Study Guide

Reservoir Dogs Themes

  • Violence

    Violence is a major feature of Reservoir Dogs, , as it is with most Tarantino films. The movie is centered around a failed armed robbery and its disastrous consequences. People get shot, killed, and tortured in some excruciatingly shocking scenes. While there are definitely those brutal, hard to watch scenes, the violence is more integral to the film than a few stomach-churning images.

    Violence is a way of life to the characters. It's what they do in their jobs, and it seeps into their talk and their actions as they try to cope with the horrible situation in which they find themselves. We see how the catastrophic outcome of the failed heist unleashes the characters' violent behavior as they blame each other and try to understand what happened. The unremitting violence in the film leaves the viewers feeling pretty beaten up themselves. Hmm… there's an essay in there somewhere.

    Questions About Violence

    1. What role does verbal violence play in the film?
    2. Why does Tarantino choose not to explore the backstory to these guys' violent lives?
    3. Tarantino has insisted that movie violence doesn't lead to violent behavior on the part of people that watch it. Do you think he can have an objective view? Did your family hide the steak knives when you came home from the theater?

    Chew on This

    Blonde's brand of violence is the worst. It's without any purpose other than his own demented pleasure.

    The LAPD's handling of the crime was completely unethical. By allowing the heist to occur in order to get to Joe, they endangered the lives of not only their own employees but of innocent civilians.

  • Madness

    Whether habitual criminals like these guys are just bad or seriously mentally ill has been hotly debated. Some criminals can be psychotic, out of touch with reality—we're thinking Blonde. Most fall into the category of psychopath, the new official name of which is "antisocial personality"— the classic symptoms include total disregard for the rights of others, no guilt, no empathy, often charming and cool, disposed to be impulsive, manipulative, and violent.

    We think the guys in Reservoir Dogs  fit the bill. Like we mentioned before, Tarantino is uninterested in how the guys got to be this way. That doesn't mean the viewer isn't wondering about it, however.

    Questions About Madness

    • Why does Joe return to the abandoned funeral home? He says himself that he knows Orange is a rat. Why risk his life by going someplace the cops surely know about?
    • Who's the craziest of them all? Is it Blonde, who will torture just because it amuses him?
    • What drives the robbers? Is it greed? Adrenaline? Are some people just natural-born killers? (Bonus fact: Tarantino wrote the original screenplay for the movie of that name.)

    Chew on This

    Just because someone engages in criminal behavior doesn't make them crazy. They just might have learned it from their family, especially if their family's name is Gambino or Bulger.

    Even though Mr. Blonde is the most blatantly cruel and Mr. White shows compassion to Mr. Orange, all professional criminals are psychopaths or it would be impossible for them to do their jobs.

  • Language and Communication

    For such a suspenseful movie, there is actually a surprisingly small amount of action in Reservoir Dogs. Think about it. We see Pink's escape. We see White and Orange's escape. Then there's the standoff at the end. That's about it. We never even get the heist itself.

    The driving force of this movie isn't the action or the suspense, it's the dialogue. It's not a movie about a heist. It's a movie about people relating to each other: people laughing and joking with each other at the diner or in the car; people arguing and yelling about who did what and what they should do next. It's really more of a drama in the guise of an action movie, and that means that the language and other forms of communication are of the utmost importance.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. What's at the center of the heist's failure and the post-heist debacle? Would better communication have solved the problem?
    2. How does dialogue drive the movie? Does it help to develop the characters in a traditional "character arc" sense?
    3. How does the film appear to be so violent and suspenseful when most of it (torture scene aside) is just talking?
    4. Should Quentin Tarantino have his mouth washed out with soap?

    Chew on This

    The proliferation of the F-word and the use of pop culture references are for the purpose of creating authentic dialogue. It's all an effort to capture how these characters would actually talk.

    The proliferation of the F-word and the use of pop culture references are gimmicks that distract from the nature of the story. The F-word is simply meant to shock us while the pop culture references are so dated that even a couple decades after its release, no one gets them.

  • Lies and Deceit

    Trust is a big deal in Reservoir Dogs. From the very beginning we can see that knowing who's honest and who's not is going to be a real struggle. Joe and Eddie trust Blonde because he went to prison rather than rat on them. Before we learn that Blonde is a complete lunatic, we know that he lied to protect Joe, and went to jail for it. Is it a righteous lie to protect your friend? How about if that friend is a mobster? How about if you're lying as an undercover cop to nail that mobster?

    Other than Joe, none of the guys know anything about each other. They're kept anonymous and forbidden to disclose anything about themselves so no one can ID any of the others if they're arrested. At some level, then, Joe doesn't trust them completely. Maybe he read up on psychopaths and knows that they'll say anything to save their skins when their backs are against the wall. As the film unfolds, we see that nobody knows who to believe.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. What do you make of Mr. Pink's confession that he made it out with and stashed the diamonds? Why wouldn't he have lied or, better yet, just taken off with them in the first place?
    2. What makes Orange's bathroom story such a great lie? What can we learn from Holdaway's coaching?
    3. Do the code names build trust or discourage it?

    Chew on This

    The criminals have to trust each other to a certain extent, even if it's just because they trust Joe to hire trustworthy guys; otherwise they'd never agree to do the job together.

    Orange is the biggest liar in the bunch. Ironically, both characters who do the lying are cops.

  • Loyalty

    Even criminals have principles. Ever hear the expression "honor among thieves?" It's why Mr. Blonde didn't rat on Joe even though it meant four years in the slammer. Loyalty has always been the first commandment of mobsters; you violate it at your peril.

    The six guys in Reservoir Dogs  are all loyal to Joe, but they don't know anything about each other. They're working closely together on this heist without really knowing who to trust. When it becomes clear that there's a rat, all loyalty bets are off.

    Questions About Loyalty

    1. How can criminals like these guys, who seem to have no scruples about robbery and murder, or even concepts like loyalty?
    2. How does a crime boss like Joe inspire loyalty?
    3. How does Tarantino manipulate the audience's loyalty to the characters? Do you think the viewers' loyalties shift as the movie progresses?

    Chew on This

    Loyalty among criminals isn't based on feelings or relationships; it's just enforced behavior to make sure the criminal operations can be successful.

    At the end of his life, Orange had seriously divided loyalties.