PRINT November 1992


Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs

Let me tell you what “Like a Virgin”’s about. It’s about this cooz who’s a regular fuckin’ machine. I’m talkin’ morning day night afternoon dick dick dick dick dick dick dick dick dick.

Then one day she meets this John Holmes motherfucker and it’s like, Whoa baby. I mean this cat is like Charles Bronson in The Great Escape: he’s diggin’ tunnels. All right, she’s gettin’ some serious dick action and she’s feelin’ somethin’ she hasn’t felt since forever. Pain. Pain. It hurts, it hurts her . . . just like it did the first time. You see the pain is remindin’ the fuck machine what it was once like to be a virgin. Hence, “Like a Virgin.”
—Mr. Brown (Quentin Tarantino) in Reservoir Dogs, 1992

Why? Because it feels so good.
—Benny (Warren Oates), on shooting a man already conspicuously dead in Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, 1974

QUENTIN TARANTINO’S Reservoir Dogs opens in a diner with eight men telling stories and talking trash around a table. As the camera prowls from face to face, a man named Mr. Brown theorizes about Madonna’s song “Like a Virgin”: “Pain. Pain,” he says, teasing out the words. Later, as the group is paying the bill, a Mr. Pink refuses to tip. The off-screen waitress’ service, he complains, wasn’t special. “What’s special,” asks Mr. Blue, “take you in the back and suck your dick?”

Reservoir Dogs is the story of a well-planned heist turned bloody. It is loosely based on Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 The Killing, but that film unfolds like a blueprint—a cool, precise analysis of a robbery. In perverse contrast, Tarantino skips the crime itself. His point isn’t the heist but the players: the film is an anatomy less of a crime than of men choosing lives of violence. A history of American cinema could be traced on the bruised, besieged male body, from westerns to gangster sagas to male weepies to war films, from Red River to Brian De Palma’s Scarface, from Nick Ray’s Bigger Than Life to Rambo. Feminist theorists have made much of the sadism visited on women in film, but male-on-male violence probably drives more movies. It’s violence characterized as much by masochism as by sadism: film after film features men at risk (physically, emotionally, spiritually) who can only find redemption through pain, theirs or someone else’s. Even the newest revisionist Clint Eastwood western, Unforgiven, though it works overtime to show gunslingers as sociopaths, in the end leaves no option but brutality.

In truth, isn’t ritual sacrifice usually at the expense of the marginal—women, children, captives, animals? Yet male directors embrace male sacrifice. The stakes have never seemed higher than during the last twenty years, as ’70s prodigals like Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, and Martin Scorsese know well. Certainly it’s no accident that since the early ’70s—years of emergent feminism and black power—the neogangster film has become the essential American genre. In the outlaw zones of the goodfellas and the new jack “gangstas,” violence runs amok, delivered from messy (“politically correct”) accountability into a hyperbolic masculinity.

Cut to a man screaming in the back-seat of a car, his white shirt blossoming red. The screamer is Mr. Orange (Tim Roth); the driver is Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), his comforting words working a feeble counterpoint to agony. As the film progresses, Mr. Orange’s blood tracks the story. Its slow and steady flow brackets the plot like a parody of Aristotelian poetics, making literal the structural “violence” of classical narrative. In the beginning, though, there’s nothing but Orange’s pain—clear, distinct, pure.

Apparently the robbery has turned into a massacre. The details surface only as retold by the robbers at a warehouse rendezvous, trickling out through verbal and visual flashback. The effect is less the Rashomon point about rival truths than something akin to psychoanalysis: like the therapeutic process, Reservoir Dogs tells a story, is about telling stories, and depends on stories for its own creation. Down to the coloristic aliases, the film posits a male identity that must tell itself stories to exist.

If this is film as riddle, built on an action that is absent, another absence is equally self-evident: female characters. In so many films women are decoys in a male struggle between Eros and Thanatos. Here they exist only in jokes, smutty asides, and yet more stories. If they’re the fulcrum of masculine bad faith, it’s because of the male unconscious, not because of anything they initiate themselves. When White takes a comb to Orange’s gore-slicked hair, the gesture is both desperate and patently feminine. The ties that bind these men in masculinity are raw and crushing in part because women, like the crime, have no present reality; both are blanks, screens for uncontradicted fantasy.

Brought together as cogs in a larceny machine, the men are tied in a fragile union of professionalism and gender. Their connection can make for moments of uncommon kindness, as when White comforts the dying Orange with words and embraces (“touched for the very first time”?). But the bond is perilous, even irrational. Having launched the massacre at the heist, Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) makes the rendezvous with a policeman stashed in his car trunk. Left temporarily in charge, he tortures his hostage with slowed and chilling exactitude—and with pleasure. Blonde flips on the radio—the ’70s hit “Stuck in the Middle with You,” by Stealer’s Wheel—pulls out a straightedge, and begins a snaky, sensuous little dance. Eyebrows up, mouth curled, he plays the blade in front of the cop, darting and slicing like a matador.

It’s a lethal number, for the captive audience onscreen as well as off. Then the camera cuts to an empty corner of the warehouse. There’s no spectacular squirt of gore, no bloody “money shot” (the cum shot that authenticates sex in porno movies), only a kind of embarrassed retreat. In one gesture Tarantino severs the camera and us from the scene, stripping the moment of its voyeuristic pleasure, though not of its sadism.

Reservoir Dogs only feels like one of the most graphic features to hit the big screen lately. What makes the violence hurt isn’t some outrageous, literally deadening body count but the way Tarantino decelerates pain, squeezing it out drop by anguished drop. When men go into fatal slo-mo freefall in a Peckinpah movie, or in the work of Hong Kong’s John Woo, their agony is itself heroic; though Tarantino too slows down agony, he keeps it in real time. In Reservoir Dogs some men kill for business, others because, as Warren Oates explained, “it feels so good.” As Freud writes of the death instinct, “Even where it emerges . . . in the blindest fury of destructiveness, . . . the satisfaction of the instinct is accompanied by an extraordinarily high degree of narcissistic enjoyment.”

Through stories, the men in Reservoir Dogs teach each other to be men. When the lessons are learned, they kill each other. It’s a world in which the only alternative to business is death, and male violence is as inevitable as it is irrational. In this world, getting it up means never having to say you’re sorry, just Make my day.

Manohla Dargis is a writer who lives in New York.