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On Revisiting Reservoir Dogs

September 20, 2010

I need to start by saying I’m NOT a big fan of Quentin Tarantino’s most recent work, and though I thought the opening scene of Inglourious Basterds one of the best scenes I saw all of last year, I have to say that overall I thought the movie boorish. The fact that he played fast and loose with history without a hint of warning to the viewer drove me crazy. When I left the theater that day I was sputtering in anger and disbelief.

What I’d forgotten was how good–and different–his early work, especially Reservoir Dogs, was. Recently I watched it again on the big screen during the Jacob Burns Film Center’s The Big Score: The Greatest Heist Films series this past August. Caper films have always been a favorite of mine and this series included many great ones including: The Hot Rock, Charley Varrick, The Killing and The Silent Partner (not very well known but excellent). I enjoyed a number of these movies but none more than Reservoir Dogs and the reason for this had nothing to do with it being a “heist” film, but because of Tarantino’s innovative way of telling the story. In fact it’s a bit of a stretch to even call this a caper since you never see one moment of the heist on screen. It’s almost Shakespearean in that way. How many times in the plays of the great master is a violent death or a moment of mayhem spoken of, but not shown, on stage? Just think of Lady Macbeth’s death. Don’t get me wrong; Reservoir Dogs has plenty of violence and blood–pools of blood–but the main event–the heist–is done off screen. The other thing that’s so interesting about Tarantino’s script is the skewed timeline. Almost from the very beginning we’re being jolted through time and space by him.

Another reason why I wanted to see it again was to watch Tim Roth’s work. I very much enjoy his TV show “Lie to Me” and recently I’d seen somewhere that Roth was the only person the show’s creator wanted for the part of Cal Lightman. It interested me that he was thought of that highly and I wanted to go back to see some of his early work. He’s tremendous in the movie.

I remembered so little of this movie. I remember lots of bits and pieces from Pulp Fiction but Reservoir Dogs in my memory has always been stuck at one scene. In this regard, I don’t think I’m too different than most people. If you’ve seen the movie you know the scene I mean but if you’ve forgotten it here are 5 words to help you to identify it: Knife (I can probably stop right there), ear (dead give away), gasoline and Michael Madsen.

Is there any actor today who plays “crazy” better than Michael Madsen? Maybe Christopher Walken, Klaus Maria Brandauer or a young Jack Nicholson are his equal but I don’t think any are better. Yes, there are others who can convincingly portray crazy on screen like Malkovich and Kevin Spacey (Remember Seven–but if you really want to see him at his most CRAZY find his performance as Mel Profitt in the 1988 TV series “Wiseguy”) but Madsen, even when he’s the protagonist of the piece, still seems off center. Have you guessed THE SCENE yet? I’ll give you one more clue–but really!–if you haven’t guessed it by now either you only THINK you know the movie or you’ve managed to erase it from your memory. “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Steelers’ Wheel. That’s it. That’s the last clue you get. If a chill didn’t run down your spine by now, then, I’m sorry, you can’t have seen the movie. In my mind “Stuck in the Middle with You” like Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man after David Fincher’s Zodiac will forever be associated with a terrifying act of violence.

But I digress, digress, digress. Let it suffice to say, mention Reservoir Dogs to anyone who’s seen it, look deeply into their eyes as you do, and when you notice a subtle change as their soul darkens, you’ll know they’re thinking about that scene. THE scene that everyone–EVERYONE–remembers. It’s the scene everyone talks about when the topic of Reservoir Dogs comes up. It’s there on Youtube in ten different ways and it isn’t even the best scene in the movie. Yes, it’s the most memorable, because it’s so visceral, but the best scene, the best bit of storytelling, bar none, is the “commode” scene.

If you haven’t seen it in awhile I can hear you asking: ”The ‘commode’ scene? What’s the ‘commode’ scene?” To me it is THE most brilliant piece of storytelling in a movie that is nothing but great storytelling.

Anyway see Reservoir Dogs again. See it for the unconventional storytelling, see it for the fine performances by Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Harvey Keitel and Steve Buscemi–Hey! How about those last two for actors who can very ably portray CRAZY.

I’m sure there are a million flaws one can find in the movie though I can only think of one that I noticed, but remember this is Tarantino’s directorial debut and it’s arguably, though many would vote for Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill Vol.1, his best work.


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