In the largely forgotten 1994 film Sleep with Me, Quentin Tarantino shows up for one scene to explain the gay subtext of Top Gun. “It’s a story about a man’s struggle with his own homosexuality,” he says, explaining that Maverick is torn between “the gay way”, represented by Val Kilmar and the fighter pilots, and heterosexuality, represented by Kelly McGillis. “The more he talks, the more plausible his theory sounds,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review. By the end of the scene, initially sceptical Todd Field is enthusiastically on-board.
Despite gay subtext’s long history in literary studies, it’s recently gotten a bit of a bad rap, in part due to the over-extension of the term queerbaiting. Queerbaiting, a fandom-coined term, refers to media, usually in serial formats like TV shows, teasing characters as LGBT or forming same-gender relationships in order to pander to LGBT fans but with no intention to follow through. Queerbaiting is definitely a thing that has happened on occasion – the TV show Supernatural, mostly – but it’s a term without nuance or historical root, that requires both projecting intent on the creators and flattening the relationship between subtext and text into a simple dichotomy.
But the relationship between gay subtext and overt gay text is complex and contingent. When Moonlight won the Oscar for Best Picture, many news outlets called it the first LGBT winner, and it made me feel vaguely uneasy. It is true, in some sense: there definitely hadn’t been a Best Picture winner that portrayed gay relationships as openly as Moonlight. But is Midnight Cowboy an LGBT film? Many of these articles rationalise that it is not because Joe (Jon Voight) only has sex with men for money, but that’s equally true of Keanu Reeves’s character in My Own Private Idaho, often listed as an unfairly snubbed LGBT film in these same articles. In one scene, Joe is unable to get an erection when with a female client, so they play Scrabble, and she spells out “G-A-Y”. The relationship between Joe and Ratso (Dustin Hoffman) is one of intimate partnership: I think often of Joe wiping Ratso’s face with his shirttail and Ratso clinging to his bare belly. Hoffman asked director John Schlesinger (a gay man) why they weren’t sleeping in the same bed, and Schlesinger said, “Oh God! Please! It was hard enough to get the financing.” After Midnight Cowboy was awarded Best Picture in 1970, John Wayne infamously called it “a story about two f*gs” and a “perverse movie”.
A decade earlier, Biblical epic Ben-Hur won Best Picture, into the screenplay for which Gore Vidal had consciously written a homoerotic subtext. A decade before that, All About Eve won, a film that only makes sense if Eve is a lesbian. (All About Eve has been criticised for homophobia while simultaneously achieving cult status among gay audiences, in no small part due to Bette Davis’s fabulousness.) At the very first Oscars in 1929, one of two Best Picture awards was given to Wings, the first film to portray a man kiss another man on the lips, accompanied by the title cards, “You – you know there is nothing in the world that means so much to me as your friendship” and then, “I knew it – – all the time – – ”
But whether a film has a gay subtext is ultimately a question of whether the viewer can make a legitimate case that it does. Something doesn’t have to be widely agreed to be present in a film for it to be present. Three years after John Schlesinger couldn’t have two men share a bed in Midnight Cowboy, Charlie (Harvey Keitel) and Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) share a bed in Mean Streets, a film almost no-one thinks has a gay subtext. But as one of those few and proud: the film cuts from Charlie and Johnny in bed together to Charlie sleeping with his girlfriend, in a kind of displaced homoeroticism. Later, there’s a scene where two gay guys get into the car with Charlie and his friends, and it’s a bizarre, meaningless and pretty homophobic detour unless you think that the guy flirting with Charlie has clocked him – LGBT people recognise each other in a way cis straight people do not – and Charlie’s discomfort is his unease with his own sexuality.
It can be easier to make the case for the homoerotic undercurrents of Midnight Cowboy or Ben-Hur because we know that people involved in their production were LGBT – John Schlesinger and Gore Vidal, respectively – but meaning exists in the piece of art itself, it is not just injected into it from its surrounding context. If a higher burden of proof is placed on gay readings than on other interpretations, it eliminates the possibility of stories from the closet – whether that means art about closeted characters, or art that is itself closeted. It’s rooted in the assumption that all people are straight until they disclose otherwise, and cuts the contemporary moment off from all historical precedent. It paternalistically reduces the glint of recognition in the eye of the LGBT audience to being hoodwinked.
“You can watch any movie, and it doesn’t matter what the director was thinking, or what the people making the movie was thinking, if you can make a case for it, you can lay in a subtext into a film, make it a… much more enjoyable way to watch the film,” Quentin Tarantino told Craig Ferguson in 2010, “Like gay subtext! Gay subtext for instance. Always makes every movie better.”
Which brings us to Reservoir Dogs.
Reservoir Dogs was Tarantino’s first film – assuming you, like every right-thinking person, don’t count My Best Friend’s Birthday – and it’s a serious contender for my favourite. It’s a film that still feels fresh even as it has become a classic, a generation of poor imitators only highlighting what a miniature miracle the original is. It’s a heist film where you never see the heist, where most of the action is the criminals at the rendez-vous warehouse after the jewellery store robbery goes wrong, interspersed with flashbacks to before or immediately after the heist.
It’s both the film that establishes so much of Tarantino’s stylisation and sense of humour, and a film that feels remarkably unlike what would follow. To contemporary eyes, much of the moral-panic-inducing ultraviolence feels relatively tasteful, particularly in comparison to Tarantino’s later films: the famous ear-cutting scene is notably restrained, panning away just at the moment of incision. It’s a lean, tight film, wholly unlike the three-hour epics of Tarantino’s later filmography. “Without an ounce of fat, at a trim ninety-nine minutes, the movie pierces like a bullet, leaving a clean hole,” Tom Shone wrote in a twenty-five year retrospective for The New Yorker.
It’s also a love story.
The history of gay subtext in Hollywood movies is in no small part the history of films that don’t have any women in them, and inadvertently came out super gay as a result. This is especially true for the most self-consciously masculine genres, like westerns, war films, gangster movies and historical epics. If the emotional core of a film is intimacy between men, and there isn’t even a nominal female presence to reassure the primacy of heterosexual relationships, it becomes trivially easy to arrive at a homoerotic reading. The Great Escape doesn’t have a single female character in it – at least in any meaningful sense – and the story is built around buddy-up partnerships between the men in the POW camp. The tender moments on-screen between Danny (Charles Bronson), who suffers from claustrophobia and fears the tunnel will collapse, and his friend Willie (John Leyton) are particularly romantic and particularly lovely.
Tarantino loves remixing the films he loves into new contexts and arrangements. It’s always been one of the primary slams against him: a lot of fine technique in service of nothing more than showing off his own encyclopaedic film-geekery. (I’ve never thought that complaint was fair – plenty of his films are rich in theme, but regardless, this tidy distinction between form and content is a limiting frame. Style can itself be substance.) Yet I’ve never seen Reservoir Dogs placed in this tradition that it seems to so self-consciously place itself. It’s an extremely unusual film in Tarantino’s filmography by virtue of being exclusively about men, echoing all-male movies like The Great Escape and in stark contrast to Tarantino’s later films like Kill Bill, Jackie Brown or Death Proof. It’s a remix of the hyper-masculine accidentally-gay genre movie, transforming and revealing that tradition by making that subtext the core of the film.*
Harvey Keitel might just be the most underrated actor alive – it pains me that he’s wasting his talents on Direct Line ads and direct-to-Netflix Adam Sandler films – and Reservoir Dogs is one of his finest performances. He plays Mr. White – each of the crew has been given a colour codename, to ensure they can’t give each other up to the police – an ageing career criminal. The heart of the film is his relationship with Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), who he doesn’t realise is an undercover cop. Logic dictates that White should be suspicious of Orange when the robbery goes wrong, that he should turn on him when everyone else does, but logic is not what drives White. For Reservoir Dogs to work, White has to love and trust Orange implicitly, for no tangible reason. So much so that he’d be willing to sacrifice everything for a man he’s known a few short weeks.
The film opens with patented Tarantino bullshit talk: ‘Like a Virgin’ is about big dicks, have you guys been listening to K-Billy’s super sounds of the seventies weekend, Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) doesn’t believe in tipping. Mr. White is a ferocious defender of the class interests of waitresses, and he and Orange share amused glances, taking turns draping their arm over the back of the other’s chair or leaning towards each other. It is, at this point, a hangout movie, and a delightful one at that. Then we get the titles and the coolest shot of just some guys walking in film history, and then everything changes.
We hear Orange wailing in pain before we see him.
I know I said that the violence in Reservoir Dogs no longer shocks, but I am always taken slightly aback by how much blood is smeared all over Orange, the seat, and the doors in the backseat of the car. His shirt is drenched bright red. Orange lies there, writhing, bleeding out, moaning and sobbing, can hardly talk through the pain, and White drives, clutching Orange’s hand and getting blood on his sleeve, repeating reassurances for himself as much as Orange. “I didn’t realise you had a degree in medicine!” he says when Orange says he’s going to die. White’s words come out either as yelling or a sing-song hysteria, borderline-manic because if he stops to think, stops to breathe, he’ll crumble. “You’re going to be oka-ay! Say the goddamn words, you’re going to be okay!” he says, like it’s an incantation, a magic spell that will save Orange from bleeding to death in the backseat of a stolen car.
White and Orange are the first to arrive at the warehouse, and their moments alone there are incredibly intimate and tender. White carries Orange inside and lays him down on a ramp. He undoes his fly to relieve pressure on the gunshot wound in his belly. Orange is more coherent than he was in the car, but his voice is still just a croak – breathing harsh and ragged – when he begs, “Larry. I’m fucking scared, man. Would you please hold me?” White, of course, obliges, lying down next to Orange and cradling his head on his arm. Orange uses White’s real name – Larry – which he isn’t supposed to know.
White wipes Orange’s face and combs his hair, his sing-song hysteria replaced by soothing, gentle tones: “Go ahead and be scared, you’ve been brave enough for one day. I want you to just relax now, okay? You’re not gonna fucking die, you’re gonna be fine. When Joe gets here, he’ll make ya a hundred percent again.” Then he leans down and whispers in Orange’s ear, and Orange giggles, unbridled delight bursting out even as he is in such tremendous pain. We can’t hear what White whispers, and we never find out. “In truth, what White says to him is unimportant,” Meghan White writes for Cinemalogue, “What matters is that we weren’t meant to know; it is a secret that belongs to these two men alone.”
Pink is next to arrive, and he and White go down the hall to discuss what happened at the diamond wholesaler’s (Orange begs White not to leave him, and White assures him that he won’t go far). Cops swarmed the place immediately, and all signs point to a rat, something White has experience with on a previous job. Pink suspects Orange – suspects everyone, really – and White takes immediate offence on Orange’s behalf. He seems as sure that Orange couldn’t be the rat as he is that he himself couldn’t be the rat. Pink, the only fuckin’ professional around here, is appalled to learn that White told Orange his first name and where he’s from. White says he wasn’t going to deny a dying man his first name, Pink sarcastically says, “I’m sure it was a beautiful scene.” White knocks Pink to the ground and they point guns in each other’s faces.
White is so certain that Orange isn’t a cop that you’d be forgiven for thinking he knew something you didn’t. But instead, we find out something White doesn’t know: Orange is a cop, bleeding out on the floor to keep his cover.
Orange is essentially White’s femme fatale. Duplicitous and seductive, he leads White down a path of danger, destruction and downfall. But where a traditional femme fatale hold all the cards, manipulating men for her own ends, Orange is something muddier. That is basically what he should be doing as an undercover cop, after all, and yet. He keeps slipping in a little too deep. There’s no material advantage to the case in begging White to hold him.
The flashbacks reveal a lot about both Orange and White, in what they show us and what they don’t. White has trouble maintaining the boundaries between personal and professional relationships: when Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) – the boss putting the job together – asks him about his old partner, Alabama, he says they broke it off because “you push that man/woman thing too long and it gets to you after a while.” When Orange talks with a colleague about his undercover mission, he calls informant Long Beach Mike a “good guy”, and he has to be reminded that Long Beach Mike “is not your fucking amigo, man, Long Beach Mike is a fucking scumbag.” Both men are at risk of getting too close and too personal, forgetting that it’s all supposed to be just business.
In another flashback, Orange gets ready to catch a ride with White, Pink and Nice Guy Eddie. He gives himself a pep talk in the mirror and puts on a phoney wedding ring. The wedding ring is interesting – a performance of both maturity and heterosexuality to offset his boyish looks – but I’m always struck by ‘Fool for Love’ by Sandy Rogers on the soundtrack, a song about trusting when you shouldn’t because you’ve fallen in love. We see Orange and White’s friendship develop only in glimpses: the four guys laughing and joking in the car; another scene with White going over the details of the job with Orange, pointing at a passing woman and asking, “That girl’s ass?”, to which Orange says “Sitting right here on my dick” (White barks a laugh). We see fondness for each other in these scenes, but their connection in both the main narrative at the warehouse and in the post-heist flashbacks goes much deeper.
Parallel to White and Orange, you have Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) and Joe Cabot’s son, Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn). Blonde has just gotten out of prison, serving four years rather than ratting out the Cabots. He and Eddie are basically boyfriends: Eddie embraces Blonde and smacks a loud kiss on his cheek, and they have a silly made-up argument as an excuse for some roughhousing, pinning each other to the ground and lifting each other in the air. Joe tells them to knock it off, saying, “You guys want to roll around on the floor, you do it in Eddie’s office, not mine.” They immediately launch into this ridiculous, flirty conversation about the circumstances in which they would fuck:
EDDIE: Daddy, did you see that? […] Guy had me on the ground, he tried to fuck me.
BLONDE: You wish.
Eddie has a shit-eating grin when he says, “I like you a lot, buddy, but I don’t think of you that way.”
“Listen, if I was a butt cowboy, I wouldn’t even throw you to the posse,” Blonde says.
“No you wouldn’t,” Eddie says, “You’d keep me for yourself. You know, four years fucking punks up the ass, you appreciate a piece of prime rib when you see it.”
Eddie makes a crack about Blonde getting fucked by black guys in prison, and it’s moments before they’re launching back into some roughhousing, both absolutely fucking beaming.
It’s immediately recognisable as a certain kind of mostly translucent closet: talking about what you would do if you were gay out of nowhere in a way that makes it clear you think about it a lot, using any socially acceptable excuse for physical intimacy, even if “two adult men roughhousing” barely qualifies as socially acceptable. Blonde and Nice Guy Eddie telegraph the gay themes in the film’s main narrative: White and Orange.
In flashbacks, White calls Joe Cabot “Papa”, and Joe calls him “Junior”. Yet when Joe arrives at the warehouse and says that Orange is the rat, White points his gun at him without hesitation. “Joe. If you kill that man, you die next. Repeat: if you kill that man, you die next.”
I’m sure you can interpret White’s devotion to protecting Orange as just friendship, or as surrogate father and son due to the age difference (when Reservoir Dogs was released, Keitel was 53, Roth was 31). But it is at its richest as a love story: White, in love with another man, able to engage in the physical affection he longs for because Orange is about to die and needs to be comforted, so blinded by the light that he cannot countenance the idea that Orange is anything but the person he believes him to be. A fool for love.
Joe aims his gun at Orange; White aims at Joe; Nice Guy Eddie aims at White. All three shoot, and all three fall to the ground. Joe and Eddie are dead. White, bleeding and groaning in pain, drags himself over to Orange, whose arms are outstretched to meet him. He places Orange’s head in his lap and strokes his face. Orange, gasping out little sobs, reaches his arms behind him to hug White’s torso. They’re both wounded and in tremendous pain. Sirens are heard in the background: the cops are coming.
“I’m sorry kid, it looks like we’re gonna do a little time,” White says.
And even though the cops are moments away, even though they’re Orange’s salvation and his ticket to the hospital, even though White has a gun in his hand, Orange tells him the truth.
“I’m a cop,” he says, voice not much more than a strangled wheeze, “Larry. I’m sorry. I’m – so – sorry – I’m a cop.”
He keeps repeating that he’s sorry, keeps wrapping his arms around White, even as White points a gun to his cheek. White absolutely wails, a pain much worse than the gunshot wound in his chest, and continues stroking Orange’s face. The cops burst in, but the camera only tightens in on White’s face, on the indescribable pain etched there. White pulls the trigger, knowing the cops will shoot him dead, too.
There’s no logical reason for Orange to tell White he’s a cop. It’s one thing to lose track of your cover and think Long Beach Mike is a good guy, or to kind of like these guys when you’re joking around and shooting the shit about Pam Grier and Get Christy Love, or even to let White shoot some other cops dead in a daze of trauma. But Orange puts his life in imminent danger right as his life is about to be saved. He keeps saying he’s sorry, and it doesn’t sound (only) like he’s begging for his life. It sounds like he means it.
If straight wasn’t treated as the default, I wouldn’t have to explain any of this. It would be obvious. If Orange was a woman instead of another man, anyone who thought White wasn’t in love with her would sound like a mad person. No-one would even claim it was subtext. And that’s the problem with drawing a clean line between gay subtext and gay text: it means seeing art as straight until proven otherwise, and creates an artificially high barrier for legitimacy as LGBT art.
Reservoir Dogs is a love story. And if we understand as such, it affects not just the way we think about Reservoir Dogs, but about all the films it is in conversation with. It affects how we think about masculinity in Tarantino’s whole filmography, fatally compromising the “bro movies for bros” narrative. It affects how we think about male intimacy in the hypermasculine genre movies it draws from, how affection is made permissible through violence. It draws Reservoir Dogs into a conversation with a host of crime films with LGBT themes, from Dog Day Afternoon to Miller’s Crossing to Mulholland Drive.
Reading a gay subtext into Reservoir Dogs takes away precisely nothing, and adds so, so much. Tarantino’s right: gay subtext always makes every movie better.
* Another notable film in what I am unilaterally declaring the 1990s Accidentally Gay on Purpose cycle is Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins, a historical epic transported to War of Independence/Civil War era Ireland. Michael (Liam Neeson) and Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn) start out as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and end up as Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and their intense, passionate friendship – which involves both dating the same girl at the same time in a fashion that involves no jealousy whatsoever but does involve all three of them going out to dances – is the emotional throughline of the film. This fits with Neil Jordan’s filmography more broadly, which is frequently concerned with LGBT themes (The Crying Game, Breakfast on Pluto, Interview with the Vampire).