Musings On An Ear

“Torture you? That’s a Good Idea. I Like that One. Sounds Fun.”

I’m often given a stink eye when I proclaim “Reservoir Dogs” as one of my lesser liked Tarantino films. While I think it’s stellar, I also think it possesses a lot of the hallmarks of a fresh talent desperate to impress right out of the gate. That said, I would agree “Reservoir Dogs” is a wonderful example of crime cinema, and a wonderful exploration on the levels of brutal violence. All at once Tarantino explores cartoonish action movie violence, brutal realistic violence, and a personal kind of violence that people still talk about to this day.

The scene is set with “Reservoir Dogs”: The diamond heist put forth by Joe Cabot was absolutely disastrous, costing the lives of a few of the skilled thieves hired by him and his son Nice Guy Eddie. What should have been an easy gig turned in to a bloodbath as Mr. Orange is lying in a pool of his own blood after a shot in the stomach; the remaining thieves meeting to figure out what the fuck happened. One of the more unhinged individuals among them is Mr. Blonde who shows up sipping a coke, relaxed as ever, while Mr. White and Mr. Pink try to settle what happened during the robbery.

What’s fascinating is that unlike everyone else, Tarantino gives us time to get to know Vic Vega/Mr. Blonde. He’s a great friend of Nice Guy Eddie, Paul Cabot is pretty much like a father to him, and he even did jail time for him for the Cabot’s. He seems like a normal street hood that is entrenched in his life of crime, and it’s how he likes it. When we meet him he’s fresh out of jail ready for another heist. When we meet him again in his white and black suit, he’s in his element, and the tides turn when he reveals he’d kidnapped cop Marvin Nash.

After beating him up hoping to find some information on him, Mr. White and Mr. Pink leave for a bit allowing Mr. Blonde some time with Nash. What begins as a routine violent interrogation by some pissed off criminals for hire soon turns in to a scene of pure sadism.

What makes the scene involving Mr. Blonde so absolutely horrendous and impossible to watch is the intimacy of the entire sequence. Director Tarantino rarely features long tracking shots in “Reservoir Dogs” (save for the opening sequence), but suddenly he’s following Mr. Blonde out to his car, and back in to the warehouse where Nash awaits helpless and strapped to a chair. This isn’t a moment of business, but a brief interlude of pleasure for Vega, who expresses to Nash that he doesn’t give a shit what he does or doesn’t know about what happened. It’s clear that no matter what Nash does, Mr. Blonde is going to inflict sheer brutality.

From there we watch Mr. Blonde engage in to something of a personal ritual, pumping up Stealer’s Wheels’ “Stuck in the Middle With You” and donning a straight razor. He does exactly what we expect, slashing Nash’s face and indulging in his pain and torment uninterrupted (without Tarantino moving away from the scene). Then he makes the move toward Nash, with the straight razor. Tarantino does a peculiar thing, though. He pans away from the brutality. This in a movie where we’ve seen nothing but gun shots to the face, gun shots to the stomach, buckets of blood, and two policemen gunned down in cold blood.

Tarantino pans away slowly to the nearest wall from the suddenly realistic human suffering, allowing us only to hear Nash scream in unspeakable pain, while Blonde indulges in what is clearly a personal ritual. That might be why the scene is so infamous. This is a ritual that Mr. Blonde sets aside for personal pleasure and nothing more. Nothing from his cohorts being killed in or potentially everything falling apart really affects him.

For reasons we never quite understand, he’s just giddy to maim Nash as much as possible before White and Pink arrive with Cabot and Nice Guy Eddie. It’s so personal that he practically breaks the fourth wall ordering the camera man to look away while he enjoys his own private hobby. It’s something we don’t see occur, and when all is said and done it’s just as painful and excruciating to hear Nash wail in agony. I still cringe and still squirm in my seat. We don’t see the severing of the ear, and we don’t have to.

Surely Mr. Orange is suffering, but someone outside the fold has become the prey for one of the predators. No matter how much Officer Nash begs or tries to reason, Mr. Blonde wants to hear none of it, first taunting him with his severed ear, and then dousing him with gasoline, preparing for the coup de grace.

It was said that Director Wes Craven (and five other theater goers) walked out of the 1992 screening during this scene from sheer disgust; I understand his apprehension toward experiencing this truly stomach churning moment. Because for once, in a movie filled with Peckingpah-esque action, for a moment the violence is real. It’s personal. It’s stark. And there’s some severe human suffering unfolding.