One of the most well known and controversial directors in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino. This award darling has made some of the most violent films to ever be considered high cinema. Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, Inglorious Bastards and many others have been known for their tight dialogue, nail-biting scenes, sudden and brutal bouts of violence and controversy ranging from warranted to being about violence. And his first film, 1992’s Reservoir Dogs, fits this mold perfectly.
Mob boss Joe Cabot (played by Lawrence Tierney) and his son Nice Guy Eddie (played by Chris Penn) set up a diamond heist. They assemble a team of six men using the aliases of Mr. Brown (Quentin Tarantino himself), White (Harvey Keitel), Blonde (Michael Madsen), Blue (Edward Bunker), Orange (Tim Roth) and Pink (Steve Buscemi). The heist, however, goes very wrong, and the survivors are left reeling. Now they must deal with the aftermath, figure out what happened and figure out if there’s a mole in the group.
First off, the film has a memorable soundtrack. Being played by the in-universe K-Billy’s ‘Super Sounds of the Seventies’, the music is a collection of hit songs from the 1970s which act as counterpoints to the violence of the film. This can be best seen in the most famous scene in the film, the torture scene where ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ plays. However, Reservoir Dogs also excels at not using the soundtrack, with the majority of the film being musically silent. The silence adds to the intensity of the story and helps push the audience to the brink scene after scene as the characters argue about their next move and who to trust.
This tension is further strengthened by the writing and acting. For a group of horrible people, the characters are very likable. They are all criminals who are willing to kill, use the N-word a lot and some are just straight up sociopathic, yet they all manage to be shockingly pleasant and fun to watch. Mr. Pink, for example, is a pragmatic individual who cares only for himself and is the most willing to abandon everyone else as well as not tip hard working waitresses. Mr. White is the nicest and the second most loyal of the group and is enraged by Mr. Blonde’s seeming willingness to kill innocents, but is still a robber who guns down some cops in a sneak attack and casually calls someone a ‘jap’. By the end of the film, most of the cast can be clearly defined in their identities and are easy to remember. This is further helped by the great performances of the whole cast, who give each character personality, wit and charisma.
Reservoir Dogs is a rather unconventional heist film. Throughout the 99 minute runtime, we never properly see the heist itself which it lacked the budget for. Instead, we see some of the preparation and the aftermath. Rather than the heist, focus is put on the characters and their interactions. The dialogue does much of the heavy lifting here, managing to feel natural while being simultaneously calculated for characterization and to hint at future actions they take.
With a small budget the film is forced to work with few sets, mostly being confined to one building. Despite this, it makes good use of its set. In real life, it was an unused mortuary with coffins, and funeral equipment with the second floor being used as an apartment set. Unfortunately, the building was later demolished.
Finally, the cinematography is absolutely superb. The film has many interesting and dynamic shots that show exactly what needs to be shown. Every shot has something interesting to it and every movement of the camera has a deliberate purpose to it. This film would be great to show in a film school purely for the shots alone.
It should be no surprise that Reservoir Dogs is a great movie, with amazing cinematography, writing, acting and direction. The film is engaging and intense enough to leave the audience wanting to see how the story turns out. Combined with great characters, the film is an excellent beginning to the career of Quentin Tarantino, showing off the director’s strengths masterfully. He couldn’t have asked for a better first film.