Quentin Tarantino Couldn't Understand The Reactions To Reservoir Dogs' Torture Scene

In 1992, Quentin Tarantino received the greatest gift a provocateur director could ask for when his debut film, "Reservoir Dogs," proved so intense that multiple attendees of that year's Sundance Film Festival fled the first screening. The scene that sent them running was, of course, Michael Madsen's torture of a kidnapped cop scored to Stealers Wheel's kitschy '70s hit, "Stuck in the Middle with You." It's a macabrely hilarious sequence that peaks when Madsen's Mr. Blonde slices the officer's ear off with a straight razor, and it's particularly effective because Tarantino pans away from the cop as Madsen goes to work. In movies, it's often the brutality that's left to your imagination that cuts the deepest.

Tarantino, whose career would flourish due to his cast-iron stomach for ultraviolence, was understandably thrilled to learn that "Reservoir Dogs" had struck a raw nerve with Sundance audiences, but he was annoyed when Steve Buscemi (aka Mr. Pink) told him the word out of that initial screening was that the torture sequence ruined the movie. During the Q&A for the film's 25th-anniversary screening at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, Tarantino recalled telling the actor, "'What are they talking about? It's the best thing in the f***ing movie! Did you see how many people walked out? That's the sh**!'"

In search of strong stomachs

As "Reservoir Dogs" made the festival rounds in 1992, Tarantino relished the notoriety generated by his movie. Still, he was eager to see the film play to a crowd that totally, unequivocally got it. He figured he would find that at the genre-centric Sitges Film Festival in the fall of that year. He was shocked to discover he was dead wrong.

According to Tarantino:

"They showed Peter Jackson's 'Dead Alive,' which was just drowned in zombie guts and brains. Finally I've got an audience that won't walk out. I even joked about that in the opening introduction for the movie. Five people walked out of that audience, including Wes Craven. The f***ing guy who did 'Last House on the Left' walked out? The guy who did 'Last House on the Left,' my movie's too tough for him."

Violence Italian style

Point taken, QT, but Craven's "The Last House on the Left" is about grief-stricken parents taking revenge on the scumbag drifters who raped and murdered their daughter. Craven's violence had a psychological purpose until he hopped on the "Scream" train (and, even then, he was deconstructing a genre that he'd helped to proliferate). "Reservoir Dogs" is a great film, but it's got a classroom exercise vibe to it; Harvey Keitel injects it with a tragic, honor-amongst-thieves dimension, but the primary sensation it evokes is exhilaration. It's Al Pacino in "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood": "What a picture!"

Tarantino vibed hard on the exploitation masters of the 1970s and '80s. He brought the wanton violence of Fernando Di Leo's neo-noirs to a viewing public that had never experienced the cruelty of those gangster classics. People thought he was ripping off Hong Kong masters like Ringo Lam and John Woo, but that was all on the surface. Tarantino took his thematic cues from the Italians. Violence is inevitable. We're all going down. The world is ruled by people who kill without question. Tarantino eventually found his moral footing, but he's never told a straighter truth than he did with "Reservoir Dogs." Humans are monsters. Deal.