Reservoir Dogs was Quentin Tarantino’s feature length directorial debut. It is also one of his best; the argument could be made that it IS his best film, but few will debate that it is in his top five at least. What is that makes it so good, and what sets it apart from the rest of his work?
Uh, obviously, spoilers ahead for 1992’s Reservoir Dogs.
The good stuff starts before the first scene even begins. The film opens with a seemingly innocuous conversation between basically the entire cast. It sets up one of Tarantino’s signature traits: overtly offensive dialogue. In this case, it is surprisingly reigned in. Even though he drops F-bombs and N-words more than enough times to make deaf ears turn red, it is the most reserved dialogue in his repertoire. Yeah, this film is him being tame.
Tarantino has an ego, and a very specific sense of humor. Those two things seem to give him license to do two things: use shocking speech and show up in his own movies. And in much of his work, he does both at the same time. In Reservoir Dogs, these things are less on display, which allows his talent to shine through. Q.T. is definitely a talented director, and writes some of the most natural and unique dialogue in Hollywood history. The problem is he knows it, and knows that he can get away with a lot because the more talented you are, the more people are willing to overlook.
He shows up in the film as Mr. Brown, but his character is barely more than a cameo. And his most offensive dialogue is generally saved for the most intense scenes, rather than simply being dropped into every random conversation. Writers, take note: the reason Tarantino’s dialogue works so well is it is natural yet has a personal edge; in this film specifically, he syncs up this natural flow with the emotions of the scenes as they go along. So what you get is during scenes where the guys are laughing and smiling, the dialogue matches seamlessly. When the characters are in pain or angry or afraid, their lines amp up in intensity to match.
While this might seem like something obvious, it is surprisingly not as common as it should be. Even good movies can have this issue (just ask any Harry Potter fan about Dumbledore and DIDJYOUPUTCHORNAMEINTHEGOBLEDOFFIYAH). Mismatched emotions and dialogue, even if it is just a smidge, can throw off a scene. Words are important, kids.
Continuing on about dialogue, not only is it important that lines match the moment, they also need to match the character who is saying them. The obvious example is tone. If you have a character who is gruff and dark, you can’t give them lines that reek of sparkles and sunshine. Tone and characterization are important. Again, you would think this was common sense, but if you pay attention, there are plenty of films that toss a good joke or cool one liner to the lead character just because it’s a good line, regardless of tone, even in cases where it would work better coming from a different character altogether.
Now, after a moment of the conversation laid over a dark screen, the shot kicks in. The camera gives us a series of over the shoulder shots, introducing us to the characters one by one, and giving us all the information we will need to guess how the movie will end…but it’s so subtle, it’s only noticeable in retrospect. The mob boss gets up to pay the bill, and is having a playful argument with Mr. White. He jokingly tells Mr. Blonde to shoot him, foreshadowing both the friction between Mr. White and Mr. Blonde (also signified by them being sat opposite each other at the table), as well as Mr. White’s ultimate fate at the end of the story. It also shows sets Mr. Blonde up as a character that you would expect to kill somebody. Over the rest of the conversation, you have moments that lay out the personalities of the rest of the main players. Mr. Pink is only out for himself, Mr. White has a strong sense of honor (despite being a thief, he has a code), and Mr. Orange is the rat.
The foreshadowing happens in the very first scene, so within the first five minutes, if you’re paying super close attention, you can predict how the story will play out. Or at the very least, you can see things happen, and guess what comes next. The real magic of this method is that no viewer would be able to do this on their first watch. Most viewers will be picking up on these clues on their second, third, and fourth watch throughs. This is a fantastic tactic on a few levels. First, it gives the audience a different experience each time they watch the movie, and it gives the film itself strong rewatch value. Second, once you figure out the game, it almost makes it a game to scour the movie from front to back for easter eggs. With every new viewing, and each new easter egg discovered (real or imagined) adds symbolism to the story and depth to the lore of this universe. Tl;dr it makes it more fun.
Tarantino has a few things that find a place in a lot of his films; his style is very identifiable. Earlier, we discussed his self-indulgence. A good stylistic choice that crosses over through the majority of his projects is his use of time. He utilizes a variation of a storytelling style known as the Rashomon effect. Rashomon is a very important film from legendary director Akira Kurosawa, wherein the director tells the story using parallel viewpoints. Each viewpoint reveals a little more of the story, and at times they utilize a technique known as an unreliable narrator. But that is a big ole discussion all its own. The point is, Tarantino’s career has been heavily influenced by the Rashomon effect. He likes to play with time, telling stories non-linearly in fun ways.
In Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino puts a twist on the Rashomon. Instead of backing up and showing the same event from different perspectives, he uses the flashbacks in the films to show how the team came together. Considering the main mystery threading its way through the story is “who was the rat?” The flashbacks slowly pull back the curtain on this, vetting the main cast one by one, until the reveal arrives. And while the audience knows this, the characters do not. They truly don’t know for sure who set them up until the last few minutes of the film. And in that moment, those character traits we saw at the diner are on full display. Mr. Pink is hiding, protecting himself. Mr White is standing up for what he believes is right, despite knowing that it ruins a business relationship and likely ends his life. And Mr. Orange reveals himself as the undercover cop who set them up.
The arcs are emotionally and narratively strong. For a movie where roughly 50% takes place in an almost empty room, it tells a compelling tale. Truthfully, it accomplishes this through two primary successes. Sure, we could talk about the combination of the heist and mystery genres, or how the good guy is a traditional bad guy, or even how, again pulling influence from our friend Kurosawa, he modeled the look and feel of Reservoir Dogs after the samurai and western films of yesteryear. But the thing that makes this film such a memorable classic is this:
It feels real.
The dialogue feels real. When the characters speak to one another, it never feels forced or unnatural. Every single line is delivered with a realistic emotion, tone, and phrasing. The characters feel real. Their characterization is solidly consistent. No one ever does anything unexpected or unbelievable, and no one makes any jumps in logic or has any out of character lapses in judgement. Mr. White wants to believe the best about Mr. Orange, so he takes his story at face value. Mr. Pink is suspicious of everyone, and when things get dangerous, he runs and hides. Both times. Mr. Blonde is a certifiable maniac, and juuuust when you think he might have a human side, he turns back and almost winks, as if to say, “you didn’t think I was actually gonna let him go, did you?”
This story is grounded in the honesty of its characters, a fact that is more commendable considering it is a movie about a bunch of thieves. It is always true to its characters, never requiring anything from them they would not naturally give, and that may be the most important part of storytelling. Reservoir Dogs shows us that you can have a basic story, one where very little actually happens, but if you have compelling, believable characters, you can still walk away with a masterpiece.