Reservoir Dogs, the 1992 independent gangster film that saw Quentin Tarantino’s first foray into feature filmmaking, is a rousing tour de force of exploitation-level machismo, hip ’90s nostalgia-cool and strong, theatrical performances. The film follows a group of color-coded gangsters as they fulfill Joe Cabot’s (Laurence Tierney) orders to rob a jewelry store. Though the film shows the plight of various members of the gang before and after the heist, the heist itself is not shown. This treatment of time lends the film its incredible sense of urgency, energy, and desperation, as the audience is thrown into an unknown situation right along with the characters.
The use of time in Reservoir Dogs is particularly interesting and innovative, and is a refreshing and intense way to add pathos, suspense and mystery to the (at this point) tired cliche of the gangster heist picture. The use of a fractured narrative such as the one deployed in the film allows for slow dissemination of the characters’ motives and backstory, and permits the film to operate as per the directors’ sense of mood rather than plot chronology (Enamorado, 2010). By understanding why the events in the film are structured the way they are, the better we are able to follow the path Tarantino has taken for us in his screenplay and direction for Reservoir Dogs.
The beginning of the film takes place around the middle of the timeline; all six of what will be referred to here as the Reservoir Dogs, though they have no official name in the story as a group, are seated around a coffee table eating, drinking, and talking. Mr. Brown (Quentin Tarantino) is regaling the others with a verbose, blue story about the meaning behind the Madonna song “Like a Virgin,” while others carry on with a combination of friendship and malice. While the audience will see what brings these similarly-dressed people together, we already glean a few facts from their interactions; some of the characters know each other better than others, some characters like and do not like each other. Some of the characters feel familiar enough to speak with friendly rapport with each other. This first scene introduces us to Tarantino’s unique brand of fast-paced, detail and pop-culture oriented dialogue, delivered by the man himself. It also shows a camaraderie to these people in a calm, pleasant scene.
After the credits, the mood of the film abruptly changes, as the timeline switches to after the heist we have not been let in on yet; Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) is in a car, driving quickly and comforting a gut-shot Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) as they talk about driving to a “rendezvous.” We hear Orange saying, “she had a kid, man,” giving us the implication that he shot a woman and is regretting it. From this point on, the film has an incredible sense of urgency, as this thread of the timeline is what we follow for the most part. White and Orange get back to the rendezvous, an abandoned warehouse; White gets Orange cleaned up, and Orange begs him to risk capture so he can be dropped off at a hospital. These statements said by Orange, while seemingly innocuous, have a greater effect later in the film as a result of the fractured timeline purposefully leaving these details out. As this part of the narrative goes on, we learn more and more about the plot up to this point of the movie: there has been a heist, which went horribly wrong, and the rest of the men are making their way back.
In this act of the film, we also see the setup and casing of the joint for the heist, wherein Orange gets to know White better, and the whole gang learns the plan. We then see the scene immediately after the heist, but before the first scene with White in the car; Brown dies driving them away, and Orange is shot by a woman with a child, whom he then kills. This act explains how he got shot despite being a cop, and why he mentions shooting the woman with a baby, all moments in the film that worked despite the flashback, but are enhanced because of it (Shaw, 2004).
After that point, we return to the main narrative, where Joe comes to the warehouse, knowing (as the audience does) that Orange is the informant. White, having grown close to Orange, defends him and says that “he’s a good kid.” Now that we know that Orange is indeed who Joe says he is, White becomes a tragic character for siding with someone who would just as soon see him turned in to the police. This escalation of tensions leads to a Mexican standoff that leaves Joe and Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn) dead. The police also storm in and shoot down White, who is devastated after Orange admits that he was a cop and shoots him dead. The expression of remorse and frustration on White’s face in the last shot of the film is made very poignant for us, as we, like White, thought Orange was on “our” side the whole time, and only just learned otherwise (Conrad, 2007).
Amidst all of these jumps forward and backwards in time, perhaps the most intriguing of all is the complete and utter omission of the heist itself (Enamorado, 2010). Not only does it allow for the events themselves to be a mystery, more powerful images form in the audiences’ mind upon hearing the events of the heist from the mouths of the shocked Dogs (White’s and Pink’s disbelief at Blonde’s psychotic bloodbath, the recounting of Blue’s death by Joe). Instead, the audience only sees the events surrounding the heist, which are then filled with much more drama and suspense as a result (Larke-Walsh, 2010).
In conclusion, the use of a nonlinear narrative in Reservoir Dogs is meant to effectively convey details about the plot and characters in an interesting and provocative way, leaving the audience to guess about details that they have not seen. The complete omission of the heist itself places greater importance on the events surrounding it, and the constant flashbacks to several characters’ origins shed new light on their characters that were not apparent before. This is especially effective when dealing with Mr. Orange’s backstory, who was an informant the whole time. Understanding this after the fact allows the audience to be fooled just like White and the rest of the gang were.
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