2010s, Auteurs, Biopic, Crime/Detective, Historical, Thriller

The Irishman (2019)

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aka I Heard You Paint Houses

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Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenwriter: Steven Zaillian

By Roderick Heath

And then, more time had passed than anyone realised, and suddenly things we thought perpetual are lost, and the age and its titans that stood in authority became another dusty annal.

The Irishman, directed by Martin Scorsese, now aged 77, stands self-evidently as a work both extending and encompassing a key portion of Scorsese’s legacy, his beloved and perpetually influential mafia movies. The Irishman reunites the director with three actors long connected with his cinema, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel, as well as bringing in a fresh young whippersnapper named Al Pacino. The sharp pang of recognised mortality inherent in The Irishman is given a special cruelty by the way Scorsese’s cinema has long seemed, even in its most contemplative and rarefied moods, like American virility incarnate. The clamour of New York streets, the whiplash effects of urban life’s furore and the human organism in contending with it, the buzz of an era bombarded with cinema and television and advertising, written into the textures of Scorsese’s famous alternations of filmic technique, whip-pans and racing dolly shots colliding with freeze-frames and languorous slow-motion: Scorsese’s aesthetic encephalograph. The Irishman has been described by many as a terminus for the gangster movie. That’s fair in some ways, dealing as it does with a basic and essential matter very often ignored in the genre, what happens when gangsters are lucky enough to get old and die, as well as simply recording a moment when a genre’s stars and a most esteemed creator are facing the end of the road, however distant still.

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But of course, movies set amongst hoodlums and lowlifes are still pretty common, for Scorsese’s bastard artistic children are plentiful and likely to populate the cinematic landscape for a good while yet. What new tricks could the old dog still have to teach? The Irishman answers that question incidentally as it adapts a book by Charles Brandt, recounting the life story of Frank Sheeran. As biography it includes inarguable factual details, like the time Sheeran spent as a World War II soldier, truck driver, and Teamster official jailed for 13 years for racketeering, blended with assertions and conjecture about Sheeran’s involvement with organised crime, most vitally the claim he personally killed Jimmy Hoffa, the legendary former head of the Teamsters union, who vanished in 1975. The tales in Brandt’s book have been disputed, but the appeal to a filmmaker like Scorsese, over and above the inherent drama in such a story, lies in the way Sheeran claims to have grazed against the mechanics of power underlying American history in the mid-twentieth century, and indeed have been part of the mechanism, the finger that pulled triggers but never the levers. The Irishman becomes, amongst many achievements, a unified field theory in regards to the concerns of Hollywood’s New Wave filmmakers, wrestling with the waning memory of a certain age in political and social life, as well as that cinematic era.

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And yet The Irishman is also a project that sees Scorsese negotiating with very contemporary aspects of the moviemaking scene, produced by online streaming giant Netflix and exploiting all the possibilities opened up by such a backer in making a film without compromise, and employing a cutting edge special effects technique, using digital processes to make his lead actors appear younger in sequences depicting their characters in their prime. It’s Scorsese’s longest film to date, a veritable epic in theme and scope even whilst essentially remaining an interpersonal story, arriving as a roughly hemispheric work. The first half, recounting Sheeran’s early encounters with the potentates of the underworld and evolution from scam-running truck driver to hitman and union boss, broadly reproduces the detail-obsessed and gregariously explanatory style of Scorsese’s previous based-on-fact mafia life tales, Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995), if rendered in a much cooler, less compulsive manner. The second half mimics the processes of ageing, slowing down until finally reaching a point of impotent and stranded pathos, ticking off fate-making moments of choice and consequence, contending with the ultimate consequences and meanings of a man’s life actions.

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If The Irishman’s tone and sense of mortal and moral irony suggests Scorsese’s tribute to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), the famous epigraph of which Scorsese reiterates in direct and pungent terms, the method is more reminiscent of Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible Parts I & II (1944-58), as an expansive and surveying first portion sets up a second that proves a dark and immediate personal drama about power and betrayal. The Irishman’s narrative revolves around what seems initially a scarcely notable vignette, with Sheeran and his friend, associate, and boss Russell Bufalino (Pesci), a cool, wary potentate of the Philadelphia mob with great resources of invisible yet definite power, and their wives Irene Sheeran (Stephanie Kurtzuba) and Carrie Bufalino (Kathrine Narducci) striking out on a road trip on the way to attend the wedding of the daughter of Russell’s lawyer brother Bill (Ray Romano) in 1975. Sheeran’s voiceover narration readily concedes there’s a definite pretext to this trip, as Russell wants to collect various debts along the way. But the peculiarly pregnant, tense mood of the journey betrays something else in the offing, a hidden source of tension and expectation, and of course when it comes into focus the implications are terrible. The road trip accidentally doubles as a trip down memory lane, as they pass the scene where Sheeran and Russell first actually met, when Russell helped the young truck driver when he was pulled over with mechanical trouble, sparking an account of their adventures in racketeering.

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The Irishman returns to a motif Scorsese touched on in Shutter Island (2010) in contemplating the mental landscape of the so-called greatest generation of servicemen returned from World War II, men playing at fitting into a suburban world whilst invested with the skills and reflexes of soldiers, all too aware, with niggling import, how thin the membrane between settled life and chaos can be. Sheeran recounts the pathetic details of shooting German POWs with nonchalance, an experience he describes as teaching him to simply accept life and death with an almost Buddhist indifference, only to make sure to be on the right end of the gun. This experience, at once brutalising and transfiguring, proves to have armed Sheeran with not just a skill set but a mindset as well, one that makes him useful to men like the Bufalinos and their associates, including Angelo Bruno (Keitel), and ‘Fat’ Tony Salerno (Domenick Lombardozzi). Sheeran gains his first contacts in the underworld via the lower-ranking Felix ‘Skinny Razor’ DiTullio (Bobby Cannavale), by letting him substitute the high-quality meat Sheeran transports for his restaurant. When a load of meat he’s carrying vanishes before he can steal it himself, Sheeran is prosecuted for the theft. Bill Bufalino successfully defends his case, although he gets sacked from his driving job. After proving himself adept at debt collecting for DiTullio, he gains a more definite connection to Russell and Angelo, who sit in mandarin judgement upon representatives of a tragically unwise world.

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As in Goodfellas and Casino, Sheeran’s narrative expostulates the arts of gangsterdom in a succession of illustrative vignettes, as Sheeran begins to make himself reliable with his army-instilled smarts for sabotage and demolition, making him handy at wiping out rivals’ sources of income and power. Such gifts are illustrated in sequences touched with a sense of the ridiculous, as when Sheeran and some other mobsters try to wipe out an opponent’s taxi fleet by laboriously pushing all the cars into the harbour before Sheeran suggests less arduous means. When he’s hired by a laundry boss Whispers DiTullio (Paul Herman) to destroy a rival laundry only to be brought before Angelo who partly owns the rival, Sheeran is obligated to make amends and shoots Whispers in the face, kicking off his new career as a hitman, or, in coded parlance, a man who “paints houses” with blood. Some of the blackly comic hue Scorsese’s long been able to tease out of such grim situations manifests here as Sheeran notes the building arsenal of used weapons collecting on a river bottom under a bridge popular with folk in his line of work to toss away their used guns. Scorsese avoids the adrenalized fervour of his earlier films, however. For one thing, Frank Sheeran is a different creature to guys like Henry Hill or even Jordan Belfort, who delighted in their status as men apart, challenging law and fate with bravura even as they proved much less tough and canny than they wished to think. Sheeran rather fancies himself as a suburban husband and father with an unusual occupation: the circumstances that eventually make him a hitman stem from the need to feed his growing family.

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Part of what made Scorsese’s canonical gangster films vibrant was the way they offered innately interesting prisms through which to encompass other, more quotidian things difficult to make popular movies about. Friendships, troubled marriages, domestic violence, gender roles, the structure of civic life and the circuits of power that often hide in plain sight. One reason Scorsese has long seemed to have a specific affinity for the genre, to a degree that tends to drown out perception of his varied oeuvre, is because the gangster in his eyes simply represents ordinary people in extremis, bound by peculiar loyalties of family and immediate community, balancing attempts to retain certain ideals whilst contending with a cruel and corrupting world. Rodrigo Prieto’s photography, with a muted, greyish colour palette, gives the most immediate visual clue to the way The Irishman disassembles the template of Scorsese’s earlier gangster works, contrasting their lush, pulpy hues and baroque evocations in favour of something chillier, more remorseless, like the cancer that eats up the flesh and bones of these old bastards in the end.

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Another vital pivot in Sheeran’s life comes when Russell sets up the opportunity to become Hoffa’s enforcer, some hard muscle to back up Hoffa’s battles with rivals and powerbrokers. Sheeran’s first conversation with Hoffa over the phone sees De Niro register with beautiful subtlety the minuscule moment of shock as Sheeran realises Hoffa speaks the rarefied language of mob euphemism, conversant in the harshest facts of such life. But Hoffa manages to retain an avuncular glamour, a sense of righteousness even when swimming with human piranha, through seeming like a general engaged in a long guerrilla war, and he also crucially reaches out to Sheeran as “a brother of mine,” that is, a Teamster. Hoffa isn’t wrong to surround himself with hard men, with lieutenants nominally under his control like Anthony ‘Tony Pro’ Provenzano (Stephen Graham). Sheeran recounts how Pro had a rival underling garrotted in a car, cueing one of the film’s most startling visual flourishes, as the murder is glimpsed as the car moves by a moving camera, yawing mouth in silent scream and struggling bodies glimpsed in a flash and then gone. Pro is just one of many creeps and thugs who parasite off the Teamster organisation, a union built to resist the violent resistance to organised labour from management, but which has required and rewarded mob support to do so. Tension builds between Hoffa and his underworld contacts however as he tries to prevent the Teamster union fund, which bankrolled their casino projects, from devolving entirely into a ready cash pool for wiseguys. When a government investigation of Hoffa sees him imprisoned, the mob becomes more inclined to see the union go on being run by more pliable figures, like Tony Pro and Frank Fitzsimmons (Gary Basaraba).

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Like an updated version of the same analysis in Gangs of New York (2002), Scorsese considers the tribalism of politics and gangland as they form mutually parasitical relationship through their symmetry of outlook and method, disconnected from the real musculature of the workers whose ambitions and desires fuel their empires. Hoffa’s story has already been told comprehensively on film, in Danny DeVito’s overblown but fascinating Hoffa (1992), which rendered his life as an outsized romantic epic and elegy, in complete contrast to Scorsese’s dolorous and nitpicking realism. Hoffa was upfront in exploring the way Hoffa turned to the mafia for support to counter the overt and unsubtle brutality wielded by big business, where here this aspect is more implied and seen as part of an inseparable organism: wherever human energy is turned, and money’s involved, reefs of strange coral grow, and sharks come to live. The great swathe of The Irishman’s plot encompasses titanic figures like John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert (Jack Huston), whose vendetta-like pursuit of Hoffa drives the union boss to distraction, and finally overt acts of petty defiance like refusing to have the Teamster flag lowered after John’s assassination, whilst it’s heavily suggested the mob arranged the assassination in revenge for the Kennedys turning on them after they helped John’s election.

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Such history also grazes minor yet noteworthy supporting players like David Ferrie (Louis Vanaria), interlocutor for the Mafia support for Cuban exiles trying to retake their nation from Castro, and E. Howard Hunt (Daniel Jenkins), CIA agent and eventual Nixon henchman infamous for his role in Watergate, both of whom Sheeran meets delivering equipment to the Cubans. Sheeran’s encounters with such people illuminate in flashes the great puzzle of power Sheeran perceives without really comprehending. They also contain Scorsese’s winking acknowledgement of the way the film encompasses cinematic as well as political history, for Pesci played Ferrie in Stone’s JFK (1991), whilst the personages and events the film touches on have provided bone marrow for a host of serious modern American movies. Such encounters are nonetheless laced with a droll sense of individual ridiculousness and everyday farcicality contaminating all facades and postures. Hunt gets upset when he thinks Sheeran is staring at his infamously big ears. Hoffa’s unwitting ride to his end, a moment of solemn and skittish tension, is tainted by the smell and run-off of a fish his adopted son Chuckie O’Brien (Jesse Plemons) dropped off beforehand for a friend, taunting all the men present with the reek of ludicrous fortune and imminent mortality. Sheeran’s proximity to Hoffa and the generational struggle he represents is the most concrete and meaningful of his brushes with renown, and even sees him write a page of history.

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And yet Sheeran’s presence is actually defined by his absence, his being the incarnation of impersonal power, his carefully maintained readiness to be erased the key to his success as a killer and functionary. There’s an aspect of the self-mortifying and self-annihilating in Sheeran’s makeup, only purveyed for worldly rather than spiritual ends. Hoffa keeps him in his hotel room so his visit to the city for strongarming is completely without record, a trick that’s eventually turned on Hoffa as it’s revealed the true purpose for Sheeran and Russell’s road trip in 1975 is to set up a situation where Sheeran can be flown to Detroit to kill Hoffa. His talents as a killer demand taking some real risks, particularly when he’s sent to take out Joseph ‘Crazy Joe’ Gallo (Sebastian Maniscalco), a strutting, defiant figure of the underworld who happily ignores its laws as much as the straight world’s and who’s had a potentially difficult Teamster boss killed during a rally. Scorsese nods back to the gun purchasing scene in Taxi Driver (1976) as Sheeran selects the ideal weapons for the attack and considers how to pull it off with method. Sheeran elects to kill Gallo in a restaurant, avoiding gunning down his family members about him whilst taking out his bodyguard, before chasing Gallo out to the sidewalk to deliver the coup-de-grace as he’s sprawled on the concrete. This scene captures Sheeran’s abilities as a hitman at zenith, as well as illustrating his personal myth, seeing himself as a kind of good guy according to the world he lives in, eliminating fools and scumbags and sparing the innocent. It’s a mystique eventually stripped from him in the rudest possible manner.

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Although hardly a repudiation of his bravura stylistic flourishes, The Irishman sees Scorsese and his ever-ingenious editor Thelma Schoonmaker delivering a sinuous and measured work of high style. An early shot ushering the viewer/camera down the corridors of the nursing home Sheeran’s exiled to in his dimming days has the quality of a visitation by a reluctant but curious acquaintance; when this shot is repeated close to the end, it has a lacerating effect as now it’s clear that when the camera abandons Sheeran he is left in utter solitude, deserted by all he once claimed as friends and family. Scorsese repeatedly interpolates sequences shot in extreme slow motion, in one case in portraying percussive violence as Gallo’s goon shoots the Teamster official, bullets puncturing his flesh in spurts of red blood whilst hands desperately wrap about the assassin, but in each case with a sense of languorous absurdity even when describing tragedy, like the survey of seemingly mundane but despicable visages at the wedding after Hoffa’s killing: the wistfully twanging tones of a guitar cover of ‘Blue Moon’ and some doo-wop giving such scenes with a sardonic quality, at once melancholy and mocking. Throughout the film Scorsese puts up titles identifying various characters with their nicknames and the date and manner of their death, almost only violent. In the film’s slyest joke, one man is blessed with a title describing him as “well-liked by all, died of natural causes.”

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The cumulative effect of this device is to emphasise not just the incredible brutality of the mob world around Sheehan but also his ultimate luck, which might not be luck at all, in outliving all of them; suspense is removed from the equation, and instead we’re made to understand Sheeran as a man living in a city of memory crowded with ghosts. The mob community, one that eats its own, is a perverse family that has its deep rituals of belonging and expulsion. But the rubbing out – erasure – of its members is reproduced in terms of actual family as Sheeran secures his position but with consequences. Of his four daughters, Peggy, growing from a small girl (Lucy Gallina) to a middle-aged woman (Anna Paquin), matures as the mostly silent but incessantly aware ledger of culpability. She regards Russell with suspicion, knowing him for the monstrosity he is, and remains wary of her father ever since witnessing in childhood the spectacle of him beating up a grocery store owner who treated her brusquely, an act that left her feeling less like the well-guarded princess than an unwitting bringer of violence and horror. Peggy’s gravitation to Hoffa, even idolisation of him gives special sting to the way Hoffa embodies for Sheeran a more idealised version of himself, a man with feet planted in the mud and bloodied knuckles but with the stature of a working class gladiator turned statesman.

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The shift of The Irishman from case study review to something more intimate and tragic is managed over the course of a central sequence where Sheeran’s tenure as a Teamster Local boss is celebrated. Hoffa is present, out of jail and pursuing his utter determination to win back “his” union from Fitzgerald, Pro, and the mob heavyweights who want to maintain the new status quo. Hoffa glares daggers at Russell and Salerno whilst sawing up his steak, and carefully fends off Sheeran’s mediating warnings about giving up, insisting with simple assurance that for him abandoning such a cause, so deeply infused with his sense of being and mission, would be tantamount to dying in itself. Peggy watches the play of glances and conversation as she dances, long used to divining through such tells of language and posture. Sheeran is ennobled when Russell gives him a ring that signals his induction into the innermost circle of the mob along with Russell himself and Salerno, a gesture that indicates permanency and security in terms of that family, but which soon proves to actually be a nomination and bribe, as Sheeran is being commissioned without realising to be Hoffa’s assassin.

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The vein of pitch black comedy, blended with a forlorn sense of human vileness, is particularly icy here as Sheeran is essentially wedded to Russell via the exchange of rings, a gesture that contrasts in fascinating ways both men’s relationships with their nominal wives and families. Russell is married to a princess of mob royalty, a detail noted as it makes Russell seem for all his gathered strength like someone who just lucked out and married the boss’s daughter, whilst Sheeran almost casually seems to swap his first wife Mary (Aleksa Palladino) for his second, a little like getting a car upgrade. Hoffa’s wife Josephine (Welker White), who gets fired from her Teamster bureaucratic job in the escalating tit-for-tat, winces and imagines a car bomb blowing her to smithereens as she starts her car before the engine roars calmly to life, just another moment in the life of a foot soldier in a game of spousal ego. Late in the film Sheeran ruminates with tragic sting on how another car, one he loved, became responsible for his imprisonment. The men in The Irishman, at least until it’s too late, tend to adopt a fiercer sense of loyalty to the measures of their social status than their human attachments, from Hoffa’s obsession with “his” union to Pro’s anger at losing his Teamster pension despite being already being rich through to that car of Sheeran’s, his personal cross with Corinthian leather seats.

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One of the wisest decisions Scorsese made in tackling The Irishman, possibly even the reason he made it, was also one of costliest and most troublesome, in offering a movie that serves as a grace note not only for Scorsese’s career but for his stars. Though he’ll surely make more movies, perhaps many more if he keeps at it like Clint Eastwood, The Irishman relies in a manner reminiscent of something like Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962) on emotional association with its stars and the sense of an era ending. Scorsese first worked with Keitel on his own debut feature Who’s That Knocking At My Door? (1967), and his associations with De Niro and Pesci, stars of several of his best regarded works, seem virtually umbilical. Scorsese spent a lot of time and effort on the de-ageing effects even as the stiff and angular movements of the actors, as well as the often plastic look of the effects, betray reality. It’s a more convincing approach than using make-up probably would have been for actors in their seventies, but the artificiality is still patent. In practice it’s clearly just a theatrical nicety, not trying to fool the audience but negotiate with our knowing in a way that Scorsese couldn’t have managed if he’d cast other actors to play his protagonists when young as is the usual practice. Scorsese needs the sense of continuity, wants us to perceive the corporeal reality old men lurking within facsimiles of young, potent bucks, in a tale where what age does to self-perception is a key aspect of the drama as well as artistic nostalgia. The quality of the mask-like in the effects underscores Peggy’s keen capacity to penetrate such veneers, and time just as assiduously uncovers the face men carve for themselves.

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Hoffa conceives time as a literal form of wealth, a notion that provides both a thematic thesis – everyone’s time is running out – and also essential characterisation, as Hoffa’s anger is stoked by nothing quite so much as being made to wait, in part because he knows that waiting is something you only do for someone who presumes to have control over you. Which is why Pro calculatedly infuriates him by turning up late to a meeting, adding fuel to their feud. Pacino, ironically finally appearing in a Scorsese film despite being very much another Italian-American product of 1960s New York’s cultural vitality and long associated with gangster films, is particularly well-cast not only for his capacity to project potent, larger-than-life charisma but also embody in Hoffa a being who, whilst capable of speaking over the gap, nonetheless inhabits a slightly different continent to the gangsters, a man corrupt, compromised, but proud, not cynical in his authority even when cynical in many of his actions. Pesci by contrast is intriguingly cast as the most contained and calm of the major characters here after playing eruptive firebrands for Scorsese in the past, his Bufalino charged with terseness edging into easily stirred disgust, as he deals people who can’t work to the very specific rule their world demands, like an aged priest with unruly seminarians. One of the most arresting vignettes in The Irishman is also one of its most casual, as Russell orders Sheeran to hand over his sunglasses before he boards a plane to go kill Hoffa. Russell knows very well that the sunglasses are part of a killer’s uniform and shield, where he knows Sheeran needs the appearance of complete simplicity to pull off the hit, and moreover the discipline imbued by not retaining such a shield. Treachery must be entirely honest.

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De Niro’s specific brilliance, in a different key again from his two great costars, manifests in playing a man who feels no particular emotional urgency until it’s far too late for him to do anything about it. This reckoning comes in two great, mirroring moments, first as he regards Russell in silent grief and reproach even as he also plainly acquiesces to his command to kill Hoffa, and then later as he struggles to maintain a feined veneer of bewildered concern through a conversation with his family over Hoffa’s vanishing, before calling Josephine Hoffa to offer reassurances. The film’s heightened commentary on paternalistic values, where old men’s capacity to make conversation is a very obvious marker of their power and various characters ultimately reveal their foolishness and impotence by talking out of turn or too long, crystallises here as Peggy, who has noticed everything whilst adhering to the rule of being seen but not heard, rips off her father’s façade with a few pointed words, “Why?” the question that registers like the point of an ice axe into a glacier. Sheeran makes his call, an action of duplicity and false hope he’s still quietly hating himself for making as he waits around to die decades later: “What kind of man makes a call like that?” he asks of an oblivious priest seeking his confession in the nursing home.

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The most fundamental thread of Scorsese’s cinema has been the hunt for spiritual and aesthetic clarity in desperate conflict not just with the necessities of existence within a society but also with physical and emotional hungers that lead in the opposite direction from sainthood, even whilst stemming from the same impulses. Scorsese knows about such things; he took on Raging Bull (1980) as a project after being hospitalised for a cocaine overdose, and that film’s alternations of dreamy meditation and raw savagery have infused his mature oeuvre ever since. The Irishman follows Scorsese’s masterful study of cultural and religious clash, Silence (2016). Where that film seemed a capstone on a loose trilogy studying belief after The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997), The Irishman rounds out Scorsese’s study of mafia lore in Goodfellas and Casino, chasing their concerns to one logical end. The unexpected quality of The Irishman is that it also unites the two bodies of work. Scorsese returns to the figuration of Judas and Jesus Scorsese wrestled with so controversially on The Last Temptation of Christ in Sheeran’s treachery towards Hoffa. This comes with an inherent sense of irony – no-one here is exactly Jesus – whilst extending Silence’s contention with devotion and betrayal, the costs of adhering to a faith, with inverted propositions, and like so many of Scorsese’s films it contends with a character who eventually faces the essential situation of being left alone to do battle, Jacob-like, with their contending angels and devils.

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The ideals of religious faith, humane and yet eternally defined by individual conscience, high-flown, transcendental, necessarily defined ultimately by a person’s solitary confrontation with their conception of eternity, have always warred in Scorsese’s vision with a different brand of faith, a social devotion defined by communal ties, hierarchy, expectation, and ruthless punishment for deviation. Religious faith, which in Scorsese often bleeds into other faiths, like labour organising in Boxcar Bertha (1971) as well as in The Irishman, contends with social faith in direct contrast: religious faith is punishment of self where social faith is punishment of others. Father Rodrigues in Silence suffered just as much and met his end just as solitary and battered as Sheeran, but his retained grip on faith into the grave signalled his most vital stem of being, no matter how tortured, retained a sense of worthiness in his life mission. By contrast Sheehan is left by the end of The Irishman entirely stripped of any illusion his choices have ultimately been worth the cost, and stripped at the same time of the things that make such costs worth bearing. The Irishman could be seen as a classical winter’s tale as Shakespeare might have recognised it, even as it refuses to become such a tale. Those are supposed to be about conciliation and natural cycles, stories where the bite of the frigid season matches the gnawing proximity of death and the necessity of making peace to facilitate rebirth. The Irishman is about the consequences of rudely assaulting nature, and instead becomes something far more like King Lear, a tragedy where a once ferocious king is left bereft and pitiful and exiled from home and kin because of the long, lingering memory of his own lessons.

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Hoffa’s actual death nimbly turns from deadpan realism, as Sheeran shoots him in the head in an awkward and rushed jumble of motion, to a precisely composed renaissance pieta, as Sheeran leaves the arranged corpse and gun lying in the foyer of an empty house. Scorsese lingers on the sight after Sheeran leaves, the weight not simply of violence and crime but of dreadful absence, the negation of Hoffa’s presence and will, forces that compelled the world. The hit excises a roadblock to easy business but also echoes as an act of violence that consumes the men who committed it. Sheeran is forever excommunicated by Peggy, refusing to speak to him again even as he shambles after her in withered age in a bank where she works, whilst the destabilisation of an equilibrium vibrates through the mob world, with authorities prosecuting and jailing everyone they can, including Sheeran and Russell. Their figurative marriage becomes more like a real one as they’re left only with each-other in a cold and cheerless old age, withering within prison walls, two men who quietly despise each-other for the compromises forced and the implied lack of forgiveness in return, chained together in a caricature of amity into the halls of prison and then the grave.

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The viewer must watch with both a touch of scorn and half-willing sympathy as Russell, dying, reveals he’s turned to religion as he’s pushed away in his wheelchair for treatment, as if he’s found a way to mollify the big boss. No major American director has dealt so sharply with imminent old age, the reduction of the human form and mind by the entirely natural predation of ageing, although in taking up such a theme in what’s nominally supposed to be a true crime thriller recalls Eastwood’s similar evocation in J. Edgar (2011). Sheeran’s corrosive experience of solitude and humiliation even after being released from prison sees him fending off two calls for purgation by confession, from the priest (Jonathan Morris) and federal agents, whilst he picks out coffins and resting places, still hunting a last echo of worldly status even into the grave. But the framing suggests Sheeran is confessing to someone, perhaps the audience, a surrogate for Brandt, a craned ear hungry for forbidden lore. All these legends lose their immediate meaning as their actors die off, even as the labour they’ve been part of, equated with both the society they comprised and the movie they appear in, persists, carrying lessons that cut many ways for those who follow. Sheeran recounting his story is one last attempt to leave a certain mark, to give experience any form of meaning. Scorsese grants him no absolution, but does offer a small consolation.

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1990s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, Thriller

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

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Director/Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino

By Roderick Heath

Read this essay here or listen to it on the Film Freedonia podcast

…and then there was Tarantino.

Not many movies can lay claim to rewiring the zeitgeist. But Quentin Tarantino’s first two films, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction (1994), mapped a major continent of early 1990s cinema. Tarantino’s trumpet first blew at the Sundance Film Festival and culminated at Cannes. The one-time video store know-it-all turned movie world wannabe had made one attempt at filmmaking, My Best Friend’s Birthday, in the late 1980s, but it never saw release because of a severely damaged last reel. When he emerged properly with Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino suddenly became a pop cultural lightning rod, as most everyone who was young and hungry for hard-edged cinema and other permutations of alternative culture in the early 1990s latched onto Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction with fierce and personal fervour. Suddenly every film school student and their dog was making films laced with grungy violence, rapid-fire dialogue, and movie referencing, and a new breed of creator impresario began to emerge. If Jim Jarmusch had staked out the turf for the modern indie film mode and Steven Soderbergh provided the fanfare, Tarantino gave it an adrenalin shot. It was hardly as if Hollywood wasn’t making gritty, violent, smart-aleck thrillers at the time, not with the likes of Die Hard (1988) and Lethal Weapon (1987) recent memories, and Tarantino emerged in the midst of a revival of film noir laced with retro flavour that kicked off several years earlier.
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But there was of course much more to the Tarantino phenomenon than mere revivalism or swagger. Tarantino’s arrival marked the official dawn of self-conscious postmodernism in Hollywood cinema, replete with fancy-pants notions like intertextuality and death-of-the-author recontextualisation, as well as a non-linear approach to screen narrative of a kind mainstream cinema screens had scarcely deigned to employ since the early 1970s. The ‘90s indie movie craze seems like something of a lost idyll now, particularly since the downfall of Harvey Weinstein, who fostered much of the movement in large part on the back of Tarantino’s success for the then-respected Miramax Films. Several of Tarantino’s major rivals in the ranks of those often cited as today’s most important American filmmakers, including Paul Thomas Anderson, Sofia Coppola, and Wes Anderson, ran with aspects of Tarantino’s example to leverage their own beginnings, with acts of calculatedly ironic nostalgia and pop culture riffing, whilst many of his talented, more earnest contemporaries fell away.
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Tarantino was hardly the first filmmaker to erect his movies in part as Parthenons dedicated to the movie gods. The French New Wave and the ‘70s Movie Brats had already done the same thing. The open secret about classic Hollywood filmmaking was that the vast bulk of movies were remakes and remixes of others. Take the way an esteemed classic like Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings (1939) leans on a plot quote from one of its screenwriter Jules Furthman’s earlier films, China Seas (1935), whilst Hawks himself happily ripped himself off many times. But Tarantino set about drawing the eye to his, the quotation marks all but neon-lit, his carefully chosen musical cues and references framed with such totemic inference it seemed as if some Ennio Morricone music cue had dragged him out of some deep emotional crisis sometime during his days in the video store. For Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino’s touchstones, including Ringo Lam’s City on Fire (1987), Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974), John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), weren’t just evident but flaunted. But there was still something bizarre and thrilling about this new cinematic voice regardless, one that remains difficult to pin down after a quarter-century of familiarity and endless imitation, relating to how, despite his films’ magpie’s-nest compositing, Tarantino’s touch proved unique.
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The opening scene of Reservoir Dogs still illustrates that touch in all its unruly, arresting confidence. A group of eight men, all dressed in sharp black suits, seated around a table in a diner, gabbling on as they finish off breakfast and prepare for a day’s work: Mr White (Harvey Keitel), Mr Pink (Steve Buscemi), Mr Blue (Eddie Bunker), Mr Blonde (Michael Madsen), Mr Orange (Tim Roth), Mr Brown (Tarantino), Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney), and his son ‘Nice Guy’ Eddie (Chris Penn). The blankness of identification and dress is in aid of criminal enterprise, as in The Taking of Pelham 123, but has another, more unusual dimension. Here are eight characters well and truly found by their author, out to prove their vitality in the face of an itchy delete button. Dialogue comes on as a frenetic stew of character definition, pop culture theory and excavation, and socio-political argument, good humour and fraternity, laced with macho showmanship and signals of asocial reflexes and simmering aggression. Where a more classical noir film would use such a scene to make a distinct point about the characters as social animals, Tarantino engages them as both creations in a movie and of a movie: there is no longer a sharp divide between observant diagnosis and analysis of generic function. Hollywood had dedicated itself assiduously to trying to stay with it since the late 1960s, but Tarantino’s arrival suddenly declared the arrival of a hip culture happy in sifting through the detritus of mass-produced entertainment.
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Tarantino made sure the audience knew who he was by casting himself as Brown, who delivers his memorable analysis of Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” for the edification of his fellows in identifying its covert theme as one of feminine sexual liberation confronted by new experience in encountering a prick colossal enough to cause her pain again. Hell, some might argue that’s a fitting metaphor for Tarantino’s entire relationship with his viewing audience. More cogently, the notion that all entertainment has subtext and can be interrogated until it takes on new form was hardly novel in 1992, but Tarantino found a way here not just to make his audience aware of it but to make it an actual dramatic value. Tarantino was offering American genre film’s revenge on all those smart-aleck New Wavers who collected Hollywood cinematic tropes in their deconstructive tales of Parisian losers. And yet at the same time he was subjecting the genre movie to another perversion, dragging it into the intimate conversational world of indie film. Tarantino disposed of any worry that a film image could sustain a multiplicity of reference points – that any moment could be at once a movie quote, a plot point, a proper dramatic idea, and a meta joke. The dialogue immediately betrays ardour for the twists of American tough guy argot, a tradition going back to the likes of Damon Runyon and Ring Lardner. Now the lexicon runs the gamut between frat boy attitude – “This is the world’s smallest violin playing just for the waitresses” – to Muhammad Ali – “You shoot me in a dream, you better wake up and apologise.”
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The characters who utter these two lines, White and Pink, define themselves immediately by these different cultural lexicons, by generations and by ideals of wit. The amicable breakfast becomes charged with actual tension and disagreement as Pink refuses to contribute to the tip for the waitress, citing personal scruples: “I don’t tip.” White’s sensibility counters Pink’s cynical distaste for being expected to operate according to a social nicety and cough up a dollar. The dynamic the two characters will enact in the oncoming drama is stated, in the clash between White’s empathy and Pink’s suspiciousness, laced with cultural inference. Pink makes excellent points about the arbitrariness and unfairness of rewarding some workers over others in a mostly, thoroughly Darwinian capitalist system. White has the vote of audience sympathy in observing unfairness doesn’t preclude the necessity of the gesture for those benefitting from it regardless. Joe’s gruff decisiveness ends the conversation with the firmness of old-school patriarchy: the rights and wrongs of a social expectation don’t matter nearly so much as the fulfilment of it for its own sake, to maintain an equilibrium which allows them all to operate. This vignette, droll and incisive as incidental characterisation and a dissection of socio-political attitude, also anticipates the crew’s borderline pathetic need for Joe to turn up and play decisive daddy. But we’re also on the countdown towards the moment when the gun will be aimed at Joe, and down daddy goes.
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The opening titles sequence helped cement the film’s mystique. Tarantino individually identifies his actors as an ensemble of handpicked pros, a description that also encompasses the parts they play, strutting in slow motion through the blandest of conceivable LA locales, the George Baker Selection’s jaunty, jangly “Little Green Bag” on the soundtrack. Tarantino’s ironic approach to movie scoring, using upbeat, retro songs and movie score extracts from disreputable wings of pop culture to contrast moments of savage violence and sanguine cool, is now so familiar a movie strategy as to be a cliché, but at the time the greater part of its impact lay in a similar quality to grunge rock’s arrival in pop music: it was a complete rejection of the slick pretences of ‘80s film styles. His visual method, whilst hardly antiquated, similarly cut across the grain of what film style had largely been in the previous decade, instead somehow managing to shoot the interior of the warehouse where most of the tale unfolds as if it’s a wealth of space out of a Western, the physical attitudes of his actors allowed to hold the weight of the compositions just as their mouths carry the weight of the dialogue.
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The violent undercurrent of the opening scene’s jocularity – “I changed my mind, shoot this piece of shit.” – is fully exposed after the title sequence. Perhaps an hour or so later or even less, White is now found driving a car with Orange a bloody mess on the backseat, shot in the belly during the getaway from an armed robbery of a diamond merchant’s building. An incidental detail here proves endlessly consequential, as Orange calls White by his real name, Larry. White’s sense of friendly responsibility for the belly-shot young team member becomes a point of honour overriding White’s other tribal responsibilities. Tarantino obviously understood one essential aspect of classical tragedy: the spiral into all-consuming calamity is not just caused by clashes of character but by a fatal inability to reconcile colliding value systems. The white criminal underclass the crew represents is expertly observed in a way that highlights their tribal behaviour, whilst many of his subsequent films would deal with the interlocution of tribes. They’re loaned a crisp, professionalised glamour by their black-and-white attire, which they certainly wouldn’t possess if they were dressed like telephone repairmen or the like; if Reservoir Dogs is ultimately a tale of faking it ‘til you make it, a legend of show business expressed through crime flick drag, Tarantino reverses the traffic just far enough to lend his cadre of hoods the aura of movie stars.
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Ironic perhaps, given that Reservoir Dogs put together what might have been the best ensemble of actors for a crime movie since The Maltese Falcon (1941). Old pros Keitel and Tierney matched by squirrelly young talents who had gained notice in an odd sprawl of ‘80s movies, as well as crime novelist Bunker with his laidback aura of authenticity, and Tarantino himself, his young, smooth-cheeked visage resembling a pre-transformation portrait of the Joker found in the three-tone prints of old Batman comic books. Keitel helped get the film made, along with another hero from the American New Wave, Monte Hellman. Keitel’s presence linked Reservoir Dogs with Martin Scorsese’s equally showy, gritty early works, whilst Tierney, an actor whose genuine off-screen ferocity and bullishness had foiled his career and was still intimidating Tarantino during the shoot, gave a palpable connection to the days of classic noir. Hellman might well have felt a shock of recognition in the kinship between Tarantino’s project and his takes on the Western, The Shooting and Ride the Whirlwind (both 1966), which similarly subjected genre canards to a deconstructive, vaguely existential whim.
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Tarantino had consciously written a film that could be executed on the smallest budget possible, so the bulk of the movie unfolds in a warehouse somewhere in the LA hinterland, Joe’s base of operations for the heist and rendezvous for the crew. Largely thanks to Keitel’s presence the budget proved big enough to allow punchy episodes of chase and gunplay, in flashback to Pink, White, and Orange’s escapes from pursuing cops, although the actual heist remains only reported in the dialogue. The story, as it proceeds from there, is exceptionally simple, even as the connections and suggestions ripple far. Brown and Blue are dead; Pink, White, Orange, and Blonde make it to the warehouse, although Orange soon passes out. Pink thinks the heist was a disaster because the crew were set up by an informer in their ranks. White is sceptical, and holds Blonde more responsible for unleashing a bloodbath. Blonde has taken a cop, Marvin Nash (Kirk Baltz) captive, and the three men beat him. When Pink and White depart to find the stolen diamonds Pink stashed, Blonde goes much further in cutting off Nash’s ear and planning to set him on fire, but he’s shot dead by the revived Orange, who actually is the informant, and explains that although the warehouse is being watched by police, none will come until Joe shows up. When Joe and Eddie arrive, Eddie kills Nash, and disbelieves Orange’s hastily concocted story that Blonde was planning to rip them off, whilst Joe is now sure Orange is the rat. White shoots Joe and Eddie rather than let them kill his friend, but is mortally wounded himself by Eddie.
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Along the way Tarantino pauses to relate how the various members of the crew were drawn together, with White and Blonde clearly old pals of the Cabot clan and sometime employees, particularly Blonde, real name Vic Vega, who just got through a stint in prison after refusing to turn stoolie on the Cabots when he was arrested in a locale filled with their stolen merchandise. Orange is seen going through a kind of performative boot camp to master the streetwise act required to fool the genuine criminals. The authentic members of the crew can be taken as lampoons of up-by-the-bootstraps capitalism, proud of their know-how and professional ethos and dismissive of concerns that get between them and fulfilment. Notably, Joe and Eddie have names and identity as employers the others cannot afford, as captains of their little industry. Joe’s office, with its wood panelled walls and elephant tusks and maps of Venice on the wall, is a cheerfully vulgar seat of power as signified by eras – tribal, medieval, and Victorian. Pink’s sarcastic commentary – “It would appear that waitresses are just one of the many groups the government fucks in the ass on a regularly basis” – makes a play of seeming rudely sympathetic but is actually shorn of class feeling and filled instead with yuppie arrogance, the looking-out-for-number-one philosophy at a zenith. This is expressed in many ways throughout the narrative, even by White who declares that, “The choice between doing ten years and taking out some stupid motherfucker ain’t no choice at all.”
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White is however genuinely shocked and vehement over Blonde’s cold and exacting execution of bystanders and staff in the merchant’s: the rogue psychopath is as much odd man out in the company of professional criminals as the rat, because his purposes have no connection to any rational aim of business. And yet it becomes clear Blonde’s brutality is rooted in the same deep hatred for the forces of justice. The flashback depicting his meeting with Joe and Eddie commences with a joshing session as Eddie gleefully provokes Blonde by suggesting he’s turned queer and black after being raped by black men in prison. This results in the two men wrestling on the office floor, as if they’re ten-year-olds. Blonde’s cobra-like gaze could harbour genuine rage or just a sociopath’s indifference, and possibly Blonde has become a machine for victimising the world in response to the way he feels like he’s been victimised. Tarantino here was taking up an aspect of the gangster film following on from The Godfather films, as this genre depends to a large part on the viewer’s identification with the most palatable choice amongst bastards. White, by comparison, seems comparatively upright, sticking up for friends and operating according to his instincts and experience. The flashback to his and Orange’s flight from the cops reaches its punchline as it’s revealed Orange was shot by an armed woman whose car they try to hijack, and he shot her dead in reflexive response. White’s conviction Orangie is okay is then based not just in guilt or amity, but what he experienced, and what he’s afraid of, knowing full well it could be him slowly bleeding to death.
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The surface interchangeableness of the crew is then steadily contradicted, but they mostly share a very similar identity as white, plebeian criminals, members of the tribe (there might even be a sneaky joke about that in regards to their dress, meant to evoke Jewish diamond buyers) who maintain strict internecine codes and forms of recognition, marked out by brusque contempt for non-members, including of course gross racism. They’re also members of pop cultural camps, however, delighting in yardsticks of cool, toughness, and erotic appeal, many of which cut across traditional borders of social identity, as well as old-fashioned notions of dramatic integrity. White confirms both his age and his ideal when he quotes Muhammad Ali even as he muses contemptuously on the black men he’s known. Orange clearly loves Silver Surfer. They’re all hot for Honey West and Pam Grier characters. Most old-school screenwriters and directors would have portrayed these characters as ignorant on this level, because their terms of reference would have been their own working class parents or friends. Jean-Luc Godard was obsessed with defining the no-man’s-land between his idea of real life and the art forms that obsessed him. Tarantino saw no such space, not anymore: the lens of pop culture is how most people experience the world now, just as they once absorbed national or religious folklores to situate their identities and process emotional experience. And so “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia” is discussed with Talmudic intensity and debates about the actors of obscure TV shows sit cheek by jowl with plotting a robbery and personal ruminations on sex and race.
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Superficially, Reservoir Dogs stands with Jackie Brown (1997) as Tarantino’s most quotidian, grounded work, and yet it’s flecked with nascent aspects of surrealism and absurdism. Tarantino’s gore-mongering scruffiness was already laced with distinct hints of hyperbole: the lake of blood that forms about Orange prefigures the outlandish bloodletting seen in the likes of the Kill Bill diptych (2003-4) and Django Unchained (2012). Connections form with Tarantino’s subsequent films – Blonde is the brother of Pulp Fiction’s Vincent Vega, White’s ex-lady has the same name as the heroine of True Romance (1993), hinting he could be the older, battle-scarred version of that film’s hero – suggesting a free-floating mythological world in the offing. Pulp Fiction would land as hard as it did in large part because it moved a step beyond Reservoir Dogs in simultaneous celebration and mockery of anatomisation of hipster subcultures and the iconography of a raised-by-TV generation, offering a fictional agora where S&M freaks, hippie dope dealers, beatnik assassins, blaxploitation heavies, bodypiercers, retro freaks, and the by-products of war and suburbia all meet and are diagrammed according to possible usefulness in terms of B-movie storylines. The use of barely-remembered classic rock ditties on the soundtrack, often deployed with a sarcastic invocation that relates to the on-screen drama in a fashion like Greek chorus gone funkalicious, is justified by the characters’ penchant for the radio show K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the ‘70s. The show’s host is played by the deadpan ‘90s comedy hero Steven Wright, whose fillips of hype and commercialism – the way he pronounces “Behemoth” in an ad for a monster truck rally is an endless delight – feel like broadcasts from another planet.
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One of Tarantino’s less noted precursors was Jim McBride’s 1983 remake of Godard’s Breathless, which pulled off a similar feat in transplanting New Wave conceits out of the hypercultural climes of Paris to suburban Los Angeles. Perhaps the least analysed side of Tarantino is the ironic realist: particularly in his first three films, his work was deeply rooted in his feel for LA, his love for its sunstruck streets and the rhythms of its downtown conversations. The film’s deeply cynical contemplation of a criminal underworld as a stand-in for urban bohemianism and the artistic demimonde proved, despite not really focusing on such things, weirdly attuned to the mood of riotous dissent in LA at the time. Tarantino’s later work hinges much more on a dance between aesthetic posture and authentic emotion and experience, as in the Kill Bill films or Death Proof (2007), which moved onto another zone of tribal struggle, in their case concerning female protagonists, before his trilogy of historical incitement, Inglourious Basterds (2009), Django Unchained, and The Hateful Eight (2015), where the narrative centres around historical tribal wars rhymed to different modes of cinema. When Tarantino would to a very great extent remake Reservoir Dogs with The Hateful Eight, the core variance was that with the later film Tarantino would make each character a representative of a different tribe rather than a homogenous group with an odd man out.
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The impact of Tarantino’s directorial approach amounted not just to a scorecard of iconographic flourishes like sharp suits and old tunes. The clear-eyed cinematography Tarantino got from Andrzej Sekula, who would also shoot Pulp Fiction, spurned most of the stylistic reflexes of ‘80s action cinema, with few shallow focal plains and little diffused light or flashy filter work. Tarantino and Sekula instead made heavy use of wide-angle lenses to achieve a more igneous effect, epic even on a small scale. There was a touch of irony in the fact that Tony Scott, a doyen of the ‘80s style of action movie, took on Tarantino’s rewritten script for My Best Friend’s Birthday as the baroquely shot True Romance, which looked good but felt, by comparison, instantly dated, although the likes of Michael Bay would carry over something of that style. Reservoir Dogs wasn’t exactly a work of strict classicism however, and comes on with a visual language both muscular and skittish. Long static shots and standoffish camera placements redolent of Antonioni somehow manage to at once unfetter and trap the energy of his actors, alternated with camera gymnastics betraying the immediate influence of Scorsese and particularly Brian De Palma, as if taking the place of an unseen watching presence thrust in amidst the carnage.
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Reservoir Dogs also established Tarantino’s fondness for circumlocutory structuring, deployed less to evoke, as with filmmakers like Orson Welles or Alain Resnais, vagaries of time and memory, than to engage traditional narrative propulsion in a different fashion. The flashbacks do more than simply explain backstory, but set up each little act in the core drama, resituating expectations and tension. In this regard Tarantino revealed himself as one of the few filmmakers to properly understand the dynamic behind the flashback in Vertigo (1958) and use it as a means of changing the pitch of dramatic intensity. White’s vignette is one of slightly rueful friendliness and straightforward aims and desires. Blonde’s vignette explains his visceral hatred of cops and just about everyone else except for Joe and Eddie. Orange’s doesn’t simply inform us that he’s the interloper or how he got shot but why these two facts are both facets in an extended deed of method acting. Tarantino made no bones about the inherent theatricality of his approach. Many scenes in the warehouse feel like acting exercises. This makes sense, given that the insistent motif in the film is role-playing, and the lurking suggestion what we’re seeing is all a metaphor for Tarantino’s days as a sometime actor and general, would-be Hollywood player. The film quoting is something like the filmmaker’s equivalent of an actor trying out different costumes for different characters, busily donning and shedding guises in the hunt for one that will settle and sell.
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Perhaps the film’s most famous image, of Pink and White pointing guns at each-other in a moment of heated argument, is filmed intimately at first, engaged in the ferocity of the moment. But then Tarantino steps back, shooting them from a remove that strands the men in posturing absurdity, and draws the camera away a few paces to reveal Blonde standing watching them whilst lazily sipping on a milkshake. Blonde is audience, assessing the effectiveness of the performed machismo, and he quickly begins provoking White with his own perfect attitude of supine cool. “I bet you’re a big Lee Marvin fan,” Blonde comments, nailing down both his and White’s style hero and generic forebear. The chief tripwire of the plot seems to be Orange’s power over White in knowing his name, but this proves to have rather placed him as much in thrall to White. He accepts the rules of his appointed role to the point where he stands around looking anguished and not intervening as White ruthlessly blows away two fellow cops, before Orange shoots a woman and gets himself shot twice for the sake of their friendship. Once he’s wounded, all boundaries between life and pose vanish, and Orange becomes merely a desperate man and White the one trying to get him through it. Fake it ‘til you make it indeed. White’s comment to Joe, “You push that whole woman-man thing too long and it gets to you after a while,” betrays his unease with commitments advisable with his lifestyle, and also offers the slightest hint of homoerotic subtext to his attachment to Orange.
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The longest of the film’s flashbacks revolves around the division between life and art in a way that’s more overt than Tarantino would usually practice in his films. Orange, real name Freddy, wheedles his way into the bandit circle. He sets about mastering, at the behest of his handler Holdaway (Randy Brooks), an “amusing anecdote” for the purposes of furthering his cover. This part of the film might initially seem vaguely extraneous, but it is in truth the very essence of Reservoir Dogs and the mission statement for the rest of Tarantino’s career, as an exploration of the slippery boundaries between act and life, creation and deconstruction. The anecdote relates how Orange supposedly once sweated through a close encounter with cops and a drug sniffer dog in a railway station washroom whilst carrying a large quantity of weed. Holdaway tells him that you have to be “naturalistic, naturalistic as hell” to convince in undercover work. And so Orange’s journey mimics the processes of being an actor – meetings in diners, read-throughs, stagy rehearsals, and finally entering the zone of make-believe so intensely the narrative becomes a mini-movie into which Orange projects himself. The blend of Tarantino’s directing, Roth’s acting, Sekula’s shooting and Sally Menke’s editing is at its most ingenious here, as Orange’s anecdote jumps locales as he works his way through stages of conviction. Finally Orange delivers his highwire monologue before Joe, White, and Eddie, before he is finally glimpsed standing before the cops in his anecdote, recounting it to them.
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The crowning moment of the anecdote sees Orange jab the button on a hand dryer, momentarily drowning the cops’ conversation and drawing their annoyed gaze, including that of their barking dog, but it also seals his victory, both imagined and real: the riskiness of the gesture achieves a perfect simulacrum, and Orange has become so convincing he bends the language of cinematic reality itself. The most notorious portion of Reservoir Dogs, and its initial spur to fame, is the scene of Blonde’s torture of Nash. This scene seems the complete opposite in nature to Orange’s story, as a portrait of authentic and immediate evil. If Orange is the bullshit artist made good, Blonde is cold truth, providing his own soundtrack when he turns on the radio and tunes in for the ‘70s Scottish folk-rock band Steelers Wheel’s song “Stuck in the Middle With You,” with its spry, insidiously catchy tune and refrain of “please” offered as a cruelly deadpan mockery of the cries Nash can’t make with his mouth taped shut. Even here, we’re deep in a zone of performative zeal and competition, as Blonde proves he’s the one with show-stopping moves, the one who gives us what we really want. Blonde’s taunting little dance to the tune as he gets ready to attack Nash with a straight razor suggests he’s having a ball even as he’s nominally the one presenting his literally captive witness with the last word in audience involvement.
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But the most galvanising choice in this scene was to avert the camera’s gaze as Blonde hacks Nash’s ear off, camera again playing bystander who this time has finally found their tolerance limit. The avoidance of bloody pyrotechnics paradoxically makes the moment feel much nastier, partly because it subverts the rules of performance, intimate in refusing to countenance. Tarantino walks the viewer up to the very threshold of unbearable horror, as Blonde’s intention of setting Nash on fire is only avoided by the fusillade of bullets Orange fires at him. This was another superlative piece of sleight-of-hand on Tarantino’s part, as Orange has become virtually forgotten since passing out. Orange’s killing of Blonde feels like a heroic gesture, but it’s one that ultimately costs the lives of nearly everyone left in the crew: Eddie instantly undercuts it when he returns to the warehouse and shoots Nash dead. Much later in his career Tarantino would, in the scene of D’Artagnan’s death by mauling in Django Unchained, walk up to a similar threshold and then shove characters and audience over it. Perhaps it’s the provocateur’s lot to have to constantly ratchet their effects up, but the later film also revises the dynamic seen here with a notable consequence. Django’s self-control makes him in a way party to horror, but also enables his ultimate happy ending; his performance is a matter not just of his own life and death but also for his great love and by extension for all his tribe, where Orange remains to a certain extent a mere dilettante. The relatively green Nash proves to recognise Orange, who doesn’t remember him: his native tribe, that of the police, offers no succour. By breaking character, Orange has doomed himself.
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Except that the film’s very end offers Orange one last way to take his role to the limit, as multiple zones of identity and performance collapse in upon each-other. White’s defence of Orange obliges him threaten to Joe as the old warlord intends to shoot Orange; Eddie aims at White in retaliation, whilst Pink pleads for reason unheeded. Faithfulness works like gravity, drawing people to the most immediate orbit, and the logical end-point of all the macho posturing is reached as the three men gun each-other down, leaving only a shocked and bewildered Pink to look around a stage as littered with corpses as the last act of Hamlet. Pink skedaddles with the diamonds, although the faintly heard sounds from outside suggest he gets cornered and captured by the cops. Orange, now twice shot, confesses to the wounded, gasping, broken White that he’s a cop. By confessing to be a fake, he demands reality, the consequence of that revelation. White cradles his head like a baby and squeals in heartbreak, but seems to deliver the wished-for coup-de-grace, even in defiance of the police who burst in at the last moment and gun him down in turn. By one standard it’s the traditional end of a gangster movie, a portrayal of greed, violence, and treachery on a path to mutually assured destruction. But by another, it’s the ultimate deed of performance. If, as the old canard has it, the only true feat of greatness for an actor is to cross the line into madness, Orange manages the next best thing, to play an outlaw until you die like one.

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