What is left to say about the first outing for director/ writer Quentin Tarantino, a then 29-year-old product of the Sundance Institute’s Director’s Workshop? Along with the likes of Tim Burton, John Waters, David Lynch, and David Cronenberg, Tarantino is one of the few filmmakers whose every film has a cult following. However in my books, the true definition of a cult film, is a movie that only finds the majority of it’s following, years after it’s initial release. Reservoir Dogs may have been a Sundance hit, but most Q.T. Fans (including myself) only discovered the small indie triumph years later on VHS. Unlike Pulp Fiction, which was a huge box office success and an Academy Award nominee, Dogs only found a true following on home video. So in my opinion the only true “Cult Film” from the director, is his directorial debut.
Featuring a tightly woven script, clever directorial style, cracking dialogue and a superb cast who populate his picture as morally ambiguous criminals, Dogs is a testosterone meltdown that gleefully immerses itself in love of outlaws, profanity, violence and pop culture. It’s aggressive, intelligent, visceral and unforgettable. Decades years later, perhaps what stands out most is Tarantino’s camera work. There is not a single dull shot in the movie, from the opening scene continuously circulating the breakfast club, to the slow-mo Wild Bunch credit sequence, to the brilliant pan-away during the cutting of the ear, and thereafter when the camera follows Blonde outside the warehouse to his car, and back inside again. There’s a method to Tarantino’s style; every frame is calculated and every line of dialogue serves to set the action in motion. The film never slows down, and Tarantino makes great use of dozens of long tracking shots. Even more impressive is that the film boasts a timeless quality since it is unclear as to what decade they’re in. From the pop tunes from the ’70’s to the 60’s black and white suits and skinny ties, to the 80’s automobiles, Reservoir Dogs may as well take place in some strange parallel universe. A small, offbeat, extremely well-crafted crime caper with terrific surprises sprinkled over top.
Most heist films have a simple formula: the first act focuses on the anatomy of the job; in the second act we bear witness to the actual heist, and in the third act we are left to observe the consequences of the crime. Tarantino ignores the conventions of the genre, and pulls a coup by ignoring the actual sting, and opening on the aftermath. Abandoning linear storytelling, Tarantino, like hundreds of others before and after, pulls a Rashomon, creating a series of flashbacks to tell his story. The non-chronological manner in which the story is told serves three main purposes: first, it helps slowly increase the tension and suspense for the audience, via a sense of momentary confusion; second, it makes it harder to piece together the simple story of a robbery gone wrong; finally, it allows every scene to be brandished as individual vignettes, each sketch primped with a new twist and turn, with the unexpected, never needing to relate yet never affecting the arc of the overall story. Tarantino’s sharp sense of how the criminals behave and interact, along with their witty street jive, presents a rhythm and pacing to the film. There is a distinct code of honour among the men and Tarantino builds the tension between the culprits beautifully. Dogs is a film about, paranoia, loyalty, and trust, and after all the guns go blazing, and the testosterone levels fly off the chart, Reservoir Dogs ends with a whimper. It was classified as one of the most violent films ever made, yet there is hardly any onscreen violence. Tarantino prefers to build anticipation and cut away leaving much to the imagination. Vulgar it is, and bloody yes, but no more violent than most mainstream American films.
At once a tribute to traditional notions of trust, loyalty, honour and professionalism, and a stylish, ironic pastiche inspired by the likes of Woo, Peckinpah, Melville, Ringo Lam, Kurosawa and many more, Dogs is technically never original but it is raw and a one-of-a-kind, and has since been often imitated. Reservoir Dogs may just be the best heist film made in the 90’s and arguably, Tarantino’s best film.