Few figures posed such a vivid threat to toxic masculinity at the end of the 1980s as Madonna. Not only had she involuted Catholic iconography, but she was openly pro-sex, feminist and the most vocal and visible champion of LGBT rights in the music industry. It’s quite striking, then, that the very first scene, in the very first Quentin Tarantino film, is a macho takedown of Madonna’s most iconic song, “Like a Virgin.” The first conversation in Reservoir Dogs starts before the credits end, as we hear a voice – that turns out to be Tarantino’s – explaining that the song isn’t really about “being touched for the very first time.” Nor is it about sensitivity or breathless romance. Instead, Tarantino’s character, Mr. Brown, posits that the singer of “Like a Virgin” is a whore, who is describing a “dick” that is big enough to remind her of losing her virginity for the first time, forcing her to experience a second deflowering. As the credits come to a close, we see that Tarantino’s character is speaking at a café, to a table of other men, all of whom are entranced by his interpretation.
This anecdote, and conversation, was Tarantino’s first auteurist gesture, or first assertion of his auteurism, paving the way for a sequence of films that would often start by situating us in the most toxic and insular of masculine spaces, and then try to claw their way back out of it. In the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs, this corresponds with the first appearance of Tarantino’s trademark style of writing screenplays – misanthropic monologues, typically focused on micro-observations, that come very close to what would today be described as mansplaining. After Tarantino’s Mr. Brown has finished riffing on Madonna, another character, Mr. Pink, played by Steve Buscemi, takes up the mantle, explaining in agonising and pedantic detail why he never tips waitresses. This position causes more dissent, but whether the men at the table are pro-tipping or anti-tipping, the common assumption is that women exist to be talked about, and to talk at, but never to talk to, or to talk themselves, producing a feature in which there isn’t a single line that is spoken by a woman.
From the outset, then, Reservoir Dogs sharply distinguishes itself from the elegiac gangster films of the early 1990s. When it was released, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas was seen as a rawer and less sentimental version of the gangster films that proliferated in New Hollywood during the 1970s, but Tarantino’s debut demonstrates just how tasteful Scorsese’s vision really was. As if in deliberate contrast to Scorsese’s classicist style, Tarantino opts for a frank address, unadorned décor, and bald, blunt, musical accompaniment. Most of the film takes place in an abandoned warehouse, where a group of men – the men we meet in the opening scene – are supposed to meet after a heist. After the heist goes bad, this space becomes the main venue for Tarantino’s drama, which often plays like a work of downtown, grungy theatre that is designed to be staged in exactly this off-off-Broadway kind of venue. Within this warehouse, every utterance feels a little too stagey, and a little too theatrical, forcing Tarantino to double down on his framing and sequencing to imbue it with a cinematic sheen, while also making the characters seem more desperately aware of their own voices, and their own performances of masculinity, with each fresh crisis that emerges.
As with both Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, however, this devolution of masculinity comes after a tight, insular and cloistered opening sequence. After the scene in the café, Tarantino follows the men as they walk outside, shooting them in slow motion for what has become one of the most iconic sequences of his career, as they traverse the car park while buttoning up and adjusting their tuxedos. During this brief, slow-motion sequence, Tarantino revives the Rat Pack aesthetic of the 1950s, but with a conscious campiness, as if already aware that this particular brand of hyper-masculine aspiration has long since passed into the realm of pastiche. Sure enough, we quickly learn that this particular Rat Pack doesn’t have any intrinsic identity of its own, and can only exist as a collective performance, and as a collective awareness of performance. All of the men have been brought together by gangsters Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) and his son “Nice Guy” Eddie Cabot (Chris Penn). In order to preserve the anonymity of the heist, however, they are not permitted to learn any information about each other. Instead, for the duration of the heist, they have been given code names – Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), Mr. Purple (Tarantino), Mr. Pink (Buscemi) and, finally, Mr. Blue (Edward Bunker).
While these formal names may heighten the sense of mid-century style, the lack of any intrinsic connection between the different characters imbues their rapport with a heightened sense of performance. This is enhanced by the discovery, after the heist, that one of them has been a policeman in disguise, as well as by the way in which the group fractures after the police arrive prematurely at the diamond store that they have set out to rob. First Mr. White and Mr. Orange arrive at the warehouse, then Mr. Pink, then Mr. Blonde, who confirms that Mr. Purple and Mr. Blue died at the scene. It’s not long before the Cabots turn up too, along with a police officer who has been taken prisoner, but the staggered appearance of these characters starkly contrasts with their unity in the opening scene and credit sequence, enhancing their anxiety about which character among them has been playing a part. Since it’s impossible to know, at least for some of them, the whole group becomes suspicious, making it impossible, in turn, to distinguish what is truly authentic about the collective masculine swagger that propelled the heist in the first place.
For most of the film, then, the group has nothing in common but paranoia about who doesn’t truly belong to the group, and the viability of the group itself. This produces a series of increasingly comic-pedantic riffs, as Mr. Pink, in particular, grows more and more molecular in his micro-observations on the absurdity of a world he can no longer control. These insane and inane monologues would become the bedrock of Tarantino’s style, where they would blossom into a particularly cinematic white fragility – the fear that all white aspirations to masculinity have been contained, co-opted and exhausted by the sheer plethora of white men that have commanded the big screen. Throughout Reservoir Dogs, it often feels as if white men have an unprecedented array of cinematic role models to draw upon, but that the sheer availability of these role models also makes white masculinity seem inescapably inauthentic, and performative at the very moments it reaches for authenticity.
In that sense, the racial anxieties of Tarantino’s later films are already present in the austere colour palette of Reservoir Dogs, which is almost entirely anchored in black and white tuxedos, and various bloodstains that bloom out across the action. The rainbow palette of colours – Orange, Purple, Pink, Blue – never finds its way into the actual look of the film, while the two most dominant roles are given to Mr. White and Mr. Blonde. While Mr. Blonde has brown hair, it’s no accident that Tarantino has named him after a hair colour, rather than after a colour, since much of the film revolves around the correct way to be white, and the signifiers – such as blonde hair – that have typically guaranteed “full” whiteness. No surprise, either, that Mr. White is the most coveted name by the gangsters, while Mr. Black is left out of the picture entirely, and never even mentioned as a possibility.
This absence of a Mr. Black doesn’t mean, however, that there are no black characters, or references to black culture, in Reservoir Dogs. Rather, Tarantino quickly establishes blackness as one of the main anxieties driving his films, lighting upon black masculinity, in particular, as a form of maleness that has escaped or transcended the pastiche now inextricable from white masculinity. Since white men have dominated cinema, the film seems to reason, they have also been dominated by cinema, and turned into a series of pastiches that are now inescapably constricting and emasculating. Conversely, since black machismo was rare in cinema before the 1970s, it still has a vital cinematic power, but is also – paradoxically – raw enough to not be entirely indebted to or contained by cinema either. In Tarantino’s hands, black masculinity becomes a kind of transcendent cinematic prospect, capable of rehabilitating white masculinity in cinema precisely because it reflects a form of maleness that has not yet been entirely exhausted by the American film industry.
While the anxieties of Reservoir Dogs start with the devolution of the heist, they quickly expand out to the presence of black culture – or attribute the devolution of the heist directly to black culture. Lots of the dialogue is obsessed with black culture, and the characters’ needs to differentiate themselves from black culture. Whenever the heist gets heavy, the senior gangsters remind the younger gangsters not to act too black, or just riff generally on the irrationality and danger of black gangsters, as if to remind them how rational and sane they are by comparison. Tarantino’s use of the word “nigger” is a key part of this process, to the extent that this word, spoken by a white man, often seems to be his solution to white cinematic pastiche, partly because it reflects a blaxploitation legacy that has not yet descended into pastiche, but also because it offends the kind of “liberal” sensibilities that, in Tarantino’s universe, subsist precisely upon the pastiche he condemns.
This perpetual awareness of black voices plays a key role in the devolution of the swagger of the opening scenes. While the characters continue to talk at each other after the heist goes sour, their monologues are more obviously driven by anxiety, panic and insecurity, and their body language grows more frantic, frenetic and chaotic as they find themselves unable to tap into the collective confidence of the group. The violence also works to undercut this swagger, starting with the first scene of the story proper, in which Mr. White cradles Mr. Orange’s bleeding body as they make their way to the warehouse. For the next half hour, Mr. Orange’s pain is awkward and abject, causing him to gasp and cry with each slight shift in position, in one of the most embodied and visceral performances of Tim Roth’s career. Meanwhile, the sheer spectacle of this pain forces Mr. White to shed some of his anonymous machismo, leading to him comfort Mr. Orange – “Go ahead and be scared – you’ve been brave enough for one day” – before confiding his first name and home town. The violence of the heist, which we see in retrospect, is similarly abject, whether it is Mr. White shooting randomly into a crowd of police officers, Mr. Orange dragging a woman to the ground as he tries to escape, or Mr. Pink driving chaotically with a shattered windshield.
In other words, Reservoir Dogs is like the sustained third act of a heist film – the centripetal act – in which action starts to spiral away from the heist itself, or else comes undone. It also plays like a contagion narrative, or infection narrative, in which each member of the group has to figure out who is the performer amongst them, without falling victim to the performance themselves. In their own words, the performer is the “psychopath,” rather than the “professional” criminal, meaning that they have to discern who amongst them is the greatest psychopath, and who is the best at concealing their psychopathy. Without any clear answer for most of the group, however, the group itself becomes the performance, or the psychopathic presence, culminating with the iconic scene in which Mr. Blonde condenses all the swagger of the group into the single most psychopathic action in the film – cutting off a police officer’s right ear while he gyrates to “Stuck in the Middle with You.”
In the chaos and anxiety of the film, this sequence stands alone for rivalling – and even exceeding – the Rat Pack swagger of the opening scenes. Using his knife to mimic shaving, Mr. Blonde channels all the style, suaveness and sensibility of the Rat Pack, before putting the knife to his mouth and crooning along like he’s Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra. While the action is horrific, he orchestrates it beautifully, creating what must be one of the most elegant torture scenes ever committed to film. Yet Mr. Blonde also acknowledges, openly, that he’s not hoping to get any information from this particular cop, who he learns has only been on the job a couple of months. Instead, he confesses, gleefully, that he’s torturing him for the sheer pleasure of the performance, the sheer pleasure of condensing all of the colours in the rainbow, and all the members of the group, to his own black and white tuxedo as it spins out across space, and his own one-man rendition of Rat Pack masculinity.
This psychopathic sense of play – and the way it seems to emerge, naturally, as an apotheosis of Rat Pack swagger – is what makes this scene so shocking. While the scene is almost impossible to watch, there’s no explicit gore, and less direct depiction of violent action than in many M or even PG rated films of the 80s and early 90s. Instead, the horror comes from the way in which the film’s suaveness of style suddenly becomes synonymous with torturing, mocking and disposing of other men, irreversibly puncturing the fantasy of Rat Pack solidarity even as Mr. Blonde seems to be consummating it. In some ways, the most horrific sequence isn’t the one in which Mr. Blonde cuts off the police officer’s ear, but the following sequence, in which he speaks and croons directly into the ear, as if he now enjoys a direct connection to the police officer’s brain. Mr. Blonde thus achieves what many of Tarantino’s character seems to long for – a voice that other men can’t close their ears to, as omniscient and inescapable as the radio broadcaster whose voice slips in and out of the diegesis, and whose curation of 70s music forms the backdrop for Mr. Blonde’s horrific act.
For that reason, rewatching Reservoir Dogs almost thirty years down the track made me see it as a distant ancestor of Saw, and of the torture porn movement more generally. Both Reservoir Dogs and Saw try to assuage the paranoid isolation of white men by turning the white male voice into an agent for torture so unpleasant that it must command whatever room or space it sets out to conquer. Yet the odd impotence of both films is that white masculinity is also reduced to a kitschy pastiche even in the midst of this atrocity and violence. While it’s disturbing that Mr. Blonde’s swagger prevents the violence from achieving any real gravity, it’s even more disturbing that the violence prevents him from achieving any real gravity either. For all the visceral shock of the scene, it’s almost entirely extraneous to the plot of the film, and the film remains almost entirely unchanged by it. The only difference is that it is no longer possible to truly believe in the Rat Pack fraternity, even as it is somehow even more desperately urgent for the film and its characters to believe it.
The heist therefore falls apart under the outward anxiety of the group, which is directed primarily at black men, and the inward anxiety of the group, which revolves around their gradual suspicion that their collective swagger has been compromised by a performative element they can’t control. While they never find out the full story, their sense that the heist has collapsed due to an unseen black presence turns out to be correct, since the only black character in the film is also its pivotal directorial figure. Just as Marsellus Wallace overlooks every story in Pulp Fiction, so the entire heist is directed by Holdaway, a black police officer played by Randy Brooks, who trains Freddy Newandyke, another cop, to pass for Mr. Orange. Holdaway literally directs Freddy, telling him early on that “undercover cops gotta be Marlon Brando – you gotta be naturalistic as hell.” In the longest flashback of the film, Tarantino follows Holdaway as he teaches Freddy how to act naturalistically as a white man. Holdaway himself doesn’t have any formal training in film, but the sheer fact of his blackness is taken to preclude pastiche, and to ensure that Freddy’s role will be believable.
Like Pulp Fiction, then, it feels like some kind of uneasy alliance is being claimed with blaxploitation here, as Tarantino presents a form of white masculine realism that has been revamped by a black actor-director, while not permitting any black protagonists within the frame of that white masculine realist narrative either. Not surprisingly, the performance that Holdaway composes for Freddy plays like a carbon copy of Tarantino’s own style – a monologue that he has to learn in minute detail, describing his experience with a collection of police officiers in a bathroom, that Holdaway is sure will provide him with the right kind of charisma and credibility when it comes to ingratiating himself amongst the other heist participants. Telling him that “it’s the details that sell the story,” Holdaway enjoins Freddy to visualise every part of the bathroom in vivid and abject detail, especially the awkward proximity of male bodies, until the monologue feels like a defence mechanism against the very homosocial intimacy that it is describing. As a result, when Freddy finally performs this monologue, Tarantino alternates between him presenting it to the heist crew, and to the police officers described in it, using it to collapse the diegetic and non-diegetic spaces of Holdaway’s script, whose black directorial efforts now inject a new kind of reality principle.
In a weird way, then, Freddy’s project is to pass for white within a group of white men, and to impress them with a form of white authenticity that quells any fears that his role might be inauthentic and performative. Brokering black cinema to pass further for white, his monologue is one of the longest scenes in an otherwise economical film, taking up about twenty minutes, or a full sixth of Reservoir Dogs’ running time. His final stage in bonding with the other gangsters occurs on the way to the heist, where they banter about what white women and black women will accept from a black man, before riffing on all the ways in which black masculinity and white masculinity differ from each other. By this stage, Holdaway’s script has come full circle, providing a vision of white realism in which a dash of black authenticity has renewed the purpose of white men in the world, and their privileged observation of the world. More bluntly, the more that Mr. Orange uses the word “nigger,” and the more that all the gangsters encourage him to do so, the more vivid their shared charisma becomes, until this one word feels like the motor engine around which Tarantino has built a new kind of post-cinematic whiteness, capable of being expressed through cinema but no longer dependent upon cinema, or exhaustible by cinematic representation.
For all those reasons, Reservoir Dogs often feels like a bad faith tribute to blaxploitation, as white characters shift vertiginously – and implausibly – between bantering about what “black bitches” enjoy to discussing the minutiae of Pam Grier’s back catalogue. More practically, this fragile white masculinity can’t exist without blackness for very long without falling back into cinematic pastiche, which starts to creep in around the edges as soon as they arrive at the warehouse. In response to a particularly impassioned monologue from Mr. White, Mr. Blonde simply observes “I bet you’re a big Lee Marvin fan,” before cutting off the ear of the police officer, whose name is also Marvin. Both of them pave the way for Marvin, the black character in Pulp Fiction whose head is casually and accidentally blown off from Vincent Vega just as he is starting to regale him with yet another front seat monologue. In each case, performative monologues produce violence, but are incapable of expressing masculine authenticity – or, rather, their violence, whether accidental or intention, emerges as a byproduct of their inability to authenticate the masculine rage that propels them. Even – or especially – Tarantino’s comedy is a facet of this rage, which burns more viscerally in Reservoir Dogs than in any of the films he has written and directed since.
As a result, Reservoir Dogs also has the starkest ending of any of his films. There’s never an illusion that this white masculinity can exist long term, since its collective swagger has been reduced to a shared psychopathy. All Tarantino can do is riff on that swagger until it collectively exhausts or destroys itself, a process he visualizes in the first Mexican standoff of his career, and the only Mexican standoff in which all three characters fall at precisely the same moment. White masculinity turns out to be a zero-sum game, at least as Tarantino understands it, leaving only Mr. Orange and Mr. White left on the floor. Both are more entwined than they had planned, since Mr. White has allowed himself to confide in Mr. Orange, and Mr. Orange has killed several innocent people as part of his role in the heist. Both of them also converge cop swagger and criminal swagger into one final abject mess, as Mr. Orange screams seething abuse, and Mr. White rubs Mr. Orange’s head, before rubbing the blood on himself, slower and slower, like a scene of two children playing in slow motion.
Finally, Mr. Orange reveals to Mr. White that he is the performer, leaving Mr. White nothing to do but shoot him, seconds before he is blown away by the police that have just arrived. For the briefest of moments, nothing remains but an empty frame after the shotgun propels Mr. White out of our vision, before Tarantino abruptly and ironically cuts to a jaunty closing sequence. In that final void, however, and in the mathematical elegance of the final five deaths, lies Tarantino’s psychotic vision of white masculinity as a subject position that is not only destined to destroy itself, but defined by the predictability with which it will destroy itself. All his films can do is to delay that destruction, whether through their interminable monologues, their distended conversational duration, and also – more concretely – their expanding length. For the tightness and economy of Reservoir Dogs seems to suggest that Tarantino’s films could have gone in one of two directions from this point onwards. They could have grown even more economical, and perfected their economy, not unlike the later films of Yasujiro Ozu or the Ranown Westerns. Or they could have chosen a more panoramic path and grown gradually baggier and more expansive, in order to stave off and defer the disturbing and inexorable destruction that lay at the end of this economical narrative style.
For the next decade, Tarantino took the second option, expanding one story into three for Pulp Fiction, approaching the three hour mark with Jackie Brown, and then making Kill Bill so long that it was screened as two standalone features. Only with Death Proof would Tarantino return to the pared-back style of Reservoir Dogs, presumably because he had to share theatrical time with Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, but also because the B-pictures he was trying to emulate tended to be fairly functional and economical in nature. From there, Inglorious Basterds launched a new phase in his career, and a broader expansion of his anxieties around race and whiteness. Until then, however, Reservoir Dogs feels like a vital presence in his filmography, and in 90s cinema – especially white 90s cinema – more generally; the anxiety of influence that his following work both tries to address and escape.