#8 in my Ranking of Quentin Tarantino movies.
The thing that makes this movie work at all is its structure. I can imagine this same movie arranged chronologically and it would be a slog. It doesn’t help that it was obviously written with this structure in mind, but even taking that into account, the second half would be just too much.
It really starts with the opening scene. In a “normal” movie, this scene would be much shorter and much more perfunctory. It’s the scene right before a heist begins, the final moments before the gang gets into the car and heads to the robbery. Here, we don’t really know what they’re gathered for. Instead, it’s just eight guys sitting around a table talking. We start with something so off the wall (a discussion of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”) that it really feels like a bunch of guys just talking over breakfast. The scene overall does two things, though, it introduces us to the characters (with a focus on a handful instead of everyone) and it is filled with foreshadowing.
The most famous example is Mr. Orange immediately calling out Mr. Pink for not contributing to the tip (meaning Mr. Orange is the undercover cop), but the more interesting bit is Mr. Pink’s insistence on not tipping. It’s a wonderful moment of character and foreshadowing at once. On first viewing, it seems extraneous and paints Mr. Pink in a terrible light. However, what it does is shows that Mr. Pink is willing to question everything about a situation. Why do we tip waitresses but not workers at McDonald’s? he asks. Whatever the actual answer is to that specific question, it shows that he’s willing to step back and question things, so when the survivors of the botched robbery gather at the abandoned warehouse, he’s the one asking the right questions. It’s a wonderful set up for Mr. Pink.
Anyway, the structure does more than that one scene, obviously. The majority of the film takes place in one location, the abandoned warehouse. If the movie were to take place chronologically, the last 60% or so of the film would be in one place, only going outside for brief moments here and there. It would monotonize the visual look of the film as well as the tone. It’s high strung yelling, pleading, and threatening from the moment Mr. White bursts into the place with Mr. Orange bleeding out over his arm. Roughly 55 minutes of that would become almost intolerable, but because that is told in order (limiting confusion about the events in the warehouse) and we cut from there to moments in the past for three characters (Mr. White, Mr. Blonde, and Mr. Orange) that are significantly lighter in tone.
Those flashbacks (and one flashback within the flashback for Mr. Orange) provide more than just a lighter tone, though, they further provide character information that helps flesh out most of the gang. Mr. White gives bits of his backstory and we understand his relationship to Joe and Eddie, the two running the operation. We see how Mr. Blonde kept his mouth shut in prison and how Joe and Eddie are grateful for it. We also see how Mr. Orange learned his part and ingratiated himself with the crew enough to become part of the job.
The only real problems I have are the fact that Mr. Blue and Mr. Brown are largely afterthoughts and the lack of emotional connection with the rest of the characters. Mr. Blue seems to be a red herring for who could the rat be (since we don’t find out Mr. Orange is the rat until more than halfway through the film), but he barely makes an impression when he’s on screen and he’s barely talked about when he’s off screen. Mr. Brown seems to be little more than cannon fodder (and an excuse for Quentin Tarantino to say “dicks” a whole lot on screen). The rest of the characters, though, while they do get time to differentiate and grow themselves, don’t create strong attachments with the audience (at least this audience), so when they all die in the end, it doesn’t hit that hard.
Shot selection is carefully arranged with intelligent use of a combination of wide, medium, and close shots at the appropriate times. Entire scenes play out in wide shots except for the heightened emotional moments that go in close. Performances are good, though because so much of the film happens at the same tenor, it’s hard to tell how good they are. Still, it’s a striking debut from an obviously talented filmmaker.
Netflix Rating: 4/5
Quality Rating: 3/4
Originally published here