7 reasons why "reservoir Dogs" is a masterpiece of cinema, and it's similarity to Shakespeares' "King Lear".


By Glen Byrne
1996 G.F. Byrne

1. It looks and sounds really cool, and since we're talking about CINEMA that's highly important. Also it's in 70mm, so it has to look good/cool to come off well. The black suits, the language, the guns especially, even Mr. Oranges apartment which was being redecorated. "Superfucking cool".

2. Claims that's it's unoriginal are not valid: nothing is really original as every movie made can slot into a genre, and all movies are just rehashing old ideas. All art is that really, the originality in any art, if it's present, comes in the way the old material is presented to the audience, and what slant is actually put on the important themes. With reference to Kubricks 'The Killing', RD is much better and really owes nothing to that except that everybody gets killed except for one guy, and he gets caught. There is in one sense a great similarity between Woos "A better tomorrow 2" in the way everybody wears the black suits during the heist, but that's not plagiarising or anything. It's just a tiny element which is in one way being rehashed. Again there's no question but that RD is so much better than ABT2 that it defies belief. But the last 15 minutes of ABT2 does contain some extremly well worked and choreographed violence.

3. This is the sundry category of the list: all of the following were superlative about the film:
Editing: there is not 1 second too much or to little in the film, one learns all that one needs only when necessary to understand the story or only when it's needed to heighten tension or for some dramatic purpose. One also learns a lot during the film through the medium of flashback, but again only when it suits the purpose of the film.
Acting: esp Tim Roth, Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Steve Buscemi. Dialogue: extremely tense, often hillarious, and reflecting a proffessionalism in the thieves not seen in any previous film that I know of.
Cinematography: ties in with what I said earlier about the film looking good.

4. Regarding common objections/criticisms that some people have about the film i.e:
A) It's very violent/bloody.
B) The 'cutting off of the cops ear' and torture scene are too disturbing.

I would employ the old standard arguments in both of these cases: you don't have to watch it if you don't want to; if an individual is diposed to kill, torture, injure or hack someone else to death, seeing a film is not going to persuade them otherwise and certainly wont persuade them to do it; a film maker can't be bound by the hypothetical considerations of some special individual's craziness, no more than an architect or civil engineer can be held responsible if someone starts shooting people with a rifle off the top of a building they designed and built.

I should also point out that, in fact, RD isn't actually all that violent. Sure people get shot, but that happens in almost every film you see. What people are really objecting to is the fact that Mr. Orange bled to death on screen and the scene where Mr. Blonde tortures the cop and cuts off his ear. In actual fact you don't even see the ear being cut off and while it would appear that the director takes a very neutral role in the story simply depicting the act, it's very very clear as to what way he wants us to consider these actions (see the points below in realtion to the similarity with King Lear) i.e the actions of a sick and deranged individual, but one who can dangerously masquerade quite naturally as an apparently normal person.

For doing a good and realistic job of portraying someone bleeding to death a director gets slammed for being too violent. On the other hand, so called cartoon-like violence isn't acceptable because it trivialises the effects of violent actions and leads people (whoever they are) to believe that you can just get up and walk away from car crashes, gun-shot wounds etc. To attempt to censor out all violence from film or any other medium would be futile, diastrous and doomed to failure. Credit where credit's due as well: in this day and age, with sufficient TV news channels to take your pick of live wars from around the globe ("AND incredibly no one gets hurt") it's actually quite a skill to make violence look distressing. Think of the Deer Hunter and the famous Russian Roulette sene. Most people remember that as a very disturbing piece and it was a credit to Michael Ciminos brilliance that, just a couple of years after the fall of Saigon when horrific TV images would still be washing around societal memory he could produce, artificailly, something so powerful. The same with Tarantino: you can see people being shelled live on TV and he manages, within the bounds of a convention which everybody knows is not at all real, to distress people in his depiction of a violent act. That's talent.

5. Most people dont see enough dross to realise that RD is a masterpiece, but if you see enough standard run-of-the-mill Hollywood (and other) films, you get to know that most are rubbish and rehash the same old plots as different vehicles for brand new stars created as artificially as new pop bands and for exactly the same reason. Witness the number of sequels produced every year from Hollywood. There's one thing the film industry rarely forgives: it is cripplingly afraid of commercial failure. This of course stems from the 'Heavens Gate' incident which succeeded in bankrupting United Artists. After that, movies were made in a very different manner financially, as all of the studios said: "that will never be us". This fear Hollywood has of commercial failure punishes originality and individual vision and flair and anything which has not been seen before because 'it's too risky, we might loose money on it - go for the tried and trusted formulae which made cash the last time and do it again'. This was excellently satirised in Altmans 'The Player' where every new movie has to be either a sequel or a mix of the elements of previously sucessful movies ("it's kind of Pretty Woman meets out of Africa"). The reason why RD was highly critically acclaimed but lots of the public were a smidgeon upset by it, is because critics tend to see large numbers of films whereas general members of the public might not, and as such, critics are more likely to spot and original film in amongst the dross. Now this isn't just idle speculation on my part. Tarantino is on record as having said that one of the reasons he managed to get RD made was that people in Hollywood need to be told what's good and what isn't, because they're afraid to make up their minds. When he strolled into this situation as a highly opinionated film buff, who had nothing to show for his hobby but a highly developed opinion, it was like the sheep dog arriving at the sheeps party in that Gary Larson Far Side cartoon.

RD has broken the mould of the heist movie genre, and that hasn't happened since Ciminos' 'Thunderbolt and Lightfoot'. In the very ordinary bland and banal world of entertainment the heist movie, with a good few honourable exceptions like Lumets' 'Dog Day Afternoon', 'Thunderbolt and Lightfoot', 'The Italian Job', is one where the convention to follow runs like this: getting the right guys together for the job, practice and planning, the execution and the getaway. All the time we're up for the baddies by vitue of seeing things from their point of view. The archetype for this is of course 'The Italian Job'. RD also has a permutation of these elements but in a very original format, thanks mainly to the editing and screenplay. There's no need for any more heist movies, the genre, with the production of RD, has served it's purpose.

6. The characterisation is brilliant. The robbers aren't just the ordinary run of the mill baddies who are actually goodies because we see things from their perspective: they are highly proffessional. Note the number of references to proffessionalism made by Pink and White (Pink: Am I the only professional here ? White: What you're supposed to do is act like a fucking professional. Pink: You're acting like a first year thief!). They are all ruthless, and in one case psychopathic, individuals who nevertheless take completely different personal, and lets be blunt about it MORAL stands when it comes to being forced to make important decisions. White, who has 'tagged' at least 2 cops earlier in the day, defends a man whose probably almost dead anyway, with his own life, because he wont stand by and allow Joe 'to make this mistake'. Blonde has the complete trust of two mafia bosses and is completely loyal to them, yet he's a 'sick maniac' (this point is addressed elsewhere); Pink is obviously a very sharp individual (see below), yet he describes his 'wising up' as getting into armed robbery, which results in his almost getting killed, and probably ending up in prison for a very long time (having at least shot a cop earlier). These are examples of the complications of the characterisation which makes them all the more interesting.

7. RD is in fact a deeply moral film which, on a thematic level, paralells many of the major themes and incidents in Shakespeares 'King Lear' (KL).

Johnathan Miller once said that his greatest fear was pain inflicted for pleasure. Looking at all of Tarantino's work, and King Lear, there are characters who engage in torture for their own satisfaction. There's an almost identical character that pops up in RD (Mr. Blonde), True Romance (TR) (the mafia hitman who beats Alabama to find where the cocaine is), and Pulp Fiction (PF), (Zed the rapist) and latterly the younger brother in From Dusk Till Dawn. This character even does the same sort of thing: both Zed and Blonde are extremely menacing: Blonde says to the cop "Are you finished now ?" and sort of waves his hand at him; Zed also does that. He sort of reassuringly and in a very menacing way holds up his hand, waves it a bit and says somehting like, very, very calmly, "Shhhhh, yeah hold it". It's really scary. Also one of the most frightening things about the torture scene is the look on the cops face when Blonde starts to dance just before he starts to torture him to "Stuck in the middle with you". It's because he knows that he's dealing with a real sick maniac: the terror on his face is first class, as Masden dances across his field of view (on the one hand we think Masden looks cool/funny, on the other the cop is extremely terrified by this, and we think: "Whoa - he's really worried, maybe this isn't so funny", which it of course turns out not to be. It's one thing being tied up by somebody and beaten up for a reason ("We want to know about the setup" or "Tell us where you've hidden the loot" or "is it safe") but it's another if you're tied up and some guy whips out a razor and starts dancing. It's the difference between being caught by Edmund and Cornwall. The former will kill you if he has to to get what he wants, the latter might do it just for fun and in a very unpleasant way.

There is an obvious comparison between Blondes torturing the cop and Regan and Cornwall mutilating Gloucester, both acts being done for the selfish gratification of one persons desires, at the expense of anothers physical (and mental) pain. It's not just that the torturer does something to another individual for their own pleasure, it's the fact that the other individual has to suffer and experience pain in order that the torturer receive their pleasure. This is most easily demonstrated in the case of Zed, the rapist in PF. Of necessity his 'enjoyment' of the rape, requires that the rapee suffer acute physical pain (not that we're overly sympatheric towards Marcellus Wallace at any stage - he's another vicious criminal very prepared to kill at a moments notice: to whit his pulling a gun on Butch, who had to kill or be killed. Of course Butch didn't have to kill Vincent Vega but that's another story). Also the mafia hitman in TR, who, even though he got sick on his first hit, now did the hits, "just to see the expression on their faces change". Which is really sick, because he didn't start out that way, he let himself become like that. How Cornwall and Regan fit into this is clear: they get the same perverted pleasure and self gratifiction from the torture of Gloucester as discussed above. Regan seems to actually enjoy the physical act itself, while Cornwall seems to require this sort of retribution in order to sate an almost palpable physical urge: he cries "I will have my revenge", in a way that sounds like "I want my lega". Regan is the real monster here, which is not to lessen Cornwalls monstrouusness, because she doesn't seem to really care what Gloucester did, she's along for the 'fun' of the torture. Her "Let him smell his way to Dover", which to her no doubt was funny, is somewhat reminiscent of Blondes "Hey hows it going can you hear that" into the dismembered ear, a sick sort of humour, as with Zeds, "Eeny meeny miney mo", which was horrendous. They think what they're up to is amusing and pleasureable (they're like spoiled kids getting their own way), they have no conception of empathy with the individuals concerned. Of course in this same very scene we see Cornwalls servant stand up and refuse to let Cornwall go any further in his monstrous treatment of Gloucester, in the same SCENE!!, and this leads on to the next point.

Interestingly in both RD and KL it's the torture victims themselves who actually plant the ideas in their torturers minds as to what will be inflicted upon them. In RD, the cop says to Blonde "you can torture me all you want." And Blonde replies "Yeah torture you, that's a good idea". In KL Gloucester early on when he's captured says something like "though I lose mine eyes for it", which plants the idea in Cornwalls mind of plucking out his eyes. Even in the act of the torture there's a similarity - Cornwall struggling says "out vile jelly" during the act and Blonde says "hold still will ya". There's a sort of "amusing" little conversation going on, like the victim is somehow removed from the physical pain they're in, and their physical presence is somehow interfering with some necessary job being done. This is exactly what you might expect though, because only someone who can have no empathy at all could do something like Blonde, Cornwall and Regan do. There is also the comparison between White's refusal to let Joe kill Orange ('This is a mistake I wont let you make Joe') and Cornwalls servant trying to stop him mutilating Gloucester, and all other examples of where a 'servant' engages in an act of pure loyalty to a 'master' (remember Blondes' extremely menacing 'Let me tell you something - I don't have a boss' to the trapped cop), only to pay very dearly for that sense of Loyalty. In the published screenplay of RD, lots of things were originally shot and than removed and 1 or 2 crucial 'bits' were added during the shooting (e.g. looking up Mr. Whites criminal record, meeting with someone from records, picking out his mugshot, and one or two snippets of conversations: one snippet which would favour the arguments I'm making here that was left out was a brief argument White and Eddie have in the car coming back with Pink from picking up the diamonds: Eddie could only get a nurse (the nurses name was Bonnie - as in the nurse who was supposed to be Quentin Tarantinos wife in PF in the scene with Winston Wolf - 'The Bonnie Situation', and of course Tarantinos' mothers name is Connie) and no Doctor. White complains with the words "You and Joe have a responsibility to your men", and "If he dies I'll hold you personally responsibile".

White feels he has a responsibility to Orange and to Pink in getting one to a hospital and telling the other the truth about the situation (if Orange doesn't go to a hospital he dies, if he does he will be caught and may be able to trade information about his fellow thieves) and the way, like Kent seeing Oswald, he completely loses his temper at some individual who's an anathema to him that is: Whites reaction to Pinks "We're not taking him to a hospital" because "If they get him they get closer to you, if they get closer to you they get closer to me and that can't happen".

Another similarity between RD and KL is the presence of a classic Machiavel and the ending as being in a way similar to KL in showing how self destructive the Machiavellian philosophy is (rather we should say how self destructive the type of behaviour Cornwall and Ragan and Goneril engage in is, because Machiavellianism, by it's own definition, is a system of ruling that will work and perpetuate itself). I mean in KL the ending is a vindication, tragic though it is, of the values that those who least deserved to die in the play but did, stood for. In contrast to those values we can see the 'baddies' died/murdered/self destructed because the values they based their actions on WERE ultimately self destructive. The basis of all morality has to be "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you". Anything other than this and we all have the freedom to do what we want for whatever reason to anybody else - even on a purely selfish level this sort of value has got to pan out profitably (even on the evolutionary level of 'the selfish gene' a la Richard Dawkins). This is also the distinction between Reagan, Goneril, Cornwall and Edmund, who resembles Pink and also White to a certain extent, but White has a touch of the Kents about him.

There are numerous examples of Mr. Pink being one of the sharpest of the bunch: at breakfast he's the one who remembers Mr. Browns thread of conversation; he instantly recognises that the situation was a set up and that someone had to be a rat (mind you he still needed Whites experience and calm to get him through his freaked out phase. He lacks a little maturity with the not wanting to be Pink thing as well); he even forces White to use his head (Pink: You could be the rat. White: Yeah for all I know you could be the rat. Pink: Good now you're using your head.); He's the one who came away with the diamonds and stashed them; he's also the only person to survive the whole affair, but he does get caught; the perfect machiavel; in Dungeons and Dragons terms his character is neutral neutral. So there is a constant friction between those serving selfish interests and those who are capable of selflessness in KL and RD.

An interesting point is how it was that Blonde gained the trust of the mafia bosses: presumably he was so loyal to them because he was given free range to indulge himself in whatever way he felt under their tutelge.

One enigma is why it is that White decided to kill Orange at the very end. He could easily have given up and both would have been taken to hospital and both would probably have lived. The problem though would have been that White would deffinitely have gone to prison for a very long time. Also, even though he may have tried to explain what happened the fact that he was one of the few to have survived the whole affair woould have cast suspicions on him. Prison, and hard time prison for a convicted cop killer would no doubt not be made any easier by the fact that he had killed a mafia boss and his son, and would be suspected of being in cahoots with the cops. Why then his "Looks like we're going to do some time kid" as he lifts Orange up. Earlier we heard him say: "If it's a choice between doing 10 years and tagging some idiot that's no choice". So would he have given himself up if Orange had not told him he was a cop ? What was Orange thinking: he may have thought that White would give himself up if he knew he was a cop, but in fact this is what made him kill Orange (take him 'hostage' in fact). I think once he heard that Orange was a cop he knew he'd been set up and was as good as dead so decided jail was out of the question and decided to blast on the way out.

The captured cop never said anything about Freddy Newendike being an undercover cop, despite all the torture and mental anguish he went through (i.e., getting his ear cut off and having petrol thrown over him and about to be set alight). So, even though he might have had good reason for supposing him dead, he never gave him up. One might argue that he knew that even this information wouldn't save him from being killed (note Nice Guy Eddies' very 'take it for granted tone' that they were going to kill him, "We're not going to let him now he's seen our faces"), but even in last ditch desperation he didn't give him up. So I interpret this as being yet more evidence for the points of view propounded above: the cop was only briefly introduced to Orange, and yet remains loyal to his colleague, even though to grass may very well have prolonged his life. When you think about it, it was an extremely brave thing to be able to do i.e keep quiet and not start shouting "It's him, him", sort of thing, even in a panic, which is what I'd have been doing before they even started asking.


Click here to visit Glen Byrnes' Home Page