Torture, Tipping and Context in ‘Reservoir Dogs’

Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs opens with a now expected conversation piece — suited-up gangsters sit inside Johnnie’s Coffee Shop, yapping about thematic penises in “Like a Virgin” and the social expectation of tipping waitresses. It’s superficial on a surface level, but as its director has shown again and again, Reservoir Dogs offers an invitation to study these chum scrubbers below all the pop cultural subterfuge. Of course, some context is needed to truly care about any of these guys, and Reservoir Dogs is a precise exercise in exactly that, presented like a bottled stage play and stripped down to its raw elements: character, setting, and most importantly, context.

Context? Objectively speaking, yeah no crap. Unless we’re talking about Chris Marker shorts, when doesn’t context matter to a movie’s success? (e.g. Ready to Rumble excels as a pro-wrestling comedy when the viewer’s already acquainted with the frenzied Y2K culture Scott Caan and David Arquette’s characters are born out of.)

Of course context is important. And Tarantino’s freshman debut, clunky and a little wooden in hindsight, is nonetheless a satisfying exercise in showing why context matters so much.

Go back to that scene in Johnnie’s Coffee Shop, where the camera slinks around Misters Pink and Blonde, Blue and Orange, Brown and White, around Joe and “Nice Guy” Eddie. They’re all there, and they’re all talking. Some sport skinny ties and dark suits, business formal by gangster standards. We’re thrown right into BS conversations, but we have little reason to care, regardless of how compelling the chit-chat is.

After a self-indulgent opening credit sequence, K Billy’s “Super Sounds of the 70’s” kicks on and now Mr. Orange is bleeding his guts out in the backseat. It looks painful, and judging from Tim Roth’s anguished Kermit moans, it sounds like it, too. All the while Mr. White’s driving and performing shorthand triage. It’s very messy and, like the diner conversation, engaging.

But again, we have little reason to care about these guys. That is until a flashback to Mr. White, where the small-time serial criminal meets with mastermind Joe Cabot and his son Eddie to discuss this diamond heist. We learn White’s originally from Detroit and that he recently ended a string of robberies with a woman who may or may not be Patricia Arquette in True Romance. It’s the first of many flashbacks, and although it’s the briefest, White’s shit-shootin’ with Joe and Eddie is enough of a taste to strangely endear us to him — inasmuch as a serial robbing cop killer can.

Of course, “cop killer” is all relative. Tarantino cuts back to a similar rendezvous with the Cabots, but this time they’re meeting with Mr. Blonde. Fresh out of the joint after laying down on a plea bargain, Blonde receives Joe’s gratitude for not rolling over on him and even goes a little Greco-Roman with Eddie on the office floor. Had we only listened to White’s protests of Mr. Blonde as a cop-killing “psychopath,” we’d never learn about his foibles with Officer Scagnetti, about Blonde’s loyalty to the Cabots’ criminal ring and his allegiance to Eddie and Joe. Torturing a cop within an inch of his life undoes any hope of truly liking Madsen’s character, but Tarantino’s withholding of his background adds another dimension to his madness.

At its essence, Reservoir Dogs’ amounts to little more than a couple of crooks sniffing out a “rat” after a botched diamond store robbery, and most of its runtime, that rat remains a mystery. Until Tarantino tips his hand with a hefty bit of Orange’s backstory.

“Listen to me, Marvin Nash. I’m a cop.”

It’s completely appropriate that the point at which Tarantino’s vision comes into focus begins at the heels of Reservoir Dogs’ most disturbing moment. Mr. Orange, the pale sad sack who’s been bleeding on the warehouse floor, is actually a part of an undercover operation to take down Joe Cabot. He’s our “rat,” and he’s worked damn hard to play ball.

Orange rehearses his cover story with his police handler. (and makes a pretty terrific “The Thing” joke.) He pumps himself up for a first meeting with Joe through the help of a leather jacket and a pep talk by way of Travis Bickle. He gains the trust of Joe, Eddie, and Mr. White by recounting an amusing (and completely fabricated) drug deal. Orange struts more of that pop culture knowledge with a car ride debate over Pam Grier. Eventually, he befriends White, who later reveals his real name is Larry. It’s disheartening to see a glimpse of a great rapport completely obliterated by Orange’s lie, one we’d never have known if Tarantino never said it.

Except Orange tells Larry himself. The man he’s cared after, andd whose honor he’s defended by killing old friends, is the “fucking rat.” Harvey Keitel sells Larry’s reaction, as much of exhaustion as it is of anger, and Orange’s true identity — as Freddy Newandyke — repaints so much of what’s preceded it. The earless Marvin Nash’s silence in the face of death; the reason those cops got the jump on everyone; even back at Johnnie’s, Orange is the one to rat on Pink not tipping.

Reservoir Dogs is an intimate, bloody affair of divulging the dirt and a raunchy dissection of context. It’s the same reason its score is only diegetic music from a local DJ. Inside that abandoned warehouse, a Mexican standoff between White, Joe, and “Nice Guy” Eddie is as brief as it is an epic flurry of hellfire. Outside the warehouse? It’s just another sunny day in California, and those witty assholes yapping about Madonna back at Johnnie’s are still just that to the rest of Los Angeles — when it’s kept in the dark, at least. Put the lime in the coconut and call me in the morning.