huge amount of focus. Mr. Blue only speaks two lines in the entire scene, while Mr. Brown is given a supporting role in the conversation. Both of these men die during the heist, so by reducing their role, Tarantino is singling out the four who will be given the most focus: Mr. White, Mr. Orange, Mr. Pink, and Mr. Blonde.

During this scene, Joe remains distracted from the other guys. While most of them engage in a discussion about the sexual themes of pop music, Joe spends the entire time going through an old address book he apparently found. He seems to be more concerned with remembering the names he finds in the aforementioned book than the heist he is supposed to overseeing later. Mr. White, is quick to recognize this and takes the book. Mr. White is starting to show a sense of responsibility, as he feels the group is disorganized. He even comments on how he feels he is hearing two separate conversations, foreshadowing the inevitable incompatibility of the group. Joe simply responds by stubbornly asking for his book to be returned. This exchange alone is setting up aspects of both characters: Joe's stubbornness and the responsibility Mr. White claims trying to keep everyone organized and looking after Mr. Orange.

Mr. Orange remains very quiet during this scene. This makes sense, foreshadowing his role as the undercover cop, or the odd man out. When Mr. White takes Joe's book, Mr. Blonde jokingly offers to shoot the former. Not only does this foreshadow Blonde's role as a psychopath, but the fact that he directly asks Joe also alludes to the close relationship between them that is later revealed. Mr. Pink then refuses to contribute to the waitress's tip, an act which angers the other guys. When Mr. Pink explains it, there is a cold logic to his reasoning. He makes a perfectly valid point when he comments on how society expects some people to get tips and others not to. This sets up his attitude after the heist, when he is the first person to figure out that one of his partners was a cop and tries to figure out logically who it was.

This scene also establishes an interesting motif that recurs throughout the film, especially in the scenes set prior to the heist. This group of people is acting very casual. They are discussing popular music for much of it, not to mention everybody gets mad at Mr. Pink for refusing to tip the waitress. It would appear less like a robbery and more like a group of office workers going to lunch. Crime is treated as a workplace. The suits worn by the thieves even look like something they would wear to an office.

Two of the flashback sequences, those of Mr. White and Mr. Blonde, both play out very much like job interviews, with them each being seated in Joe's office and questioned about their most recent experiences. Mr. Orange even mentions getting a "reference" to convince Joe that he was a good thief. The planning sequence that is shown is basically organized as a seminar. Joe stands at the front of the room dressed in a business suit and displays charts illustrating his business plan. All these details go to emphasize one simple idea: that while these guys might not be the most pleasant of individuals, in the end they are all just doing their job.

Still, there is that final idea that crime doesn't pay. Everything comes down on top of the main characters in the end. Ultimately, their undoing is that the thieves are incompatible and unable to work together. They are all interested only in their own ends. Mr. White is too concerned about Mr. Orange, Mr. Pink is too determined to find the undercover cop, and Mr. Blonde's psychotic tendencies not only endanger his partners during the heist, but also causes distrust from Mr. White. All of the men are wrapped in their own perspectives so much that when Joe finally does show up, the thieves end up shooting each other before the cops can get to them.

It is fitting that Mr. Pink is the one person to avoid getting shot, being the one person rational enough to stay out of the Mexican Stand-off. He then makes the seemingly logical choice of taking the diamonds (which he might still be able to make money off of and thus get something out of all this), though he is presumably caught when the police show up moments later. The only other possible survivors are Mr. Orange and Mr. White, both of whom are badly injured (the film ends with a final gunshot, though it is hard to tell precisely who fired it and where). Mr. White is then faced with the ironic reveal that the man he has tried to protect and comfort the whole time was in fact the undercover cop.

In the final moments, a group of police officers break into the warehouse offscreen. Only their voices are heard, so it is unclear how many are present. The voices heard are all male, though given how many cops were implied to be involved in this operation, it is not unlikely that there are female officers present outside. What makes this scene curious is the ambiguity of the ending. Tarantino could have shown the cops entering, but instead he focuses purely on Mr. White's face and his reaction. There is final gunshot, but the audience is left to question where it came from and who was hit. Mr. White is seen collapsing, but this could be just from his injuries.

Once again, this ties into the simple idea that Tarantino is not interested in the heist itself. In another filmmaker's hands, the central plot of Reservoir Dogs would only make up the final act of the film, after the heist has been shown. There would be a shot of a group of cops entering the building and surrounding Mr. White (or possibly shooting him when he refuses to put down his gun, but it would be a lot more obvious). This would make sense; one normally watches a conventional heist film with an interest in seeing how the heist is pulled off, but Reservoir Dogs is not a conventional heist movie.

Tarantino is not so much interested in the heist itself as he is in the people involved. It is a character study, an attempt to get into the minds of the criminals. The actual crime is irrelevant. Tarantino could have said anything about what the protagonists were trying to do. The diamonds have almost nothing to do with the overall story. It is all about how the main characters play off of each other, and the mounting tensions that ultimately lead to their undoing. This is why Reservoir Dogs stands out among crime films.


  1. Excellent choice. The heist really is almost incidental to the events of the movie. Like you said, QT is much more interested in how these interact with one another.

    1. That seems to be a common characteristic of Tarantino movies. When you examine Pulp Fiction, there really isn't much of a narrative; what makes it so interesting is the characters involved. Even Kill Bill, a more narratively driven film, likes to emphasize character interaction. You can definitely see that here in Reservoir Dogs.