Quentin Tarantino’s feature debut Reservoir Dogs is an astounding single-location thriller that makes the most of its all-star cast and refined script.
Quentin Tarantino has grown to be one of the most well-known and widely-respected directors of his generation, but as hard as it may be to imagine, there was a time when his name meant next to nothing in the film industry. With his directorial debut Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino not only proved that it’s possible to break into Hollywood with little more than a sharp script and a love for the medium, but also that sometimes the most effective stories are those without excessive budgets and large-scale storytelling. With just one room, a well-written story, and some extremely talented actors, Reservoir Dogs goes above and beyond its status as a confined thriller.
In the years since his breakthrough as a writer and director, Tarantino‘s name has been more closely associated with projects such as Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained, and Inglourious Basterds – and while these are all worthy of the endless praise they continue to receive, they admittedly lack the restraint and minimalism that made Reservoir Dogs such a hidden gem. And that’s inevitable when a director breaks out as publicly and internationally as Tarantino did – of course he wanted to get bigger, bolder, and push more boundaries with his storytelling, but there’s something about Reservoir Dogs that shines through its simplicity and ability to make the most of a low budget without sacrificing any of the story beats.
The film follows a group of robbers in the immediate fallout of a heist gone wrong, cooped up in an abandoned warehouse and forced to grapple with the possibility that one of their own could be an undercover cop – and that’s the whole story. It’s so simple to the extent that it sounds comical, but Tarantino has a unique ability to take the most basic of narratives and transform them into something engaging with his non-linear storytelling, off-beat dialogue, and inspired camera tricks that only somebody who’s been watching movies for their entire life could effectively pull off. He understands what makes this story tick, and it’s not the excitement of the heist or the mystery of the undercover agent, but the intensity and hatred that’s birthed from these criminals’ suspicion of each other.
When people talk about Tarantino, it’s often his masterful command of dialogue that’s praised the loudest. It’s something that’s at its most maximalist and overt in projects like Pulp Fiction, where his writing takes on a life of its own and drives the story without anything even happening on screen, but that same talent is present in Reservoir Dogs and it’s the invisible force holding the entire thing together. This narrative just doesn’t work if the audience isn’t buying into these characters and understanding their motivations, but it also doesn’t work if the script spends too much time on exposition and ruining the momentum of the story. So only somebody like Tarantino, who manages to fully explain everything about these criminals through the most deceptively simple conversations, could’ve pulled off Reservoir Dogs, and that’s why it’s so special.
Tarantino’s ability to weave non-linear stories is always impressive, and he does it so subtly and effortlessly in Reservoir Dogs. He understands that it’s near-impossible to maintain the intense momentum that he wanted for 90 minutes without doing something drastic to change pace, and jumping through time to explain this story exactly when certain details needed to be revealed was an excellently inventive way of doing that – and one that filmmakers have been trying to copy for years. The story is so tight and refined, everything is revealed at exactly the right moment to maintain tension, and the audience is left guessing right until the bitter end.
It’s really easy to overlook Reservoir Dogs within Tarantino’s filmography, since it basically achieved all the same things as his later projects but lacks the added stylistic flair that came with an increased budget, but it’s arguably more impressive because it did all that without studio help. The film is a great example of a talented filmmaker giving everything he’s got to a project and proving that creativity doesn’t come from money, opportunities, or the amount of people you know, but rather genuine talent that’s later enhanced by all those things.
Reservoir Dogs is now available to watch on digital and on demand. Read our list of all Quentin Tarantino films ranked from worst to best!