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Honor Among Thieves

By Drew Morton | Pajiba Blockbusters | August 11, 2009 | Comments ()


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We're roughly two weeks out from the debut of punch-drunk cinephile Quentin Tarantino's latest film Inglorious Basterds (2009), more than enough time for Pajiba to offer up a retrospective of his six previous films. Tarantino's career, in my subjective opinion, reached its apex 12 years ago with the release of Jackie Brown (1997). Ever since then, he has fallen prey to his idiosyncratic obsessions that he mistakes for belonging to the general populace. Sure, there's entertaining moments in the Kill Bill (2003-2004) films and the car chase in Death Proof (2007) is phenomenal. Yet, there once was a time when critics, myself included, found much to praise about his films: the performances, the dialogue, the playful narrative structure. Now, we're stuck with the memory of a scene or two, diamonds in the barren rough of hollow genre pastiche.

Before Tarantino reached the point of eclectic redundancy, he hit a cinematic grand slam, beginning with his debut film Reservoir Dogs (1992). Dogs is a film that not only displays the beginning of Tarantino's directorial pre-occupations (for better and for worse) but, overall, is also a film about honor among thieves and the downfall that occurs when that honor becomes compassion. I'll begin with the first point: Reservoir Dogs as example of everything that would become Tarantinoesque. Tarantino, like one of his filmmaking heroes, Jean-Luc Godard (see my review of Contempt), is a filmmaker obsessed with genre mechanisms and Reservoir Dogs is no exception. The bulk of the film takes place after a bumbled jewelry store robbery in which four crooks, Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), and Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), await the arrival of their employers (Chris Penn and noir-tough guy Lawrence Tierney) while trying to sniff out the identity of a rat in their midst. On the surface, Dogs is a heist-thriller (on par with The Asphalt Jungle or Le Cercle Rouge). Yet, significantly, Tarantino shapes the narrative in which the heist is omitted. By leaving the heist outside of the film's structure (except dialogue allusions and brief glimpses of the getaway), Tarantino, like Godard in Breathless (À Bout de Souffle, 1960), focuses our attention to an under-represented characteristic of the thriller: the characters.

Structure and characterization, both on the page and via Tarantino's direction of actors and actresses, are two areas where his work tends to shine and Reservoir Dogs is perhaps one of the best examples of that. The performances of Keitel, Roth, and Madsen are extremely well honed. Madsen, of course, plays the film's psychopathic Mr. Blonde, a man whose most grievous actions are only spoken about. When he emerges at the end of the first-act, his deadpan delivery of Tarantino's dialogue and his body language perfectly foreshadow what we later realize he is capable of with a straight razor. Madsen aside, the friendship that emerges between Keitel and Roth is incredibly genuine given Keitel's performance during the film's opening moments. Keitel holds the wounded Roth's hand and reassures him that he'll live to see another day. Roth's performance is difficult to evaluate, due to the fact that he spends most of the film screaming in anguishing pain or passed out on the floor of a safe house. Moreover, he's playing an undercover cop, a man whose profession is one elaborate performance. Yet, Roth's police officer is so incredibly effective at the role (as his commode story will later prove) that we're shocked when he guns down an innocent woman with a trembling hand and teary eye.

This evaluation of Keitel and Roth's performances brings me to Tarantino's script. Over the years, I've felt as if Tarantino's writing has devolved. Every character, regardless of their background or life-experience, has begun to sound identical (which is to say they all sound like how we would expect Quentin Tarantino to write). Re-watching Reservoir Dogs, I could see some of the seedlings of this devolution present, particularly in the characters' exchanges regarding popular culture, but I was also shocked that it was not as rampant as I had remembered it. Take, for instance, the scene in which Mr. White describes Mr. Blonde's actions:

MR. WHITE: This is what he was doing. (Puts his hand in the form of a gun and points it around the room with each "Bam!") Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. MR. BLONDE: Yeah, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam. I told 'em not to touch the alarm, they touched it. If they hadn't done what I told 'em not to do, they'd still be alive. MR. WHITE: (Clapping.) My fucking hero.

In this exchange, we note the distinct difference between White and Blonde's diction. Blonde clips off portions of words and stumbles over his response to White, which White sarcastically mocks. While some might write off all the characters and Tarantino's dialogue being identical in its adherence to being "too cool for school," I think there's a major difference here that Tarantino begins to dilute with each subsequent film.

This discussion of character brings me to the final topic of reflection. As I noted earlier, Dogs is not a film about a heist but places its attention onto the characters, which in the end serves the film's main cautionary message: honor among thieves should not become compassion among thieves. The Mexican stand-off ending of the film is purely the product of Mr. White's ill-fated friendship to Mr. Orange. The crew's employers, Nice Guy Eddie (Penn) and Joe (Tierney), attempt to keep this from becoming a possibility by assigning aliases and encouraging the crew now to talk about anything personal. Even Mr. Pink chastises White regarding the virtues of criminal professionalism. Yet, Mr. White allows his affection for Orange to blind his judgment to the possibility that Orange is the rat, recklessly allowing his emotions to spur the climax's violent confrontation.

This cautionary message is the guiding force behind the film and one of the reasons I find it so incredibly refreshing. The trope of honor among thieves exists in nearly every crime film, from Michael Mann's Heat (1995) to the ethical code of Ocean's Twelve (2004). Yet, Tarantino's take on it is not only rewarding to those familiar with the conventions of the genre but original in its execution. I find it lamentable that Tarantino's use of genre over the years has become predictable and stale. While one can find those qualities in Reservoir Dogs in hindsight, I would still argue that it's a superbly crafted piece of film.

Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.







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