Friday, April 13, 2012

Reservoir Dogs Opening Scene: An Analysis

I haven't posted here in a while. I've been busy, which is good. I'm on page 80 of a screenplay I hope to shoot. Super positive happy fun time, that progress is.

In the meantime, I thought I'd take a quick break from that and do a short writeup about one of my favorite scenes, the opening scene in Reservoir Dogs. You can watch it here. I'll wait.

While this scene is remembered primarily for the awesome dialogue and the unaffected frivolity of it all (an aesthetic hipsters have been failing to achieve since), Tarantino also uses the scene to effectively lay the table for the rest of the film. He uses several very simple camera tricks to achieve this.

We start with dialogue and no visuals, about Madonna's Like A Virgin. We quickly move into a drifting camera shot that pans around the participants at the table. It's a brilliant shot, not just for the energy, but the way it stays tightly framed, keeping us from every seeing the whole table at once. In fact, basically every screen cap to begin is an OTS that frames exactly one person.

It also visually drifts wholly behind the backs of people at the table at times, turning the screen black, giving us only dialogue. This draws us into listening closely: with nothing to watch, it puts the emphasis entirely on the dialogue.

This is all well and good, but it doesn't do much to set up the rest of the film. It's fun, gives us a nice red herring with the Tarantino character, and is a brilliant piece of writing, but all this is a distraction from what really matters in the scene.

We don't stop on a static shot until two minutes in. When we do, it's on Joe, the guy who has been stuttering about Wong and Wang and generally disconnected from the conversation up til this point. This sets up the separation between Joe and the others.

What happens when we stop drifting and focus in on an actual exchange? We jump back and forth between a close up on Joe, an OTS on Mr. White, and a two shot of Mr. White and Mr. Orange, and later we see an OTS on Mr. Blonde. This exchange seems less memorable than most of the rest, but it has our first real confrontation. Mr. White wants Joe to stop rambling on about his address book, steals it from him, and berates him publicly. This is subtle, but immediately establishes Mr. White as a superior, or at least equal, position to Joe. His pissed off demeanor establishes him as the professional at the table. The only person not excited about Madonna's sexual experiences.

It also gives us our first more medium shot of the scene, the two shot of White and Orange, linking those two characters in our minds without drawing any sort of attention to it. This is important, because Mr. Orange will be completely subservient for the rest of the film, until the big reveal towards the end of the movie. It also sets up the climax, which revolves around the audience's willingness to accept that Mr. White would risk his life for Mr. Orange, reenforced by the immediate association of the two together from the very first scene. One other key thing that happens here is Blonde's suggestion of shooting White, placing him as the psychopath of the group. In less than a minute of screen time, we've established baseline relationships and characteristics for the major conflicts of the film: White vs. Joe, White vs Blonde, and eventually White vs Orange.

With the real heavy lifting of the scene finished, Tarantino lets the camera begin to float again as we dive into K Billy's Super Sounds of the Seventies (letting Nice Guy Eddie and Mr. Pink, our two other key characters, launch us into frivolities again, briefing framed in a two shot before we resume our floating OTS close ups). This seems a silly diversion, but it does set up the music for the film as a strange hybrid between a soundtrack designed for the audience, and a natural soundtrack provided by the environment of the film (and giving us the initial justification for the music in both the iconic dramatic walking scene ending the diner sequence AND Mr. Blonde's 'Stuck in the Middle With You' torture dance).

We drift for a bit, until Joe interrupts us (and the camera) again, by standing up and reasserting his dominance over the table (and Mr. White). We then move into static close ups in the tipping conversation, our brilliant set up of Pink (and to a lesser extent, Nice Guy Eddie). We break our string of closeups for another two shot of White and Orange, reenforcing the connection between the two in our minds. While the others have been incredulous about Pink's decision not to tip, White is legitimately angry, and delivers an impassioned monologue in defense of waitresses. Again, it doesn't take long, but we've completely established Mr. White as the protagonist of the film at this point, with only a couple of moments. He only speaks up when things get serious, he stands up to the boss, and he protects the vulnerable. Mr. Orange basically eye fucks him while he defends the waitresses (notice our wire has not had much to say during this entire eight minute sequence, apropos for a mole attempting to blend in and pick up on an entirely foreign set of circumstances). At the same time, Pink establishes himself as the asshole whose still somewhat likable.

The exchange ends with Orange switching sides but quickly getting shot down by Nice Guy Eddie, who for the first time demonstrates that, despite his goofy appearance, he has actual authority at the table. He doesn't ask: he commands, and Orange quickly acquiesces (unlike everyone else at the table, Orange has been utterly subservient in every exchange so far. He immediately changes opinion based on whoever has talked more recently, watches others go at it, and does what he's told as soon as he's told to do so. This pattern of weakness makes it that much more stunning when the reveal that he's the cop comes later in the film: we're set up to think of him as the weakest person in the bunch from the very beginning, and in some ways, he is).

Joe returns, hilariously abuses Orange, then wheels into Pink. (this is done with our first 3 shot, and our first view of the background of the diner, putting Joe, White, and Orange in a well composed row for us). Joe stands for the exchange, reestablishing himself as the most powerful person at the table, a position he justifies by quickly cowing everyone else over the tipping debate. Pink gives up without a fight. This doesn't seem like much, but it reenforces the earlier dynamic between Joe and White: White is so far the only person to even attempt to contradict anything Joe says, even when Joe (jokes?) about having him killed.

When White does the same at the end of the film, it's no surprise then. And we immediately have precedent that their relationship is much more than employer/employee: they have a long enough history that White feels comfortable defying Joe publicly, and Joe is comfortable enough with White that he never takes it fully seriously. When Joe trusts White over the others later in the film, that trust feels immediately justified, not through the subsequent exposition in Joe's office, but through the clear power relationships established at the diner.

We fade into K-Billy as White gives the book back to Joe, who angrily snatches it, and the film cuts to the walking montage. The montage, besides the stylistic awesomeness, is notable for relegating Orange to last, putting him below Blue and Brown in the hierarchy, again distracting us from the much more important role he'll play later on in the film.

What else does this scene do? It introduces us to the silly names without ever putting us on strong footing as far as which name goes with which character. It gives us the faces and personalities of the entire team. And when things immediately begin going to shit, and people are dead, it opens up questions that draw us into the main arc of the film nearly immediately. Which one of those guys was Mr. Blue? Was it the guy in the blue windbreaker? Is he dead? Is someone else dead? How many people were there again? Who else might show up? What happened to the Like A Virgin guy?

When people are dying later on, they don't feel like random, arbitrary faces. They feel like people with whom you've already sat down and held hilarious conversations. In fact, Brown and Blue dominate the first few minutes of the movie, even though they both die off screen immediately afterwards. This only works, though, because in the few moments where the real lead characters take the spotlight, the camera settles on them, and they drop the silly dialogue for legitimate relationship establishment. It's done quickly and efficiently, and the fun, silly parts with the drifting camera pick back up again and become what you remember from the scene, but it's all a red herring to make the important pieces more digestible and less exposition-y.

The opening diner scene exists to cleanly establish every fact you need to know for the rest of the movie. Every major scene is alluded to in some form or another. Once the tip is paid and K-Billy takes you out, you're fully engrossed and grounded in the world of Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs.


  1. The analysis of Orange as submissive and White as both authoritative and nurturing is completely in line with Amy Taubin's description of the characters' relationship as a "sado-masochistic" love bond. Nice work.

  2. This is great! also if you notice when Joe asks who didnt tip, Mr. Orange rats him out immediately, setting up his role as the undercover cop.
    Joe: Wait a minute ... who didn't throw in?
    Orange: Mr. Pink
    Joe: Mr. Pink? Why not?
    Orange: He don't tip.
    Joe: He don't tip? What do you mean you don't tip?
    Orange: He don't believe in it.
    Joe: Shut up.

  3. great notes but Also I just noticed something at 3.30 minutes into the movie or scene and it blew my hair back. You actually see Mr. Pink go to take a sip of his coffee and he is out of coffee looking for the waitress this setups with in the scene the discussion of the tip.