“Reservoir Dogs” is a film built on tension. The dialog, the fractured narrative, what’s withheld from the characters, what’s withheld from the viewer — added up, it makes the film always feel on the verge of erupting into pure, visceral violence.
The plot of Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 feature-length debut — a broken-up heist that throws the characters into a paranoid, bloody frenzy — doesn’t take long to dissolve into madness. Five criminal strangers, all with color-coded names to protect their identities, are recruited by a mutual acquaintance to rob a jeweler. We never see the robbery itself, but it doesn’t matter — when we find out that things went off the rails, it’s through Mr. White driving a gut-shot Mr. Orange back to the rendezvous point to figure out why so many cops seemed to be waiting for them at the jewelry store. When they get to the meet-up, a warehouse where a considerable chunk of the film takes place, they run into Mr. Pink, who’s convinced there’s a rat in their pack.
As they recap what happened — Mr. Brown’s death, that Mr. Blue’s missing in action, Mr. Blonde’s sociopathic rampage that caused the whole thing to go south — it starts to sink in that they’re bordering on being completely fucked. Then Mr. Blonde shows up, the trigger-happy madman who killed unarmed cashiers during the failed job, calm and cold as ice, with a police officer in his trunk. When the other not-near-death members of the heist take off to play clean up, leaving the murderous Mr. Blonde to look after the captured cop, the tension turns up to 11, and that’s where the film becomes unforgettable.
Mr. Blonde, who already has a significant body count accumulated, makes it very clear to this cop that he’s going to be tortured. But, like the rest of the movie, it’s the tension that leads up to the most gruesome moment that truly makes it an uncomfortable viewing experience. It’s not just what he’s going to do, it when he’s going to do it. And like the seasoned sociopath that he is, Blonde has some gimmicks involved with his torture process. He fakes kill shots; he tells him there’s no hope; he mocks him. But what Mr. Blonde, played piercingly by Michael Madsen does so well — the thing that stays burnt into your brain as a viewer — is how well he sells the absurdities in the lead-up. He flips the radio on, checks to make sure the dying Mr. Orange is still unconscious, and, when he’s sure he’s alone with the cop, Blonde starts slowly moving toward his victim, dancing to “Stuck In The Middle With You,” with a disturbing sway, moving with a creepy swagger and a stoic disposition.
At an event to celebrate the 25th anniversary of “Reservoir Dogs,” Madsen was onstage with Tarantino and other stars from the film, and a conversation broke out about the dance.
“You never made me do it in rehearsal because I was so intimidated by it. I didn’t know what to do,” Madsen recalls, to Entertainment Weekly. “In the script, it said, ‘Mr. Blonde maniacally dances around.’ I remember specifically that’s what it said. And I kept thinking, ‘What the f— does that mean? Mick Jagger?'”
It turns out that Madsen didn’t have moves like Jagger, but that was a good thing. When Jagger’s onstage, he oozes charisma, walking around like the coolest person in the room. When Madsen dances as Mr. Blonde in that scene, it radiates “I’m definitely going to cut off a cop’s ear with a knife.” Which, of course, he does. There’s something about his presence that ignites a primal sense of incoming danger. Basically, it took a movie moment that could have been laughable and made it a thing of nightmares. When he cuts the ear off, the camera pans away, not allowing the viewer to see it, which is part of the magic of the film. The scene isn’t about gore or shock value, it was about the twisted shit people are capable of, and how if you make the audience imagine what the most messed up aspects look like, it’s even more powerful than showing them a precise version. There’s really nothing scarier than the imagination.
When you add it all up — Mr. White’s blind sympathy, Mr. Orange’s arrogance, Mr. Blonde’s insanity, Mr. Pink’s paranoia, the fact that no one completely knows what happened to Mr. Blue and Mr. Brown — it’s the perfect storm of quirky, problematic personalities, all trying to squirm out of a desperate situation, toeing the line between loyalty and self-preservation. Instincts and intelligence. Greed and safety.
We all know that Tarantino’s dialogue is special — realistic in the way people go on rants about innocuous shit — but with “Reservoir Dogs” it isn’t the words that are the most important thing. It’s about how you’re waiting for someone to snap, for a bullet to fly out of a gun, for them to cross the Rubicon to the other side of hope. And it’s completely magnetic in that way.