With Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino showed that restraint can be a storyteller's greatest tool.
In January, 1992, Sundance Film Festival screened a film called Reservoir Dogs, written and directed by a new filmmaker named Quentin Tarantino. In October of that year, the film had its theatrical release and sparked the career of an artist who has become central to the film story of the past three decades. While his movies would become larger-scale and longer-running, the one hour and forty minutes of Reservoir Dogs remains a masterful experiment in storytelling and visual restraint.
"Alright, ramblers, let's get rambling," says Joe after the opening scene, a long, wandering conversation between thieves gathered around a table at a diner. The ramblers are about to rob a diamond wholesaler but their first scene is concerned with everything but the heist. Joe (Lawrence Tierney), the boss, flips through a book of contacts trying to remember a man's last name. Mr. Brown (Tarantino) makes a Patrick Bateman-esque argument about "Like a Virgin" until Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) interrupts him to yell at Joe for interrupting. For most of the scene, the camera pans slowly around the table, watching all of the characters' reactions, regardless of which one is speaking. We meet a group of people and, all at once, get an idea of who they are based on how they speak and how they listen. They're talking and arguing, jabbing and joking, fighting with Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), who doesn't believe in tipping waitresses. They're complaining about interruptions, laughing and cursing. No one character is the priority of the camera; the dialogue is the entire focus of the scene.
Then it's Joe's "ramblers" line and the opening credits over a slow-motion shot of the heist mob leaving the diner, dressed in suits and shades.
Some have called this opening scene the overture of Tarantino's career and it's certainly an introduction to the writer/director's style and ambitions that will show up in every one of his later movies, from Pulp Fiction to The Hateful Eight. It's a signal of the importance of storytelling technique to Tarantino. He proves his storytelling expertise with Reservoir Dogs and continues to experiment with it. Bret Easton Ellis, in a conversation with Tarantino on his podcast, argues that Tarantino writes his movies like novels. Tarantino mentions a moment in the Kill Bill script where he wrote a line that couldn't possibly translate onto film but that is part of the written story, nevertheless. The most noticeable effect of this approach to screenwriting is the long, wandering dialogue, but Reservoir Dogsreveals another effect.
It asks: what is a heist movie without the heist?
Mr. Blonde's (Michael Madsen) maniacal shooting rampage that Mr. White and Mr. Pink refer to many times isn't in the movie. The heist, itself, isn't onscreen at any point. For the first eighteen minutes, we only see three rooms: it's breakfast at the diner, Mr. Orange bleeding out in the back seat of a car and the rendezvous at the warehouse. This is where his first film is different from most of those that followed: while Django Unchained and Kill Bill show their massacres in gory detail, Reservoir Dogs omits its own completely. The shootout on camera at the end is separate; the real massacre—Mr. Blonde's craziness at the diamond store—is only reported, not filmed. The heist is omitted and, except for the quick shot of Mr. Pink sprinting for his life and White and Orange's carjacking, most of the aftermath is, too.
A novel tells the story with words, anyway, so this would all seem natural. But onscreen, it's a daring experiment by Tarantino to skip the central event of the plot and leave its narration to the words of his characters. Tarantino is an artist who is interested in the craft as much as the content. He uses chapter titles, heavy dialogue, artifacts of '60s and '70s films, black-and-white and other ultra-stylized shots. With the minutes that might've been the heist scene for another director, he shows Mr. Orange receiving acting lessons and practicing his lines.
Reservoir Dogs moves the focus from the event to its consequences. It's also an exploration of how bad a situation can become. There are hints throughout, like Orange's commode story. It's bad enough that he carries a bag of weed into a bathroom where four cops and a drug dog are hanging out. But watch the horrified expression—the hilarious, utter defeat—fall across his face when he realizes that there are no paper towels in the bathroom, only a loud, attention-drawing air-dryer.
The film's climax finds the extreme: a dedicated follower and friend of Joe, Mr. White decides to defend the dying Mr. Orange, a "good kid." He kills his longtime boss and Eddie (Chris Penn) and takes a few bullets, himself. Dying on the garage floor, with Orange's head on his lap and everyone around him already dead, White thinks he has done the right thing. "I'm a cop," Orange tells him. And as the police burst in, White's defeat is total and the movie has reached its extreme: the heist has gone as bad as it possibly could have.
Twenty-five years ago, Tarantino created one of those movies that signals the beginning of something new. Reservoir Dogs is a masterclass on storytelling and proof that restraint can be the greatest creative force in the right hands.