Since coming to uni I’ve rewatched a bunch of Quentin Tarantino movies, and while his later stuff is lots of fun, I still think his opening hat trick as a director are probably his best work. Pulp Fiction is far and away my favourite QT movie, but I have lots of love for this flick too.
It has all of his trademarks as a writer and director, but is possibly his most pared down, tightly paced movie. Of late he’s kind of let his films get away from him a little and while they’re still hugely entertaining you feel that he could do with being a bit more ruthless in the cutting room. But that doesn’t come into play here, he may play with the timeline, but it still unfolds at an engaging, tense pace and nothing feels unnecessary.
The movie shows us the build up to and fall out from a botched diamond robbery, with the major players trying to work out which one of them is the rat who tipped off the cops and a bit of their background is revealed.
It kicks off with the guys bickering and bantering over breakfast, debating the meaning of Madonna lyrics and attitudes towards tipping. The dialogue has the standard Tarantino feel, it’s all immensely quotable, pop culture savvy profanity and funny lines. The guys strut off to the job and then we jump to the aftermath.
Tarantino structures the film brilliantly with the leap to the seriously injured Mr Orange (Tim Roth) screaming in the back seat of a car totally throwing the first-time viewer. Orange is being driven to the arranged rendezvous point by White (Harvey Keitel), who does his best to reassure the injured man.
Other members of the gang arrive, Pink (Steve Buscemi) and Blonde (Michael Madsen), and they piece together what happened. Pink is the one who works out that they were ratted out it’s not long before tensions boil over among the crooks as suspicion takes hold.
Worsening the situation is the fact that “professional” White doesn’t agree with the actions of the unhinged Blonde who started shooting in the jewelry store and who he regards as a psycho. It’s not long before this turns out to be an accurate assessment.
Michael Madsen’s performance as the group’s loose cannon is mesmerizing, and he’s central to the movie’s most notorious sequence, where he tortures a kidnapped police officer, although it seems more for enjoyment than information. Madsen has such an aura of quiet menace throughout that he is genuinely terrifying in this scene, even as he dad-dances to Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You”.
The scene is unsettling and unpleasant, but the best touch is the fact that at the moment of ear removal the camera looks away in much the same way as the audience is doing. It’s a great example of restraint and quality film making, and Tarantino then undercuts the moment by including an incredibly dark joke.
This jet black humour flows throughout the film, and there are some genuinely laugh out loud moments in the script. Many of these come from the fantastic script, which is loaded with wonderful dialogue and exchanges, and also allows the colour coded characters a chance to show more of their background. The colour themed names is lifted from The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, but Tarantino uses it to write a very funny scene where they argue about which colours they’ve been given (“Why can’t we pick our own colours?” “No way, no way. Tried it once, doesn’t work. You get four guys all fighting over who’s gonna be Mr Black”)
We get flashbacks to the job being set up and a bit of the back story is sketched in for some of the gang, but the lack of detail and withholding of information is a nice touch as it means the audience is unsure of what the suited men are capable of and who the rat is.
The performances are brilliant across the board, the stand out being Harvey Keitel as the tough veteran hood White. Keitel has an easy likability in the flashbacks where he gives advice to Orange and chats with the others, but there’s a constant sense that he’s a badass. There’s a sense he’s a mix of two different instincts- he shares Pink’s “professional” attitude although doesn’t take as much pride in it as the younger man, and is slightly more old school and warm in his fierce loyalty and warped code of honour.
He defends Orange to the last, even going against his old friend Joe (Lawrence Tierney), the job’s organizer. Keitel handles the simmering tensions well and gives the character a cold ruthlessness in the way that he takes out enemies in the shoot outs. But there’s also a sweet tenderness in how he looks after his injured partner in crime.
It’s a tough, bruising film but it’s also an example of Tarantino actually being able to engage the audience emotionally. Aided by great performances by Masden and Chris Penn as Joe’s son Nice Guy Eddie, he quickly creates the impression of friendship with the two having genuine warmth for each under the macho posturing, and Eddie’s reaction to his friend’s death is believable.
The tension ratchets up towards a tense stand off, with White facing down against Joe and Eddie, only to discover afterwards he’s been protecting the rat throughout. These men barely know each other, but the betrayal and White’s anguish is a genuine kick in the guts for the audience and the finale is devastating.
While his later work especially Django Unchained and Kill Bill were extremely fun, I kind of wish Tarantino would do a smaller, tighter movie like this, dealing more with the characters than the OTT gore.
All in all this is a great genre flick, a tough, gripping crime thriller helped by great performances and a fantastic script loaded with great lines and jet black humour.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.