Quentin Tarantino’s last film, ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (2019), pulled in over $300 million worldwide at the box office, making it his second highest grossing film to date, and it cost him $90 million. His directorial debut, however, RESERVOIR DOGS (1992), earned less than $3 million, and had a budget of only $1.5 million. That may sound very low, but it is quite impressive that a first- time director not only made a profit, but also nearly doubled what he spent– not to mention opening at Cannes, Sundance, and TIFF (even snagging a Critic’s Choice award at TIFF). Despite the film’s popular acclaim and highly regarded influence today, the film had a controversial reception for its brutal violence and vulgar dialogue.
RESERVOIR DOGS (1992) centers on a rag-tag team of crooks assembled by long-time crime boss and curmudgeon, Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) and his son, Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn) who are planning a diamond heist on a local jeweler. After the heist fails, some of the members discuss the possibility of a “rat in the house.” The team are assigned code names and given instruction to never discuss their personal lives, that “if [they] have to talk, talk about [their] jobs.” They are Mr. Blue (Edward Bunker, a real life career criminal turned actor/ writer), Mr. Brown (Quentin Tarantino), Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), and Mr. White (Harvey Keitel). Every actor in this film turns out a hard-hitting and near perfect performance, with tension palpable throughout, deep camaraderie, and a cool ease with which they communicate.
The film opens during breakfast the morning of the caper, the camera circling the diner table and placing itself in the middle of the conversation, signaling that the viewer will be a fly on the wall spectator for the duration. The conversation, seemingly unimportant and insipid, centers on whether Madonna’s hit “Like a Virgin” is about love or sex in the most degrading and crass way. During the scene the audience has a gateway to each of the characters’ personalities, and how they interact, and sees that pop culture becomes an important undertone of the film, not only blatantly said, but also in subtlety. This occurs through the creation of K- Billy’s Super Sounds of the 70’s radio station (aided by the voice of famous deadpan comedian of the 80’s, Steven Wright), the soundtrack itself, and the many quiet homages Tarantino pays in costume and general filmmaking style.
In this way, Tarantino was setting up his own auteur style and career- defining traits, whether he knew it or not. Tarantino scripts are notoriously offensive, but not without point. The men discuss women and race and pop culture interchangeably as objects, showing where they fit with one another, but also socially– they are shockingly out of touch and behind the times (and usually wrong) as they drive around, listening to classic hits. Tarantino films also tacitly borrow cues from others before it. In a rare interview with Paul Zimmerman in 1992, Tarantino agrees that RESERVOIR DOGS (1992) has influences from Kubrick’s THE KILLING (1956). Others have also pulled influences from Phil Karlson’s KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952), and Joseph Sargent’s (the original) THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE, TWO, THREE (1974). As well, Tarantino is a decidedly non- linear storyteller, and often likes to separate his tales into chapters or sagas; the best examples possibly being KILL BILL VOL 1 (2003)and KILL BILL VOL 2 (2004). In this piece, he separates the story into chapters based on character, showing windows into how most of them have gotten involved with Joe and Nice Guy Eddie. Later, Tarantino would also become known for his signature palette of black, red, and yellow, but it is only budding in this first piece. It makes its appearance in the forms of bar lighting and graffiti in the background for the most part. All of these characteristics are present in Tarantino’s work today, so seeing their foundation makes for interesting study in what creates a modern auteur, specifically his muted referential style.
Despite the praise RESERVOIR DOGS (1992) is lauded today, it was a source of conflict within film review circles. For its 25th anniversary, The New Yorker’s Tom Shone wrote a review of its influence over time, and quite aptly mentioned that “nothing around [the film] though, has aged quite as badly as its original reviews.” Many critics were unsure of what to do with this team of cool, well-dressed, ear- slicing criminals; many were unsure if they were supposed to laugh or be horrified. Roger Ebert even seemed uneasy, writing “as for the movie, I liked what I saw, but I wanted more… I think it’s quite an achievement for a first-timer… But the part that needs work didn’t cost money. It’s the screenplay.”
With that, however, Ebert may have a point. The dialogue, by today’s standards, would probably prevent the film being released without criticism. Other filmmaking aspects, however, hit the mark. Camera movement throughout is nothing short of beautiful. The viewer is a fly on the wall and the camera behaves that way, circling characters during monologues and conversations, and panning away during especially brutal moments to remind you to “watch your head.” Tarantino uses the combination of diegetic sound and camera movement to create the feeling even more so. The best example of showcasing Tarantino’s talents in the film being when Mr. Orange tells “The Commode Story.” The scene cuts between his recounting the story to his peers and his imagining of it; the camera circles him at the most tense part and his retelling is imaginatively displayed as he monologues within the story, paired with the diegetic barking of a dog. Tarantino really bring his viewer into the center of conflict throughout the film’s entirety. As a viewer, you are helpless to watch the events unfold, especially as you get to know the characters.
Tarantino’s RESERVOIR DOGS (1992) is now considered a staple in any cinephile’s repertoire. It makes use of an extremely low- budget, strong performances, and cinematic style. While some dialogue would not be passed in a film today, it is not completely without reason. There are strong elements in this film that would signal how Tarantino’s career would blossom and couple the word ‘auteur’ with his name, and is an interesting look into what makes a modern auteur, especially in the face of reference. While not for the feint of heart, but still tame by today’s standards of brutality, this film is still a must-see, and has incredible examples of how to tell a simple, common plot, in an interesting, complicated way.