The Homosexual Subtext of Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” (1992)

Reservoir Dogs is one of many films, past and present, that either flirt with or fully incorporate homosexual innuendo, expand­ing the vast symbolic field that homosexual­ity embraces. Its subtextual strategy mirrors the longstanding suppression and willful concealment of homoerotic desire in our society.

by Robert Hilferty

Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino’s dynamic first feature about a group of hoods who fuck up a jewel heist, is far from inno­cent. This savvy movie—a kind of postmod­ernist send-up of B-movies—announces the very subject of ‘subtext’ in its opening scene, which simultaneously provides the key to decipher the one that follows. When mem­bers of the all-male cast discuss Madonna’s song, “Like A Virgin,” the song’s true mean­ing—its subtext—is offered by the character played by the film s author. Tarantino says that it is about a girl—not in the least a vir­gin—who prefers “big dicks” (ostensibly because they hurt her, reminding her of her first time).

This pretitle prelude—rife as it is with traditional male anxiety over penis size—will suggest, in retrospect, that the film, like the song, has a ‘hidden’ meaning, and that this ‘meaning’ might have something to do with ‘dick,’ that is, male sexuality, with all its boys-with-guns trappings. Violent language and violent acts define the power politics of male sexuality, on which Reservoir Dogs is a virtual tragicomic essay. Homoeroticism insinuates itself through visual double entendre and narrative ellipses, and ulti­mately illuminates the film’s central rela­tionship. The homosexual subtext is primar­ily focused through Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) and Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), the undercover cop, whose covert story is one of blind love and betrayal.

Far from being about a jewel heist—this event is not even shown—Tarantino’s story concentrates on the relations between the heisters, and how they deal with the realiza­tion, after the job is botched, that one of them tipped off the cops. Reservoir Dogs’s narrative strategy employs a series of Hash- backs, each one dedicated to one of the main players, which supply the missing pieces to the puzzle. These narrative satel­lites always return to the central battle­ground, the ‘hideout’—a warehouse where the various ‘showdowns’ are played out after the heist. This death marked theatrical space (it is actually a mortuary )—erect coffins and a covered hearse are in the background— provides a kind of ‘No Exit’ situation— unreal, mythic, metaphoric, and doomed. By the end, all but one are dead, having annihilated one another, driven by the absurd interaction of instinctual aggression, on the one hand, and a sense of honor (if Mafia-like), on the other.

In Tarantino’s picture of primitive male society—a phallocracy, where the erect phallus equals power—Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney), a totemic creation, is the ring­leader, sitting at the top of this male hierar­chy. He is the oldest, the biggest, the richest. He has the deepest voice and is completely bald—a testament to his overflowing testos­terone. His patriarchic nature is emphasized by the fact that he has a son. Good Guy Eddie, to whom passes his authority. As the emblem of phallic power, Cabot is framed (in the scenes which take place in his office) by two huge elephant tusks which look like two giant phalluses. Cabot is the ‘big dick,‘ the hunter, the giver of names, the tribal chief. No one can challenge his authority without consequences. Homosexuality, as form of dissent, is therefore invoked by him any time the macho order is threatened.

Homophobic remarks in the surface dia­log, far from being casual or random, are intentionally embedded in the film’s satiric discourse, and help define the boundaries of expected masculine behavior. The first accu­sation of homosexuality is somewhat comi­cal, and occurs when the gang members are given color-coded names by Cabot (Mr. White, Mr. Orange, Mr. Rink, Mr. Blonde, Mr. Blue, and Mr. Brown), to protect their identity from each other. This mutually- agreed upon anonymity echoes the anonymity of the homosexual underworld, the secret society of criminalized sexuality. As they receive their names, the character played by Steve Buscemi complains when he is labelled ”Mr. Pink.” “Why am I called Mr. Pink?.” he indignantly asks Cabot. “Because you’re a faggot!,” Cabot immediately shoots back in his characteristically gruff manner. Later, near the end, Cabot announces to everyone that Mr. Orange, who lies dying in a pool of his own blood, is really an under­cover cop. Pointing a gun at the bleeding man, he calls him a “cocksucker.” While such a vulgar accusation of homosexuality is conflated with a charge of treachery, at the same time it indicates the film’s true homo­sexual subcurrent, which blooms in the last scene.

Explicit homosexual acts are associated with the film’s most demented, sadistic character, Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen). In his flashback, in Cabot’s office, Mr. Blonde playfully wrestles with Good Guy Eddie, who accuses Blonde of trying to fuck him in his father’s office: “You can do what you want in the privacy in your own home, but not here.” Eddie then speculates that Mr. Blonde, while incarcerated, “had so much black semen pumped into his ass that now it’s coming out of his mouth.” Mr. Blonde is at one point framed here, fleetingly yet con­spicuously, with a reproduction of Manteg­na’s St. Sebastian. Why should a classic gay icon of male beauty and gay suffering be included in such a film, if not to hint at its subtextual orientation?

Sebastian’s arrow-inflicted body prefig­ures Blonde’s own death by multiple bullets, although he’s no martyr. Not at all the cool dude he appears to be, Blonde lacks self-control (he shoots prematurely at the jewel heist) and is the agent of the film’s most grueling scene: the gratuitous torture of an attractive, young cop. At first. Blonde pre­sents his hostage to Mr. White and Mr. Orange as a kind of sexual prize. Blonde takes pure, sadistic glee in asserting his power over his helpless victim—it’s impor­tant that he show he is his own free agent, beholden to no boss, not submissive to any man—by slashing and slicing off the cop’s ear to the rhythms of a radio song. (The whole sequence is reminiscent of Kubrick’s violent setting of “Singin’ in the Rain” in A Clockwork Orange.)

Up to this point in the film, most of the homosexual stuff has been presented as a cacophonous medley of oblique, ‘noisy’ homophobic references. But it is with the theme of the undercover cop that the film’s most sustained homoerotic double entendre is carried out. Seen as superfluous by some critics, the undercover cop’s flashback is, on the contrary, of central importance to the construction of the film’s homosexual sub­text. Not only is it clearly used as a metaphor for masking one’s homosexuality in order to ‘pass,’ it also brings the story full circle to its opening image of a blood-soaked Mr. Orange in the back seat of a car.

The undercover cop is coached in the technique of method acting. He must learn his script, memorize his lines, and imitate a ‘cool, macho dude’ so as to be convincing in the eyes of Cabot and the others. This whole sequence, elegantly rendered by Tarantino, is a parable of the acquisition of a macho mask through learning the codes of mas­culinity. The dead giveaway comes when, just before he gives his performance to Cabot and the boys, he puts on a false wed­ding-ring, the final touch to his costume. This action is queer, to say the least, because there’s no reason for it, it’s unnecessary. Why should he appear to the guys to be married? As the oldest gimmick in the book, the most common subterfuge to disguise homosexuality, this symbolic gesture expos­es the subtext most nakedly.

The bogus story he’s carefully rehearsed and now tells to Cabot and the boys has him entering the public bathroom of a train sta­tion where he runs into four cops and their dope-sniffing German shepherd. He must ‘play it cool’ because at any moment it might be discovered that he is carrying a load of dope. Although this story does not represent a real event in the life of its teller, Tarantino decides to show it to us anyway, as a kind of private visualization (perhaps a mnemonic device) of the undercover cop. As he tells his sham story, Tarantino cuts to a phony flashback: we see the impostor in the bathroom reciting his lines to cops, not Cabot. In this most unreal and theatrical scene, Tarantino takes the opportunity to make a visual pun of the homosexual over­tones of the situation—after all, the public bathroom is a traditional site of anonymous homosexual interchange. Suffused with the alleged fear of being discovered there with dope on him—which correlates to the ‘Is he or isn’t he?’ erotic paranoia of the secret homosexual—this scene is played out as a series of questioning, ambiguous glances. Curiously, the soon-to-be-dubbed Mr. Orange lingers, as does Tarantino’s camera, which cruises in close-up gazes and slow motion. The scene drags out the suspense, and deliberately flirts with gay porno iconography. The undercover has success­fully seduced Cabot, who now accepts him.

The seduction does not end with Cabot. As one of the boys, Mr. Orange nurtures ‘unprofessional’ behavior on the part of Mr. White, who becomes unusually affectionate with him. The two are arm-around-shoulder walking away from an unexpected shoot out with some cops, where Mr. Orange could have intervened as a cop, but did not. The flashback culminates with the shot that opened the film: Mr. White driving a seri­ously wounded Mr. Orange to the hideout. In that first scene, we remember the loving way that White held Orange’s hand, consol­ing him. We also remember how Orange, who in the face of death has become like a helpless boy, asked White to hold him tight. White took him in his arms, and, in an apparent effort to alleviate his pain, unzipped his fly.

The implications of this sexual double entendre are carried through till the end, and bring to fruition all the homosexual underpinnings hinted at thus far. After Orange’s flashback, at the hideout, when White wants to take the bleeding man to a hospital, Mr. Pink, in spite of his reserva­tions about such a risky act. agrees, reiterat­ing that the rule of anonymity protects them. But here White reveals that the rule has been breached—that Orange knows his first name is ‘Larry’ and where he’s from. Pink freaks out and demands to know why he gave out such precious information. White gets nervous and angry, as if he had just been exposed. He defensively says that he told Mr. Orange his name a couple of days ago in a “natural conversation” (curi­ous expression). (What could be more nat­ural than letting slip your name during an intimate, sexual encounter?)

Agitated. White then says that he gave his real name to the dying Orange during the car ride back to the hideout and that he felt he owed him something because he was responsible for Orange being shot. “I’m sure that was a beautiful scene,” Pink shoots back, insisting that telling his name was not “professional” and will prevent him from delivering Orange to the hospital.

White continues to be so protective of Orange that he absolutely refuses to believe Cabot’s accusation of Orange’s complicity with the cops. White protests that this is impossible, that Orange is a good kid, that he knows him—another suggestion of sexual intimacy. Cabot, who said he didn’t check enough into Orange’s background (“You don’t need proof when you have instinct”), wants to kill the traitor. But White comes to his defense with his gun, at which point Cabot’s son Eddie pulls a gun on White. In the film’s most comic picture of mutual annihilation, they all shoot each other. And Pink, the only survivor, runs off with the diamonds.

Struggling. White drags himself towards Orange—for one last embrace? This gesture, like everything else about their behavior, indicates a strongly affectionate, even sexual, bond. He takes Orange in his arms, their mouths almost touching, as if they are about to kiss. In a Pieto-like position—I have never seen such tenderness between two men in an ostensibly straight crime film—the final tragic scene is played out like a veri­table Liebesiod. When Orange confesses who he really is—“I’m a cop. I’m sorry”—he seems to follow it up with the tacit question. “Do you still love me?” White, overcome by grief—he is groaning—realizes he has been deceived. Honor dictates that he must kill him, even though it means his own death. This personal execution becomes an act of supreme passion. Now cops flood the ware­house and tell him not to shoot their man. White shoots Orange in the mouth, and is instantly gunned down. Do I dare say that the two lovers are now united in death?

Because the film’s very structure empha­sizes what’s left out—filling in blanks along the way. as it were—it’s not entirely ludi­crous that the film’s grandest ellipsis is the love scene (that is, the sexual encounter) between Orange and White, where caresses, sweet nothings, and first names are exchanged.

This does not mean that Reservoir Dogs is a ‘gay’ film. Such a categorization is too lit­eral-minded: besides, we now live in an age where such a term should be employed only to describe those films with explicit gay con­tent. But the inevitable question remains: Why is the homosexual subtext there at all? What does it express? What is its function? Why couldn’t the director be more explicit?

Unlike some directors, who might throw in a little homoeroticism for exotic color, or those who thoughtlessly sprinkle the dialog with dumb homophobia, Tarantino has a gritty street-smartness about his homosexu­al substratum. Here’s a guy who seems genuinely in tune with the vagaries and sub­terfuges of male sexuality, including its primitive, self-destructive aspect. Masculini­ty is a fragile psychic state. Men must always prove they’re men; that is to say they must deny those parts of themselves which are naturally feminine or homosexual (usually conflating the two). This explains why ritu­als of male bonding are as homoerotic as they are homophobic. No wonder a kind of schizophrenia develops in the male psyche! (Just look at the present hysteria over gays in the military.) In the tongue in cheek, near­existentialist all-male universe he paints, Tarantino explores the question: how can/do men love/hate each other? In peck­ing and pawing at this issue, homosexuali­ty’s subcutaneous presence is naturally and honestly represented—albeit in a web of black humor.

Reservoir Dogs is one of many films, past and present, that either flirt with or fully incorporate homosexual innuendo, expand­ing the vast symbolic field that homosexual­ity embraces. Its subtextual strategy mirrors the longstanding suppression and willful concealment of homoerotic desire in our society. Because of its insidious latency, and the irrational fear of its expression, homo­sexuality unyieldingly emerges as a recur­rent, structural anxiety for macho sexuality, a thorn in the side of institutionalized het­erosexism. As the world’s big secret and a subcultural phenomenon, homosexuality is the quintessential subtext, the pervasive sub­text, the subtext that dare not speak its name. Subversive as it is subtle, subliminal as it is substantial, the homosexual subtext, in its infinite variety of forms and nuances, won’t go away.

Cinéaste, Vol. 19, No. 4 (1993), pp. 79-81


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