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Of Dogs and Men

By Stacy Title

Actors Tim Roth and Michael Madsen discuss their new film, Reservoir Dogs, a shocking look at the moral netherworld of American crime.

Once every season or so, an independent movie with a puny budget, first-time writer/director, and incendiary subject matter bursts on the scene. This season's contender, Reservoir Dogs, has raised hackles at the film festivals. The dogs of the title--six jewel thieves and a mob boss brought together for a diamond heist--are not outlaws, not glamorous thieves, just thugs on a job. In a plot filled with novelistic chapters about betrayal and deceit and brimming with quotes from violent movies of the past, this motley kennel goes on a fast downward track, as the dogs eat the dogs, fetch the diamonds they've stolen, sniff out a rat, and die dogs' deaths.

"They read everybody and his brother for this," says Michael Madsen, 34, who plays the film's resident psychopath and who is best known for his work as Susan Sarandon's lover in Thelma & Louise. "And it only took one read to know you had to do this film," adds Madsen's costar Tim Roth, 31, who played Vincent Van Gogh in Robert Altman's Vincent & Theo. The two actors have six leading roles between them, in a number of films coming out in the next 12 months; doubtless, few of their new projects will create the same scandal as Dogs has. "It's rare material, really," Roth says. "Jim Thompson would have loved it." In fact, Quentin Tarantino, the film's auteur, has paid specific homage not only to the grit and structure of Thompson and Stanley Kubrick's The Killing but to many of the improvisatory and brutalist images of cinema past, particularly the works of Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver), John Cassavetes (The Killing of a Chinese Bookie), and Sam Peckinpah (Straw Dogs).

The provocative peak of the movie comes as Roth lies helplessly bleeding to death and Madsen works over a kidnapped cop strapped to a chair--a scene of brutal torture, ironically played out to the insipid '70s song "Stuck in the Middle with You." "Some of them walked out in Sundance," says Madsen about the audience's reaction when Dogs was shown at Robert Redford's film festival in Utah. "It was bizarre to see people actually get up and leave.... I don't know how to feel about that. On the one hand, you feel, well, the movie's very effective...."

"Yeah," adds Roth, "but then you feel sorry for them 'cause they're missing something."

In a film filled with characters of such questionable humanity (played chillingly well by Lawrence Tierney, Chris Penn, Steve Buscemi, and coproducer Harvey Keitel), Roth and Madsen serve as the narrative's only moral counterpoints--Madsen as bad-guy sadist, Roth as unlikely hero. In the end, though, Reservoir Dogs is not about heroes, and not even about antiheroes who evolve into heroes, but about men who devolve into pure animality. Without offering even an iota of hope or redemption, Tarantino leaves you with an unrelenting nihilism. And the ineluctable: Why is this movie so engrossing?

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