Los Angeles; Early '90s
The present action would actually make the ancient Greek dramatists happy because it has a little something called "unity of place." What's unity of place? Well, its when almost everything takes place in the same… place. In this case, it's an abandoned funeral home. (Very fitting.)
We get a brief shot of White and Orange in the car but from that point on we never leave the funeral home except to go outside with Blonde to get some gasoline. The funeral home is the center of the action. It contains the arguments, the torture, and the final standoff and shootout. It may be old and abandoned—just like the bodies it used to hold—but it's filled with the life of our characters. Everything in the funeral home happens in real time.
We get a little time with our characters in other places like the diner and the other diner and some cars, a bar, Joe's office. In fact, if you noticed the spacing of these narrative turns into the past, it's almost as if they're placed to trick us into forgetting where the movie's taking place. Maybe you would have never noticed that everything present-day happens in the funeral home because these brief flashbacks help the film not feel so confined.
Dogs is basically a present-day film, and, because it was released in 1992 we can assume "present day" means early '90s. Not too complicated.
However, the music of the film is from the '70s. Apparently a local radio station is having a weekend extravaganza of '70s tunes and it gives the film as a whole a different kind of vibe than one would expect from an early '90s movie. Most of the songs played have this very upbeat kind of feel to them, almost like K-Billy's smooth voice is taking us on a nostalgic trip back to when all was well and everyone was happy. Unfortunately, in the film's present, all is definitely not well, which is why the music stands in stark contrast to the action we're witnessing.
Film critic Jeffrey Dawson has said that the movie looks like the 1950s (those black suits borrowed from the old film noir genre), is set in the 1990s, but acts like the 1970s. Tarantino wanted to make the time period somewhat ambiguous so that when audiences in the future watched the movie, it wouldn't feel dated.
For a high-school audience who never heard of Christie Love or Pam Grier, or for audiences with a limited knowledge of the '50s and '60s film genres that Tarantino's referencing, the film might feel dated anyway. For a film buff, though, it's timeless.
The film opens with a cozy crowded diner scene with people laughing and joking: It's pretty amusing and upbeat. Don't get too comfortable, though.
Most of the film's atmosphere is bleak, tense, and dark. Tarantino uses an abandoned, poorly-lit funeral home (filled with coffins in case we didn't get the point) with a bleeding cop as the major prop. Graffiti on the wall reads "Watch your head." There's not much letup from the feeling of menace and tension. The brief jump cuts to prior scenes only enhance the claustrophobia and dread of the atmosphere in the funeral home, where things are falling apart by the second.
Tarantino creates this bleak but menacing mood with long shots and dim lighting (did we mention the bleeding cop?). Periodic bursts of violent action contribute to the overall sense of tension. Knowing that Orange is slowly bleeding out adds another layer of tension and desperation.
The characters are all on edge because there's a rat and no one knows who it is. Orange is drifting in and out of consciousness, but we can imagine he's on edge too with all the discussion about the setup. The viewers are on edge because things are going downhill fast and we don't know what's going to happen next. Tarantino's created an atmosphere of darkness and unpredictability with no respite for the viewer until… everyone's dead.