Reservoir Dogs (1992), Movie Review Example

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Movie Review

In the history of modern cinema, Reservoir Dogs stands out as a unique portrayal of gangsters and male relationships through its novel uses of non-linear plot structure and cinematography. The story revolves around a realistic presentation of five thieves who are planning a jewelry heist. When the heist goes wrong, the thieves begin killing customers and police officers and are forced to steal cars to escape. The movie ends with a debate regarding who the informant was.

Yet if this plot was presented in such a direct and linear manner it is unlikely that the movie would have become so critically acclaimed. The unique non-linear format of the story helps present a moral lesson regarding “honor among thieves” and professional crime. One example of this can be seen in the moral repercussion of Mr. Blonde’s action following the alarms and Mr. White’s strong condemnation of it (Breen, 1996). Yet this drama is intensified as we know that Mr. White will take a bullet due to his conviction that Mr. Orange is not the informant. Yet, a further dramatic twist is provided by the unique plot structure as in the last scene in the film Mr. Orange confesses to Mr. White demonstrating his honor despite being a thief and an informant. Therefore all the stylized violence can be boiled down to a morality lesson regarding loyalty.

In regards to Quentin Tarantino’s often-discussed stylized violence, in Reservoir Dogs the violence typically occurs out of the camera’s eye despite the occasional blood splatter. A critical scene occurs when Mr. Blonde undergoes police torture but is able to sever the police officer’s ear. Yet Tarantino removes the viewer from the violence by just prior to Mr. Blonde cutting the ear the camera looks at the wall of the warehouse as we hear the screams. This technique forces the viewer to create a visual image of the action which draws on their own personal fears to fill in the image. Furthermore, this deliberate approach to violence and its portrayal allows the viewer to escape from the quick pacing and violence of the film to think objectively about the movie, the non-linear plot and what the events signify both morally and chronologically (Brintnall, 2004). It is critical that the viewer be able to look beyond the high level of violence to reflect on the film’s larger thought-provoking issues regarding honor and camaraderie.

A further unique cinemagraphic sequence in Reservoir Dogs using a unique approach to camera angle and height occurs when Mr. White and Mr. Pink fight each other. This unusual angle creates tension within the frame without having to use the currently ubiquitous technique of hand-held camera or quick editing cuts. This tension serves to establish an overall “mood” for the film. Such cinematography decisions are not easy to make as it relies heavily on audience understanding (Irwin, 1998). For example, the use of religious iconography may be lost on a secular audience. Another example, more relevant to the fight scene is the audience’s own experience of being intimidated and accessing this feeling of recognition. Another major cinematography consideration is lighting which can be instrumental in showing the audience the importance of a plot development or significant imagery (Breen, 1996). In short, cinematography’s goal should be to help uniquely tell the movie’s narrative through a variety of conscious and subconscious angle, lighting and visual constructs. Reservoir Dogs fall in the sub-genre of a crime thriller. Many factors are at play to label a film as one gerne or another. For instance, cinematography and sound most notably influence the overall ‘feel’ of a film. In Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino creates meaning for the audience through his distinct and clever camera use. Camera use and film use have a profound effect on how a character is portrayed. For instance, there is a scene wehre the camera focuses on Mr. Blonde from the perspective of the hostage. However, as soon as Mr. Blonde starts to move the camera moves with him. This is a cue to the audience that the character’s movements are important. The camera follows Mr. Blonde to the hostage, Mr. Orange and then zooms in on Mr. Orange’s bleeding face. The audience can now see the hostage’s fearful eyes as he looks at Mr. Blonde and this makes the audience develop a sense of sympathy for the hostage. Then, the camera flashes back to Mr. Blonde, who is dancing to a song on the radio, and then back to the hostage. This camera movement involves the viewer in the scene by showing them everything that is going on inside that room at that particular time. Although Tarantino employs basic cinematographic skills, they are warranted by the dialogue and action that is being filmed.

Another intriguing aspect of Reservoir Dogs is the unique plot structure and the reasons Tarantino employed it. Though at times repetitive, the flashbacks scenes regarding Mr. White help color his reasons for taking a bullet for another thief. In addition, these scenes paint the information Mr. Orange as loose and casual with the other thief which creates dramatic tension.

Furthermore, these flashbacks have an expositive function as Mr. Orange listens to the stories and criminal plans of the other thieves (Jewers, 2000). Mr. White’s monologue regarding the plan if the jewelry-store employees cause trouble is central to the eventual storyline and its moral dimensions. Also in these scenes Mr. Pink oozes untrustworthiness, creating a central motif of the film that he does not trust any other character’s reliability (Telotte, 1996). In a key exchange, Mr. Pink argues with Mr. White, “For all I know, you’re the rat.” Upset Mr. White responds, “For all I know, you’re the fuckin’ rat!” Mr. Pink is not offended and states “See; now you’re using your head.” The Mr. Pink character is the movie’s cynical voice of reason.

Another major element of Reservoir Dogs is its characterization of male friendship. There is an overt homosexual subtext between the characters which makes their macho posturing both absurd and humorous. This dichotomy can be seen when comparing Mr. White and Mr. Orange. The characters are diametrically opposed in numerous manners (their name colors, their body types) and in not-so-obvious ways (one is the police informant), but what they share in common is a basic human decency. Tarantino presents Mr. White’s compassion early on in the film, when the experienced thief defends the importance of tipping waitresses. On the other hand, the character name Mr. Orange raises the possibility that he is different (e.g. apples and oranges) from the other and possibly more humane underneath his streetwise exterior, his “peel.” This raises Mr. White’s suspicion and creates a dynamic where the viewer wants to strip away his fake identity and allow him relate to the other characters on honest human terms. Under physical duress, Mr. White finally shares with Mr. Orange that Larry is his name and where he hails from. Similarly, after the shooting of Mr. Orange, Mr. White comforts him and takes the courtesy to use a hair brush in order to help get the knots and sweat out of Mr. Orange’s hair. This small act of compassion has an erotic component that is undeniable. This can be seen in the dialogue when Mr. White confesses, “You’ve been brave enough for one day.” This has an overt nurturing almost motherly tone to it as if. Orange was ready to kiss a child goodnight. The closeted homoerotic nature of this scene is reinforced as when the other men arrive Mr. White changes his behavior and expresses the intimacy and bond between thieves.

A final major element of the story that must be discussed is the use of cultural references. The script is loaded with pop-culture references. This can be seen in the panoply of references in the plot which reference what is occurring and which is commented upon with the actors discussing actors as diverse Charles Bronson; Lee Marvin, Charlie Chan, John Holmes, Pam Grier, and even comic book characters such as the Thing from the Fantastic Four. Furthermore, there is a reference to method acting, a comment on the plot of a Stanley Kubrick movie and an inference to Straw Dogs (everyone seems to be uncertain as to what a “reservoir dog” is). Also, the cop’s mutilations can be interpreted as a hint to Blue Velvet and the dialogue between. Blonde and Nice Guy Eddie in Joe’s office can be understood as a well-written tribute to the ham-fisted dialogue seen in the prison movie genre. Reservoir Dogs has its share of straight comedy, mostly coming from crude jokes or slapstick, though at points the absurdity and pointlessness of the violence can come across as comedic. At other points the inanity and silliness of the thieves’ plans or their concerns has a humorous element. One feels sympathy for the innocent woman Mr. Pink pulls from her car, but the desperation of his plight is so absurd and extreme that one laughs. Furthermore, one can’t help laughing during the grisliest section of the torture scene, when Mr. Blonde raises the cut off ear asks into it: “Hey, what’s goin’ on? Can you hear me?” To highlight the point, Tarantino hired the master of Absurdist Theater to provide running commentary — Steven Wright is cast as the DJ of the radio station which puts on “Super Sounds of the ’70s.” The use of humor in the dialogue is central to the movie’s absurdity.

The movie Reservoir Dogs is remarkable as it goes from one absurdity to another while creating a realistic presentation of life as a thief and the emotional bonds that they share. The pacing and violence of the film is do dramatic, constant and sudden that is becomes a stylistically motif in its absurdity. The character Tarantino plays, who dies unceremoniously and realistically in an early scene, ultimately has the last laugh on the other thieves. But he doesn’t laugh at the men; he is commenting on their macho code, which is centered on violence and ultimately is ruined by violence. This is the ultimately the message of the film and which all the various cinematic tools in Tarantino’s arsenal, from lighting to character to plot, are used to present to the audience.

Reservoir Dogs employs a nonlinear storyline riddled with various themes, such as prolific profanity, violent crime, and a slew of pop culture references.  Successful organization of the plot in a nonlinear film relies heavily on action. As such, a nonlinear narrative defies the traditional means of plot construction, such as scenes advancing in chronological order (Cowgill, 2003). Nonlinear storylines analyzes a character, or a situation, or a complicated event by reordering the time sequence to create a new arrangement of time. The result is a more captivating, dramatic story. Tarantino has established himself as a master of nonlinear storytelling. Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Inglourious Basterds are all examples of nonlinear storylines where the director sacrifices the emphasis on a character and instead implements a nonlinear plot to disentangle a complicated event. In other words, action and plot twists take preference over characterizations (Cowgill, 2003).

The film is expertly acted as each character is flawlessly portrayed. Tim Roth, who plays Mr. Orange, fakes an American accent throughout the film and does so without flaw and with little effort. Although Harvey Keitel, who plays Mr. White, has some difficulty with his own accent, it does little to influence the power of his dialogue. His character remians a convincing macho gangster. Similalry, Steve Buscemi, who plays Mr. Pink, secretes untrustworthiness and his inability to trust, or be trusted, becomes an ongoing joke throughout the film.

Sound is equally as important as cinematography in the design of successful film. The soundtrack in this film plays a significant role in determining the film’s mood. Most songs come from a radio that is in the warehouse where most of the action takes place. Most notably is the scene where Stealer’s Wheel’s Stuck in the Middle With You  plays. The song is upbeat and is enjoyed by a large audience; however, despite Mr. Blonde’s happy reaction to the song, he interrupts the seemingly normal mood by slashing the police officer across his face. The juxtapose of the happy song and the violent act creates a sense of unpredictable anxiety. There are also moments in the film where there is no soundtrack and the silence is used to connect the audience with the characters.

Although Reservoir Dogs was released before Pulp Fiction, it was released in limited theaters as therefore did not gain widespread popularity until Pulp Fiction hit the mainstream. However, once it gained popularity in Britain, Reservoir Dogs gained international acclaim as a noteworthy film. In fact, Empire Magazine named it the “Greatest Independent Film Ever Made,” (Wilson & Botting, 1998). Because of its positive reception, Reservoir Dogs is now regarded as a significantly influential film in independent filmmaking. It carries a 96 percent rating at Rotten Tomatoes and is regarded as an important milestone in American filmmaking (Wilson & Botting, 1998).

References

Breen, Marcus (1996). “Woof, Woof: The real bite in Reservoir Dogs”. Australian Humanities Review. Retrieved 2012-04-14. URL:http://web.archive.org/web/20080303144739/http://www.lib.latrobe.edu.au/AHR/archive/Issue-Dec-1996/breen.html

Brintnall, Kent L. (2004). “Tarantino’s Incarnational Theology; Reservoir Dogs, Crucifixions and Spectacular Violence”.Cross Currents. Vol. 54(1): 66-75.

Cowgill, L. (2003). Nonlinear Narrative: The Ultimate in Time Travel. Retrieved from The Screenwriter’s Column: http://www.plotsinc.com/sitenew/column_art_02.html

Irwin, Mark (1998). “Pulp and the Pulpit: The Films of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez”. Literature and Theology.Vol. 12(1).

Jewers, Caroline. (2000). “Heroes and Heroin: From True Romance to Pulp Fiction”. University of Kansas. Journal of Popular Culture. Vol. 33(4): 39-61.

Telotte, J.P. (1996). “Fatal Capers, Strategy and Enigma in Film Noir”. Journal of Popular Film and Television. p. 163-168.

Wilson, S., & Botting, F. (1998). By Accident: The Tarantinian Ethics. Theory, Culture & Society Theory, 15(2), 89.

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