Twenty years ago this month, Reservoir Dogs premièred at the Sundance Film Festival, kicking off a vigorous, impassioned debate that I’d seriously consider hacking my own ears off with a straight razor to avoid ever having to endure again. The nature and purpose of onscreen violence is a worthy topic, and I have opinions about it, though honestly, my tolerance for gore and my sense of what qualifies as “gratuitous” fluctuate wildly on a case-by-case basis, usually in concert with my feelings about each film as a whole. But the initial conversation about Dogs—still, to my mind, one of the most striking, assured debuts in cinema history—was utterly dominated by questions about whether Tarantino takes too much pleasure in Mr. Blonde’s antics. And by the time that finally died down, the movie had come out on video, the Internet had started to take off, and all anybody wanted to talk about was who shot Nice Guy Eddie, to which the correct answer is: “Shut up.”
So if you fine people want to hash out that particular argument yet again in the comments, you’re more than welcome to do so. I might even get sucked in against my will. But what I’m gonna do up here is talk about pretty much every aspect of the ear-slicing scene except whether it’s in any way “too much.” (And really, doesn’t it almost look quaint now, with the camera bashfully panning away from the carnage? Wasn’t it fairly circumspect even at the time? Cannibal Holocaust this ain’t.) Because it’s fairly lengthy, I’ve skipped past the part where Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) announces his intention to torture the poor captive cop just for the sheer sadistic pleasure of it, and I regretfully ended the clip prior to Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) screaming at his colleague to stop whining about his lost ear because he’s fucking dying here, he’s fucking dying. Let’s just stick with the razor, the gas can, and K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the ’70s.
One of the reasons I decided to write about this scene was to see if I could figure out why I like Tarantino’s nastily ironic use of “Stuck In The Middle With You,” but was irritated by David Fincher’s decision to have The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’s villain play Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” at a particularly harrowing moment. For one thing, in Reservoir Dogs, the song doesn’t arrive out of nowhere—snippets of K-Billy’s show (featuring the voice of Steven Wright) are heard throughout the film, right from the opening scene, which is best remembered for its profane debate about “Like A Virgin,” but also involves some discussion regarding “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia.” Consequently, the pop interlude feels not like a cutesy character touch, designed to make us chortle even as we cringe, but like the abrupt intersection of two competing agendas. It’s as if the film’s mundane, discursive elements have just invaded the narrative in a horrifying way—a ploy that quickly became Tarantino’s signature. (See also, to cite just one example out of many, ≈’s Jules going on and on about the Big Kahuna Burger menu right before waxing Brett and friends, pursuant to earlier “irrelevant” chatter with Vincent about McDonald’s in Amsterdam.)
Watching the scene again, though, I instantly understood (consciously) what makes it work: Mr. Blonde leaves the warehouse in the middle of the song, with the camera following him to his car. If you don’t know a lot about cinema lighting in the pre-digital age, you may not be aware of how insanely difficult that must have been to shoot—to this day, I’m not sure how cinematographer Andrzej Sekula managed to keep the image from blowing out when Madsen first steps outside. But it was necessary effort, because it’s the momentary interruption of the “festivities,” reminding us that there’s a beautiful suburban day taking place just a few yards away from this meaningless act of cruelty, that prevents this setpiece from… Well, that’s edging toward the area I wanted to avoid. But you get the idea. And I wonder, having recently revisited Brian De Palma’s remake of Scarface, whether that’s where Tarantino got the idea: There’s no music, but the camera drifting away from the chainsaw dismemberment, out the window, and across the street to where the victim’s pals are chatting up some pretty girls serves essentially the same function.
(By the way, I always assumed Tarantino must have cheated the length of the song, so it would still be playing when Mr. Blonde walks back inside. But I just synced the actual track to the movie, and it turns out it’s correct to the second. That’s exactly where the song would be when the door opens again.)
Then there’s Mr. Blonde’s little dance routine, which Madsen performs with exactly the right degree of half-assed mockery. Given this showcase—it’s just him and someone who’s bound and gagged—a lot of actors would choose to showboat, really cut some moves. Madsen understands that Mr. Blonde is terrifying because he doesn’t give a shit, which means he isn’t gonna expend any real energy even on a performance expressly designed to humiliate a torture victim. He doesn’t so much dance as just kinda shuffle a little, doing the absolute minimum necessary to convey rhythmic movement. Meanwhile, Kirk Baltz, as Officer Marvin Nash, has to project palpable fear and bewilderment using only his eyes, in one of those indelible but thankless turns that almost never gets recognized. (Reportedly, his ad-libbed plea about his child at the end of this clip so upset his co-star that Madsen had trouble finishing the scene.)
The scene’s true stealth performance, belongs to Tim Roth, who spends most of it (and most of the movie up to this moment) lying apparently unconscious on that ramp. If I could somehow do a memory wipe and re-experience selected surprises from favorite movies, Mr. Orange gunning down Mr. Blonde would surely be one of them; it’s hard now to remember the gleeful shock I felt the first time. You just plain forget he’s there, even though—in a brilliant touch—Tarantino makes a point of having Blonde squat beside Orange’s body and give him a quick once-over right as the song’s about to begin. If there’s a more effective hide-in-plain-sight twist onscreen, I haven’t yet encountered it. (Please do not say Saw.) I can even forgive the slight miscalculation of the shot that circles behind Orange to catch sight of Blonde just as he finally collapses to the floor at the other end of the warehouse, which doesn’t really play because you can see Madsen holding for his cue, plus it just seems overly clever even in conception.
Also, someone’s ear gets hacked off with a razor blade, aiggh ewwww needless depraved vomit-bag ratings-board sadism bloodthirsty catharsis decline of Western civilization etc. etc. etc. Go.