October 9, 2009

Mr Orange and moral conflict

Rewatching Reservoir Dogs this week, the first time in more than a decade, I was caught by a line from critic Amy Taubin on the commentary: Reservoir Dogs unfolds in the time it takes undercover cop Mr Orange (Tim Roth) to bleed to death. Drop the prologue, she says, and that's how it works. After the title sequence, he is seen squealing and bloody in the back of the car driven by Mr White (Harvey Keitel), then he's on the floor of the warehouse the gang is using as a rendezvous in a pool of blood that gets deeper and darker as the film goes on. The first time I saw this -- probably 1993, a film festival -- I was reminded of something by Beckett or Sartre's No Exit. These doomed guys, this one dingy location, black humour and obvious fatalism. That warehouse had the feeling of a stage set (actually, it's a morgue with plastic sheeting draped over coffins and hearses -- apt for a story where almost no one gets out alive). I didn't single out any one character as mattering more than any other: Mr Pink (Steve Buscemi) and Mr Blonde (Michael Madsen) are clearly secondary players to Orange and White but Buscemi's comic relief is so well done and Madsen's notorious ear-slicing bit so memorable that they would hold an equal position in your memory of the film. Blonde, Orange and White all get back stories; Pink gets none -- yet he's the one who lives. But Taubin's line suggests that this was never a story about gangsters; it was always a story about an undercover cop. In this reading, the most important scenes in the film are the long flashback in which Orange is coached by another cop in how to tell a story about a criminal situation; he's like an actor learning a part, which is doubly clever when you consider that the British Roth was training himself in an American accent at the same time. These criminals take on identities just as actors do; Roth's character just takes on more layers of identity than most. Identity is conveyed through storytelling and when the criminal Orange, in his back story, encounters cops in a hotel bathroom, we see that they're listening to a long crime anecdote as well. The DVD's deleted scenes give us more of this, more of Orange's back story, more of his preparation, more of the world outside the repurposed morgue -- had these scenes gone into the original film the balance would have been tipped and there would be no question that this was always a film about the moral conflicts and difficulties of the undercover world and the brutality and unscrupulousness of the criminals you encounter in it (the White we warm to in the film is revealed as close to psychopathic in the deleted scene called "background check"). By leaving these scenes out, and making the film less Mr Orange's story and more the story of the cold-blooded White/Pink/Blonde, Tarantino's position in relation to criminality and violence became more ambiguous. Either that or he didn't really know how to get the moral conflict across.