Reservoir Dogs is a 1992 crime film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. It stars Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi, Chris Penn, Michael Madsen, and Lawrence Tierney. A neo-noir film, it is to a large extent inspired by The Killing by Stanley Kubrick.
With Pulp Fiction, True Romance, and Natural Born Killers, Reservoir Dogs helped cement Tarantino’s reputation as a fresh, new talent. This is especially so with respect to his scriptwriting, given its rapid-fire dialogue–that is, the pornographic profanity, the breaking of politically-correct taboos (i.e., Tarantino’s fetishizing of such slurs as “nigger”), as well as the embracing of gratuitous violence, and the plethora of pop culture references.
Here are some quotes:
“Let me tell you what Like a Virgin is about. It’s all about a girl who digs a guy with a big dick. The entire song. It’s a metaphor for big dicks.” –Mr. Brown (Tarantino)
“Shit, you shoot me in a dream, you better wake up and apologize.” –Mr. White (Keitel)
Nice Guy Eddie (Penn): C’mon, throw in a buck!
Mr. Pink (Buscemi): Uh-uh, I don’t tip.
Nice Guy Eddie: You don’t tip?
Mr. Pink: I don’t believe in it.
Nice Guy Eddie: You don’t believe in tipping?
Mr. Blonde (Madsen): Nobody’s going anywhere.
Mr. White: [about Mr. Blonde] Piss on this fucking turd! [To Mr. Pink] We’re outta here.
Mr. Blonde: Don’t take another step, Mr. White.
Mr. White: [screams] Fuck you maniac! It’s your fuckin’ fault we’re in so much trouble.
Mr. Blonde: [calmly to Mr. Pink] What’s this guy’s problem?
Mr. White: What’s my problem? Yeah, I gotta problem. I gotta big fuckin’ problem with any trigger-happy madman who almost gets me shot!
Mr. Blonde: What the fuck are you talking about?
Mr. White: That fucking shooting spree in the store, remember?
Mr. Blonde: [shrugs] Fuck ’em. They set off the alarm. They deserved what they got.
Mr. White: You almost killed me! ASSHOLE! If I had any idea what type of guy you were, I never would’ve agreed to work with you.
Mr. Blonde: Are you gonna bark all day, little doggie, or are you gonna bite?
Mr. White: What was that? I’m sorry I didn’t catch that. Would you repeat it?
Mr. Blonde: Are you gonna bark all day, little doggie, or are you gonna bite? [throws away his drink]
Joe (Tierney): Here are your names… [pointing to each respective member] Mr. Brown, Mr. White, Mr. Blonde, Mr. Blue, Mr. Orange, and Mr. Pink.
Mr. Pink: Why am I Mr. Pink?
Joe: Because, you’re a faggot, alright?! [Mr. Brown laughs]
Mr. Brown: Yeah, but Mr. Brown? That’s a little too close to Mr. Shit.
Mr. Pink: Mr. Pink sounds like Mr. Pussy.
“I’m hungry. Let’s get a taco.” –Mr. White, to Mr. Orange
“The man you just killed was just released from prison. He got caught at a company warehouse full of hot items. He could’ve fuckin’ walked. All he had to do was say my dad’s name, but he didn’t; he kept his fucking mouth shut. And did his fuckin’ time, and he did it like a man. He did four years for us. So, Mr. Orange, you’re tellin’ me this very good friend of mine, who did four years for my father, who in four years never made a deal, no matter what they dangled in front of him, you’re telling me that now, that now this man is free, and we’re making good on our commitment to him, he’s just gonna decide, out of the fucking blue, to rip us off? Why don’t you tell me what really happened?” –‘Nice Guy’ Eddie, about Mr. Blonde
I see this film as an allegory of the contradictions between different facets of capitalism, similar to my analysis of The French Connection. The LAPD cops represent the state-regulated version of capitalism; and Joe Cabot, his son, “Nice Guy” Eddie, and the six men hired to rob a jewelry store of diamonds, represent the deregulated, “free market” version. Both groups are after a coveted commodity, and both groups use violence to get it. Recall that I see the mafia (criminal businesses) as symbolic of capitalism, and the police, of course, protect the bourgeois state.
The story takes place in the early 1990s, around the time of the dissolution of the USSR (not that Tarantino, filming in 1991, would likely have known that that dissolution was coming, of course, but it’s still an interesting coincidence). Pop culture references are made to music from the 1970s (i.e., the nostalgic K-Billy [KBLY] radio station) and the 1980s (Madonna songs), as well as to 60s and 70s movies (with Lee Marvin and Pam Grier) and TV shows (Get Christie Love! and Baretta). The 70s and 80s were a time when regulated capitalism in the US was beginning to cede to the “free market.” Nostalgia going as far back as the 60s suggests a desire to go back to a happier time.
Along with this symbolism of the economic shift to the right is a cultural shift in that direction, heard in the characters’ casually racist, sexist, and homophobic remarks.
Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” is described by Mr. Brown exclusively in terms of macho phallicism, when the actual metaphor for the song is the hymen (or rather, the simile for the song is virgin). Madonna herself wrote to Tarantino in response to his amusing, but ultimately wrong, interpretation of her song: “Quentin, it’s about love, not dick.” While it’s certainly entertaining hearing Brown talk about how the “fuck-machine” apparently felt vaginal pain during sex with the “John Holmes motherfucker,” the fact that she sings, “Feels so good inside” doesn’t exactly help Brown’s argument.
This macho rejection of a “sensitive,” “nice fella” represents a moving away from the cultural ideals of the 1960s and 70s, which was in its beginning stages in the 1990s, but would soon balloon into the aggravated hyper-masculinity of people like Roosh V today.
An early example of the casual racism of these thieves is how Mr. White gets annoyed with Joe about his old address book and talking about a Chinese girl named “Toby”; White calls her “Toby Jap I-don’t-know-what,” ignorant of any differences between Chinese and Japanese.
Now, this kind of off-colour language may have been humorous and understandable on some level at the time, that is, as an inevitable reaction to the strident political correctness prevalent in the late 1980s and early 90s; but when allowed to slide as it has since then, it’s a slippery slope from the mere verbal naughtiness of back then to the blatant, shameless white nationalism and neofascism of today, as seen in the recent shootings and the rise of the far right in the US, Ukraine, Brazil, Poland, and elsewhere.
Next, Mr. Pink discusses why he doesn’t tip. He says he doesn’t tip “automatically” just because “society says [he has] to,” but he will “give them something extra” if the waitresses “really put forth the effort.” This is the essence of the bourgeois attitude to the worker: try to get as much work out of the proletariat as possible, but also pay them as little as possible.
Granted, all the other men at the table (save Mr. Orange, who we don’t yet know is an undercover cop), personifying “free market” capitalism in my allegory, argue in favour of tipping; but this variation only goes to show you how, as Ha-Joon Chang argued in 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, there is no one objective definition of the “free market.” There are as many different lines to draw where ‘legitimate taxation and regulation’ (i.e., to limit profitability) ends as there are market fundamentalists.
Furthermore, the whole concept of tipping has historically been a ploy used by bosses to keep hourly wages as low as possible, especially for blacks and women, so even the ‘generosity’ of the other tipping men isn’t as altruistic as it might seem. Mr. Pink is simply the extreme version of the right-wing libertarian, who in his saying “society says you have to [tip waitresses]” sounds as though he means ‘socialism says you have to pay workers more.’
Pink is annoyed that, as a former minimum-wage worker, he had a job not “deemed tip-worthy”; so instead of showing solidarity with shafted workers, he’d rather support a “free market” version of the same capitalism that’s shafted him and waitresses. Indeed, he imagines that, just because the waitresses are making minimum wage (which, incidentally, can be as low as $2.13 an hour!), “these ladies aren’t starving to death.” Not taken into account is the fact that wages have stagnated since the 1970s, while the cost of living has steadily risen since then. What’s worse, Clinton would kill welfare several years after the making of this film.
Libertarian Pink is opposed to how “the government fucks [waitresses] in the ass on a regular basis” by taxing their tips, but he won’t “help out with the rent.” (Pink has missed out on his true calling: he should have been a landlord.) Note how, in Pink’s opinion, it’s government, and not the capitalists who control the government, that is at fault–a typical libertarian argument.
Mr. Orange, as an undercover cop who–in my allegory–represents the state-regulated version of capitalism, is “convinced” of Pink’s argument and wants his dollar back; here we see how blurred the line is between so-called corporatist and “free market” ideology.
As the men walk outside the restaurant and go off to commit the robbery in that iconic slow-motion scene, we hear the song “Little Green Bag,” by George Baker Selection. The song is about the wish to acquire American dollars, not weed! (“Lookin’ back on the track for a little greenback,” etc. One is “Lookin’ for some happiness” of the kind that money is believed to give people.) So, properly understood, this song is a perfect soundtrack to a movie about an attempt to acquire diamonds.
The thieves would steal diamonds to exchange them for greenbacks, another exchange value. Commodities as exchange values are what capitalism is all about: one produces commodities for profit and accumulation, not to provide use-values for people, this latter goal being what we socialists want.
And just so we’re clear, the jewelry stores that acquire and sell diamonds aren’t exactly innocent, either; nor are the police who protect the interests of the owners of those stores. All too often, diamonds are mined by African slaves, those “damn niggers” the thieves keep denigrating.
We see the preparations for the robbery. We see its aftermath: but we never see the robbery itself. Capitalism, in its regulated or deregulated forms, similarly conceals such things as theft of wages (e.g., tipping, or lack of tipping, to allow bosses to overwork and underpay workers in the service industry), imperialist plunder of resources in the Third World (e.g., those diamonds in Africa), and concentration of wealth upwards to the 1%.
Mr. Brown dies with blood in his eyes from a gunshot (a similar fate happens to Clarence Worley, who dies with blood in his eyes, in the original script for True Romance [p. 128], Tarantino having identified with Clarence [p. x]). At the end of the film, Joe says Mr. Blue is “dead as Dillinger,” a role played by a young Tierney in 1945.
Mr. Orange is dying from a gunshot in the belly. Mr. White tries to comfort him as he drives him to the rendezvous, a warehouse Joe owns. White lays Orange on the floor in the warehouse; Orange is bleeding profusely, but White doesn’t even attempt to clean or dress the wound by making an improvised bandage out of, say, his shirt. Granted, we may not expect a thief to know how to make a proper bandage, but Mr. White could at least try to make one!
Instead, White says he can’t do anything for Orange, but as soon as Joe appears, White promises he’ll urge their boss to get a doctor for Orange. Since these characters represent neoliberal capitalism in my allegory, their pitifully inadequate response to Orange’s dying can be seen to represent the utter failure that is the American healthcare system, the only non-universal healthcare system in the First World.
Pink storms into the warehouse, already convinced that someone has set them up by informing the police of the planned heist. The ensuing inability of the thieves to trust each other is symbolic of the alienation that capitalism causes: instead of trying to help each other (the “solidarity” that, ironically, Pink pleads for, but which neoliberal politics will always preclude), everyone is fighting.
When we see police in their uniforms enforcing the law, we see a quasi-fascistic authoritarianism imposing its will on us. In the case of the thieves, however, we see a similar, if not even greater, uniformity and rigid following of rules: the six men wear identical black suits, with white shirts, thin black neckties, and black sunglasses–in effect, a uniform; furthermore, they must refer to each other only by their colour names. Not only must they never reveal their real names, the six mutual strangers must never reveal any personal information about themselves.
These personifications of libertarianism and neoliberalism, ironically, are more rigid and oppressive with rules that most of us are, even cops; they’re also more mutually alienated from not being allowed to get to know each other. Bosses Joe and Eddie are free to wear whatever they want, to be addressed by their real names, and to discuss whatever they want, but then again…they’re the bosses, not the grunts doing the difficult work and heavy lifting.
Pink and White discuss the violent excesses of Mr. Blonde, who we learn is a trigger-happy psychopath who has shot and killed a number of innocent bystanders at the jewelry store, his reason being that the alarm was set off by one of them. When Pink is contemplating which of the men could have tipped off the police, he’s sure that Blonde can’t possibly be the rat, since he’s “too fuckin’ homicidal to be workin’ with the cops” (an odd observation to make, given how trigger-happy way too many cops are). Furthermore, it’s telling how Pink, personifying an extreme version of libertarian capitalism in my allegory, considers a psychopath to be on the level.
Indeed, Pink outdoes the other thieves in their callous attitude toward dying Orange by adamantly refusing to help White (the only thief who halfway cares about Orange) take him to a hospital, all because White went “against the rules” by telling Orange his real name (Larry) and where he is from.
As we’re drawn into the world of these characters, from Orange’s injury to Pink’s fears of a set-up, then to the introductions to the backgrounds of White, Blonde, and Orange, and finally to Officer Marvin Nash (Kirk Baltz) pleading for his life when Blonde–having slashed his face and cut off his ear–prepares to burn him alive, we find ourselves actually sympathizing with these men.
As with the temptation to sympathize with D-FENS (Michael Douglas) in Falling Down, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to sympathize too much with these thieves and murderers, as charming as they may be in their idiosyncrasies and their wit. For that’s the thing about the whole resurgence of the right ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union: there’s a charismatic appeal to notions of ‘individual liberty,’ something that actually translates to licence, which in turn is used for selfish ends.
Since I allegorize Reservoir Dogs as a conflict between the regulated (cops) and deregulated (thieves) versions of capitalism, I find the film cleverly lures us into caring for these criminals and cops, these symbols of oppression in the world (as does Falling Down with D-FENS). Not that it’s these films’ intention to do so, of course; I imagine the writers and directors are trying to do a kind of psychological experiment on the audience, to see where our loyalties truly lie.
This leads to a discussion of the major themes of this film: loyalty and betrayal. White has been trying to show loyalty to Orange by insisting that Eddie call a doctor to help Orange, all the time not knowing that Orange, an undercover cop, has betrayed them all.
Joe and Eddie are touched by Mr. Blonde’s loyalty when he, “caught in a warehouse full of hot items,” never betrayed Joe and Eddie, “no matter what [the cops] dangled in front of him.” Again, psychopathic Blonde, or “Toothpick Vic,” is deemed “a good fella” by his capitalist mafia bosses.
If, Dear Reader, you think my allegorizing of the conflict between the cops and thieves, as representing the contradictions of capitalism, is just me imposing a Marxist agenda on the film, consider the thieves’ extensive use of language related to capitalism: job, “do some real work,” business, boss, professionals, etc. As with The Godfather, I equate the mafia with capitalists; that the police, in protecting bourgeois private property, protect the capitalist class, should be too obvious to need elaborating on.
Nostalgia not only for 60s and 70s music, movies, and TV, but also for comic books that originated in the 1960s (The Fantastic Four, The Silver Surfer), represents a wish to escape the ugly realities of today, to go back to a time before neoliberalism took root.
Mr. Orange, or Freddy Newendyke, meets with Holdaway, the only black person in the whole movie, to discuss the plan to slip Freddy in with the thieves and set them up. Holdaway is wearing a Maoist cap and a red Che Guevara shirt: I’m not about to say that he represents communism, as tempting as that would be.
He’s a left-leaning liberal dressed that way to look edgy, as far as I’m concerned. His involvement with the police set-up is not even symbolically like a socialist revolution; in helping the police, Holdaway is on the side of those I allegorize as representing the regulated version of capitalism. Holdaway represents reform, not revolution. Lots of moderate leftists (e.g., social democrats) work within the system to curb its excesses without making the fundamental changes needed, all while posing as radicals.
While Holdaway is posing as a radical in those clothes, so is Freddy posing in front of Joe and Eddie, pretending to be a thief with an amusing anecdote about selling a bag of marijuana and almost being caught with it by police in the men’s room. This being of one political persuasion, while acting as if being of another, represents how slippery all reactionary politics are. In order to preserve the class structure of society, the liberal will on one occasion pose as a radical progressive (Holdaway), and on another occasion pose as a libertarian (Freddy as Mr. Orange). Betrayers by definition pretend to be loyal.
In this reactionary world, people other than white males tend to be marginalized, as we see in a movie with an almost all white male cast. The only two women we see, in exceedingly brief roles, are in cars–one stolen by Pink, the other by White and Orange–we don’t even really see the women’s faces (in a deleted scene, a woman named Jodie works with Freddy and Holdaway–pages 80-82 in the script).
The police in “the commode story” prove to be every bit as crude and offensive in their language as the thieves (i.e., the cop who mentions the “sexy Oriental bitch”; this same cop threatens to shoot her boyfriend “in the face”). In my allegory, regulated capitalism (the police) isn’t much kinder than the deregulated variety (the thieves).
Now, the blurry distinction that I see between regulated and deregulated capitalism is seen as much more sharply distinct from the point of view of the people in these opposed pairings. Hence, as Orange watches, with a pained expression, White shooting the cops in the car pursuing them, Orange feels as though he is betraying those cops because he can’t blow his cover and shoot White. Blonde’s torturing of Nash, however, pushes Orange over the line. He must show at least one instance of loyalty to the cops, and so he shoots Blonde.
When Eddie, Pink, and White return to the warehouse at the end of the movie, Orange has to fake loyalty by making up an excuse for killing Blonde by claiming he was going to kill them all and steal the diamonds. Eddie, knowing Blonde’s tested and true loyalty to him and his father, knows Orange must be lying, and therefore Orange is the one who has actually betrayed the thieves.
Here we see the conflict and contradiction between loyalty and betrayal, all coming to a head. White, feeling responsible for Orange’s having been shot, can’t accept the idea that he is the traitor. With Joe now among them and pointing a gun at Orange, the ensuing Mexican standoff of White pointing a gun at Joe and Eddie pointing a gun at White, underscores this extreme contradiction of loyalty and disloyalty.
White wants to stay loyal to Joe (“Goddamn you, Joe. Don’t make me do this.”), but not at Orange’s expense; this tension goes double for Eddie and his loyalty to his father over his friendship with Mr. White (“Larry, it’s been a long time, a lot of jobs. We’ve been through a lot of shit. You respect my father and I respect you, but I will put bullets in your heart if you don’t put that fucking gun down now.”).
After all three shoot each other (Joe having shot Orange), Orange must admit to his hitherto protector, now-wounded Larry, that he’s really Freddy…a cop. The betrayer must admit his guilt to the man who is about to stop being loyal to him.
The movie ends with a novelty song by Nilsson called “Coconut.” The lines, “Doctor, ain’t there nothing I can take…to relieve this belly ache?” remind us, as a form of black comedy, of Mr. Orange’s bullet in the gut. The song’s story is of a “silly woman” who mixes lime in a coconut, drinks it (to treat a stomachache), and feels worse instead of better; then in the middle of the night she calls an exasperated, reluctant doctor for help, getting him out of bed. He prescribes the very lime in the coconut drink to treat the stomachache that it causes. Thus, the song reminds us of how Orange never gets the medical help he needs…just as how so many poor Americans never get it.
Consider the following: the intermixing of police with criminals (Freddy’s undercover work); the police’s knee-jerk shooting of people (Freddy’s immediate shooting of the woman who’s shot him; the cops shooting Larry immediately after he’s shot Freddy), showing that the homicidal cops are in principle no better than the criminals they’re chasing; the cops’ use of crude, offensive language (Holdaway referring to “that invisible bitch“); and finally, all this struggle over diamonds (mined either by African slaves, or in all likelihood at least, by an exploited, overworked, and underpaid Third World proletariat; that is, the full fruit of their labour has been stolen from them).
The ‘legitimate’ capitalists that the cops work for, therefore, are no less thieves than Joe’s criminal gang. The cops fight one group of thieves to protect another group of thieves. All these considerations show how blurred the distinction really is between, essentially, two capitalist mafia organizations–those who obey and enforce bourgeois laws, and those who disobey them. Still, people imagine there’s a huge difference between conservatives and liberals: believers, respectively, in the deregulated and regulated versions of capitalism.
The obeyers (cops and their capitalists) and disobeyers (Joe’s men) in this film thus can easily be compared, respectively, to the kind of ‘left-leaning’ Keynesian capitalist who regulates the economy to curb the excesses that an unbridled market results in, and that very right-wing, unregulated “free market” that leads to the chaos, violence, alienation, suffering, and death that has resulted after this latter form of capitalism really came into its own–right around the time of Reservoir Dogs‘s release in January, 1992.
Clowns to the “left” of us, jokers to the right: here we are, stuck in the middle with them.
Quentin Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs, Faber and Faber, London, 1996