Reservoir Dogs isn’t about 5 criminals getting caught in a Mexican standoff. It’s not about the violence or even about wit or the dialogues. The movie is actually a study in dramatic irony.
Dramatic irony is the key story telling device where information is not equally distributed between characters and the audience. This unequal distribution of key information leads to drama, or conflict, and forces the characters to make choices, or to take action that drives the plot forward in an interesting nail biting fashion. It also creates an us vs. them scenario, where one group of people are in on a secret. This could be a set of characters, or even the audience.
Let’s examine the dramatic irony in the movie by mapping out who knows what at what point.
At the beginning of the film, the audience doesn’t know anything. The film starts off in a diner, where the characters are finishing off their meal, paying the check and sharing a few laughs. At this point, the characters know what is going to happen next, while the audience is kept completely in the dark. There is no mention of the heist, or the diamonds, or undercover cop, or rats or anything else. The dialogue is about music, tips and a mysterious person in an address book, who isn’t mentioned ever again.
We get some idea of the characters, and their behaviour, but it doesn’t tell us anything about their past, their motive or their thoughts. The first few minutes of the movie don’t forward the plot at all. It throws the audience into the deep end of the story without any information to use as a floating device.
The action starts with Mr. Orange in the back of the car bleeding, screaming in pain. The first line of the actual movie is, “I’m sorry”. Only later do we understand that Mr. Orange is apologising for being the undercover cop, the rat. At this point, the audience doesn’t know what happened. We don’t know who shot Mr. Orange, and why.
The big question about the loot is dealt with early in the film. Mr Pink tells us that the loot is safe, stashed somewhere away from the story. If the movie was actually a heist movie, the central piece of information would have been the stash. However, there are maybe just a couple of dialogues dedicated to the stash. Even at the end of the movie, we don’t know where Mr. Pink stashed the diamonds and there is no action taken to retrieve it (or at least none is shown on screen).
Instead, the movie focuses on the second piece of information we learn when Mr. Pink bursts into the warehoure. There might be a rat in the mix. The rest of the movie focuses on this question. Who is the rat? Is there even a rat?
From this point till midway in the movie, the audience is kept guessing. We are finding out things about the characters which remain unknown to the other characters. We learn that Mr. Blonde, is an old friend to Eddie; while Mr. White, Mr. Pink and Mr. Orange don’t know this.
We learn that Mr. Blue and Mr. Brown are dead, albeit much later. We learn that Mr. Pink had shot a couple of cops trying to get away, so he might not be the rat, if there actually even is a rat.
This information asymmetry changes about halfway into the movie In the most memorable fashion. Mr. Blonde is dancing, cutting ears off and splashing gasoline all over some poor cop, when he is shot by Mr. Orange. Mr. Orange confesses to the cop, that he actually the rat, the cop. The cop counter-confesses, that he already knew. Two pieces of information that make the audience gasp in disbelief.
In that one brief moment, the movie completely changes. Suddenly, the audience is in on the secret, the audience knows more than the other characters do. And now we watch the film with a clear understanding of who the good guys are, it’s almost like we have skin in the game.
The movie dedicates the most time out of all the back stories to tell the story of Mr. Orange, but doesn’t tell us anything about Mr. Orange as a character. We don’t understand his motives, or his training or anything about his background. The audience is left to fill in the blanks. Instead, time is spent on the commode story, a fake anecdote that Mr. Orange has to tell to perfection to deceive the rest of the crew, to fit in and find his way into the heist. Here, the information is given out in a different order. the audience is privy to key information as it is happening. The audience is in the inner-circle of information, while other characters are left out.
Just before the final Mexican standoff, there is a clear information gap:
- Joe thinks that Mr. Orange is the rat
- - Mr. White is convinced that Mr. Orange is not the rat
- - Eddie and Mr. Pink don’t have enough conviction either way
- - The audience and Mr. Orange know that he is the undercover cop
Lives are taken and lost based on conviction in information, true or false.
That’s the story. It is a story of how information is shared between a bunch of criminals who are trying to minimise the exchange of information to keep themselves and the mission safe.
Another similar movie, about rats and an unequal sharing of information within a criminal organisation is The Departed. However, the main difference between the two movies is how much the audience knows. In The Departed, the audience knows who all are the rats throughout the movie, the big exposition here is of course that everybody is a rat, including the cat hunting for the rats.
Reservoir Dogs could have been about anything, cheating couples, business partners, a dysfunctional family. It just happens to be about criminals doing criminal things, because it raises the stakes automatically. Violence makes it easier to add an element of risk, and violent people are more prone to violence.
Some elements of the style, such as the non-linear story telling were essential to the movie, as it helped us learn things about the characters at critical junctures of the story. While, others were used as devices to keep the audience hooked.
There is the ticking-time bomb device, Mr. Orange is bleeding to death and they don’t have a lot of time to rescue him.
There is the opening scene, shot at a completely different pace, totally unrelated to the rest of the movie, to exaggerate the stakes as the movies goes from no stakes, easy conversation scene to a life and death situation.
There is dancing, K-Billy radio station and racial slurs.
All these are to keep the audience hooked. They could all have been avoided, removed from the script and the story will still stand. But with these, the stakes are raised higher than ever, they add colour.
But the story is not about any of these hooks and story telling devices. The story is about dramatic irony. The story is about information sharing and secrets.
It is an absolutely amazing film.