RESERVOIR DOGS: The Power of its Homoerotic Subtext 20 Years Later

Author’s note: the content of this editorial contains numerous “spoilers”.

“Gay subtext always makes every movie better.” – Quentin Tarantino

The brilliance of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs is exemplified by the profound and intimate relationship portrayed between “Mr. Orange” (aka Freddy Newendyke) and “Mr. White” (aka Larry Dimmick). Through the lens of their interactions, the film explores our cultural perception of masculinity and how male sexuality is intimately entwined with violence. In fact, violence becomes the vehicle that gives these two characters permission to be physically and emotionally demonstrative with each other in a way that our machismo-obsessed culture wouldn’t otherwise allow. The ultimate irony is that violence permits them to explore their (sublimated) feminine impulses and/or homoerotic urges.

The narrative possesses a play-like structure that intermittently deviates from the “stage” of an abandoned warehouse to enhance the complexity of its various characters in the form of flashbacks. Through these flashbacks, it is established that the events of the film span over the course of a few weeks, from the time of Mr. Orange’s acceptance into crime boss Joe Cabot’s fold, to the powerful and tragic denouement after the botched heist. In that short span of time, Mr. White and Mr. Orange form a connection so powerful that in order to preserve it, one man betrays his long-time friend and business partner, and the other tells a secret so devastating it will mean his certain death, even when salvation is mere moments away.

Mr. White winks at Mr. Orange.

The film opens during an extended dialogue scene involving the main players: Mr. White, Mr. Orange, Mr. Brown, Mr. Blue, Mr. Pink, Mr. Blonde, Joe Cabot and his son/heir-apparent, Nice Guy Eddie. The obvious pseudonyms are names given by Cabot to maintain plausible deniability among his for-hire thieves in the event that their jewelry heist doesn’t go as planned.

Already Mr. Orange and Mr. White’s closeness is represented by their physical proximity; throughout the scene they lean towards each other, exchange amused glances, and take turns draping an arm over the back of the other’s chair. Perhaps the most blatant moment comes when Mr. White turns and winks at Mr. Orange before saying something particularly cheeky to Joe Cabot. It’s full of playfulness and bravado, and emphasises Mr. White’s fondness for Mr. Orange, as well as a need to gain his approval.

Mr. White begins to lose his composure.

After the title card sequence, we’re thrust into a moment of crisis. Mr. Orange is shot, bleeding out onto the back seat of a car, while Mr. White frantically drives them to the rendezvous point. White is clutching his hand, coaxing Orange through his excruciating pain with words of encouragement. He makes Orange repeat his words like a mantra, as if the act itself will somehow be the man’s salvation. White then repeats “correct!”, almost to himself, and his voice cracks with emotion. He is on the verge of tears, but reins it back in. In his mind, he is Orange’s protector and he must not show any weakness, yet it is obvious that he is devastated by the other man’s injury.

Mr. White wipes away tears as he cares for Mr. Orange.

Orange is an incoherent dead-weight in White’s arms as they enter the mortuary/warehouse. White tenderly lays him down on a service ramp and carefully undoes Orange’s fly to release pressure on his bullet wound. At this point, Orange is referring to him by his Christian name, “Larry”, thus demonstrating that at some point, one or both men broke Cabot’s firm rule of anonymity. Orange begs White to hold him, and White obliges, aligning his body next to the injured man’s, cradling his head on his arm. He gently combs Orange’s hair, wipes his brow.

Mr. White whispers to Mr. Orange.

Then, in perhaps the most intimate moment of the entire film, White leans down and whispers something in Orange’s ear. We, the audience, are not made privy to the words he says; only Orange’s giggling reaction. In truth, what White says to him is unimportant. What matters is that we weren’t meant to know; it is a secret that belongs to these two men alone.

At this point, Mr. Pink arrives at the rendezvous, rattled and declaring that the heist was a set-up from the beginning. White takes him into a side room (much to Orange’s protestation), where the two have a conversation about the events that transpired at the diamond wholesalers, dissecting how and why the police evidently knew they were going to be there. White reluctantly admits that the signs point to a rat; he tells a story about how an undercover cop had infiltrated the ranks of a job he’d recently worked on. It is apparent that both he and Pink view police with hatred and disdain, even classifying them as sub-human.

Mr. White reflects about Alabama with Joe Cabot.

In a flashback sequence, we are given a quick glimpse of Mr. White and Joe Cabot before the heist. It is the single most revealing sequence in terms of establishing Mr. White’s character and motivation in the entire film. Not only are we made aware of his long-standing professional history with Cabot, but also the near-familial nature of their relationship (White calls him “papa”, Cabot affectionately returns with “junior”).

In the course of their conversation, Cabot asks after Alabama, a former partner-in-crime and flame of White’s. White reveals that he and Alabama broke it off: “you push that man/woman thing too long and it gets to you after a while.” Put in simplest terms, White reveals that he has trouble maintaining a clear separation between his personal and professional lives. He becomes too emotionally attached; it is a weakness he recognized in himself, which is why he severed ties with Alabama. Once that attachment forms, all his other allegiances become blurred.

Flash-forward to the warehouse. Pink and White heatedly debate what to do with Orange; Pink argues that Cabot will likely wash his hands of the situation, leaving them on their own. White discloses that Orange had begged to be taken to the hospital, willing to risk jail in order to get medical attention. Pink agrees that it’s his choice to make, as the rest of them won’t be implicated if Orange doesn’t know any of their personal information. This is when White ruefully admits that he told Orange where he was from (“in natural conversation”) and his first name.

Pink balks at this, demanding to know why White would make such a hot-headed blunder. White becomes enraged and defensive, arguing that Orange was his responsibility, and he wasn’t going to deny a dying man the knowledge of his name. Pink shuts him down (“I’m sure it was a beautiful scene”), declaring that they can’t risk a trip to the hospital; White has essentially doomed Orange by sharing too much sensitive information with him. White loses his mind, punching and kicking Pink to the ground. He is obviously emotionally compromised.

Mr. White loses his composure while discussing Mr. Orange with Mr. Pink.

Events unfold to reveal that the rat is none other than Mr. Orange, an undercover LAPD cop. White isn’t present when the audience is made aware of the revelation. We are treated to a flashback; Mr. Orange, aka Detective Freddy Newendyke, meeting with his superior at a diner. He explains that Joe Cabot wants to talk to him about doing a high-risk job; a diamond heist with five other men.

Freddy expresses fondness for the LAPD’s informant, Long Beach Mike, who put in a good word for him with Cabot. Like White, Freddy has difficulty compartmentalizing. With this off-hand comment, we are made aware of his tendency to humanize the men he’s been sent in to bring down. He is the type of cop that gets in too deep when he goes undercover; he is at high risk of “going native”.

In a subsequent scene, Freddy (Mr. Orange) is waiting to catch a ride with Nice Guy Eddie, White, and Pink to a pre-heist meeting held by Joe Cabot. As part of his preparation (which involves a motivational speech to himself in the mirror), we see him pull a prop wedding ring from its hiding place in a jar of change. What Freddy is attempting to add to the fake persona of “Mr. Orange” with this wedding ring is a point hotly debated by film aficionados. In my opinion, it acts as an emotional barrier between him and the other men. The ring signals that he is domesticated, settled, unavailable. It gives him the illusion of responsibility to counter his youthful appearance and habits. (In the words of The Departed’s Captain Ellerby: “Marriage is an important part of getting ahead. It lets people know you’re not a homo. A married guy seems more stable.”) It is a detail that undoubtedly gets noticed by Mr. White.

Mr. White and Mr. Orange relax together while casing Katrina’s Diamond Wholesalers.

The pre-heist casing scene involving Orange and White together in White’s idling car is very interesting. The two men are relaxed, at-ease; dressed in everyday clothing. White is quizzing Orange on the details of the job, and casually points to a woman crossing the street in front of them, asking: “that girl’s ass?”

What was he attempting to glean from Orange with this flippant question? Orange’s immediate and hyper-heterosexual response (“sitting right here on my dick”) elicits a sharp and almost surprised bark of laughter from White. He’s learned two things: Orange was quick to establish his masculinity, and inadvertently revealed that perhaps he isn’t the type to remain faithful to his (supposed) wife.

White then goes into “old hand” mode, describing in detail which violent acts can be utilized with greatest efficacy if they are met with resistance during the hold-up. Orange listens with a mix of awe and disgust; it is apparent he is starting to like White, against all better judgment.

Detective Newendyke (aka Mr. Orange) is conflicted as he watches Mr. White shoot the police.

Orange’s escalating inner-conflict about his feelings for White is brought to a head in the post-heist getaway scene. Their driver, Mr. Brown, has suffered a gunshot wound to the head, crashing their car. Orange and White get out of the vehicle, only to be boxed in by an approaching squad car. White positions himself in front of Orange and shoots at the officers behind the windshield, killing them. He is ignorant of the expression of sorrow and desperation on Orange’s face.

Mr. White throws a protective arm around Mr. Orange as they leave the crime scene.

If Detective Freddy Newendyke had been uncompromised, he would have shot White while his back was turned to him, commandeered a vehicle to the rendezvous point, and told the rest of Cabot’s thieves that White had been killed by the police. None of them would have been the wiser; Mr. Brown was already dead and wouldn’t have contradicted his story.

Instead, Orange allows White to shoot his colleagues and lead him away from the scene (hand held protectively against his back). They try to strong-arm a random civilian out of her vehicle, but she unexpectedly draws a weapon from her glove compartment and shoots. Orange is hit in the gut; he fires back without thinking, killing her instantly. In that moment, the cop has completely lost himself to his undercover persona. He’s now no better than the men he led into a trap.

Mr. White threatens his long-time friend Joe Cabot to protect Mr. Orange.

Fast-forward to the warehouse. Orange knows that the LAPD is waiting for the boss, Joe Cabot, to arrive before they move in from where they are waiting a few blocks away. When Cabot does finally make his entrance it is with accusations; he knows that Orange is the rat, the one that tipped off the LAPD to the heist. Orange is almost delirious with blood loss and pain, but he maintains his innocence.

White is aghast at Cabot’s claims. He refuses to believe the man he’s come to care so deeply for is a cop. He demands proof from Cabot, who replies: “with instinct, you don’t need proof.” White draws his weapon on Cabot, his old friend and business associate, and threatens: “Joe, if you kill that man, you die next. Repeat: you kill him, you die next.” In one moment, he’s thrown years of loyalty and allegiance into the wind for a young man he’s only known for a few weeks. Cabot fires, hitting Orange. White shoots back, killing both Cabot and his son Eddie, but not before taking a few bullets himself.

Mr. White pulls himself over to Mr. Orange, cradling the other man in his arms.

In the gutwrenching final scene, White pulls himself, bloody and moaning with pain, over to where Orange is lying. Both men are drenched in blood, wheezing through their injuries. White lifts Orange’s head and tenderly places it in his lap, caressing his face. Orange reaches up, enveloping White with his arms. Their faces are inches from each other as they form a perfect Pietà.

Sirens blare in the background; Orange knows that his salvation has arrived. White looks down at him, resigned: “I’m sorry kid, it looks like we’re gonna do a bit of time.” Unspoken is the word “together”. (Aside: if Orange hadn’t signalled his unavailability with the wedding ring, I am positive that White would have asked him to replace Alabama as his new partner. His emotional attachment to Orange was that intense.)

Still holding Mr. White, Mr. Orange reveals his true identity.

Up to this point, it has been a matter of debate whether Orange’s feelings mirror White’s. His job is now essentially complete; all he has to do is wait for the LAPD to burst through the door and take him to a hospital. Instead, he does the unthinkable: he confesses his true identity to the man he has betrayed. As Orange sobs, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry”, White continues to stroke his face, then howls like an animal, as if his heart has been cleaved in two. White pulls his gun and places it against Orange’s jaw. The police burst into the warehouse; White is now crying, almost hysterical. He pulls the trigger, knowing it will mean his own death; that he and Orange will die together.

Mr. White sobs as the police enter the warehouse to witness a veritable “Liebestod.”

Many of the underlying themes of Orange and White’s relationship can be likened to tenets established by Japanese culture. Orange’s confession was the equivalent of “jingy”; essentially, honor and humanity. It is the thing you know you must do, even if you don’t want to. In his heart, he knew he owed it to White to tell him the truth, regardless of his own safety. He preferred to die with a clean soul than survive knowing that he’d lied to a man who loved him.

White was an individual who strove to live according to a kind of thieves’ “bushido”, a chivalric code that emphasized loyalty and professionalism. Orange knew that in White’s eyes, death was preferable to dishonor, and he was willing to make that sacrifice. It is also a valid interpretation to see White and Orange’s relationship as a modern-day representation of “wakashudo” (a practice engaged in by all members of the Samurai class; when a seasoned warrior took a younger male as a lover who was apprenticed to him in warrior etiquette, martial arts, and the Samurai code).

Throughout the film, White constantly declares himself Orange’s protector and mentor. He feels responsible for Orange’s injuries even though his actions didn’t cause them in any way. They share a level of physical intimacy onscreen that is undeniable; holding hands, caressing, embracing. But most telling is their almost mutual decision to die together on that warehouse floor, when survival was so easily within their reach.

Miramax Film Corp. is re-releasing Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction in theatres to celebrate the 20 year anniversary of Tarantino’s career. Click HERE to find a participating cinema near you.

  • HNio

    Great review. I agree with every single word. These were my thoughts as well while watching the film and noticing the little moments and their underlying meanings between Mr White and Mr Orange. The comparison of Whie and Orange’s relationship with the tenets establisehd in the japanese culture and old historic practices like wakashudo is brilliant. Congratulation for this review. I really enjoyed it.

  • Natasha Avital

    Can’t believe only one person replied to this. It’s very well written and I agree with you on everything. Tarantino is my favorite director and the homoerotic subtext is the reason why Reservoir Dogs is my favorite film of his. I have some things to say on the subject:

    – I think the reason there isn’t a ton of articles out there about White and Orange is the age diference between the actors. Tarantino wanted James Wood (only eight years younger than Keitel) to play Orange. He tried to contact Wood six times, but he was a nobody at the time, and Wood’s manager always blocked the atempts (she was fired when he learned of what had happened, after the movie’s huge sucess). So, because of this, a lot of people seem White as having “paternal” feelings for Orange. It’s even one of the things people say when someone brings up the homoerotic subtext. When I tell people those parts were writting for two midle-aged men, they usually see the movie in a different light.

    – Reservoir Dogs is “inspired by” (some would say “copied from”) a Hong Kong movie called City on Fire. Though the plot is very similar, City on Fire relied heavily on the concept of jingy (I don’t know if that’s the word used by Hong Kong people, but the concept is the same: honor, humanity and doing the right thing. I believe it’s called “ingi”, but I might be wrong). The story couldn’t be translated to a Western audience with that central point missing….otherwise it would be hard to convince people that this hardened criminal, who has no problem with torturing and killing people, would just betray a long-term friend to protect a man he’s known for weeks. So Tarantino had to add stuff to the plot: things that would suggest White had strong feelings for Orange. You can see from the stage directions in the script (with things like “cradles him softly”) that the point of scenes like the whispering in Orange’s hear and combing his hair was to portray intimacy between the two of them.

    – I’m surprised you didn’t mention how White seems to have one set of rules when it comes to Orange and another set of rules for the rest of the world. The man who reacts to Brown being shot with “Is he dead?” and then walks away without waiting for the answer is the same man who reacts to Orange’s shooting with panic and desperation. The same pragmatic man who says “The choice between taking down a motherfucker and doing ten years ain’t no choice at all” to justify his killing of civilians is the same man who throws all caution out the window and doesn’t trust his long-time partner when he’s told the new guy on the group is a rat.

    – I’ve once heard a podcast in which one host commented on Reservoir Dogs having “film noir” aspects (something more than one critic has pointed out) and on Orange being the “femme fatale”. After all it’s White’s obsession with Orange that ends up being his downfall.

    – I’m less interested in Freddy’s fake wedding ring than I am in Tarantino’s choice of “Fool For Love” as the background song for his preparation before the first car ride with White.

    – On interviews at the time of the release, Tarantino has said “If you don’t understand why Orange confesses, then you didn’t understand the whole movie”. He also said that “the women who get it” are the ones who defend the movie with most passion, which makes me wonder if “the women who get it” are the ones seeing the romance subtext in it (since I doubt there’s a large number of men out there going “Hum, these two male characters in this action movie seem to have romantic feelings for each other. THAT’S SO AWESOME!”)

    – People’s reaction to Reservoir Dogs is a nice little study on heteronormativity. If Orange and White were a man/woman pairing, I’m pretty sure everyone would automatically assume there were romantic feelings there. Since it’s a male pairing on an “action” setting, it gets ignored.

    • Meghan White

      Hello, and thank you for the extensive and well-conceived response. I remember reading that piece of trivia about James Woods a while back and thinking “hmmmmmm”. I really liked the dynamic that emerged from the casting of a younger actor; it fits nicely with Tarantino’s recurring theme of emotionally complex master/apprentice relationships. On the subject of Mr White’s “paternal” feelings for Mr Orange, I find it interesting that audiences accepted the romantic nature of Bill and Beatrix’s (Kill Bill) relationship without question. Even if she hadn’t been carrying her master’s child, it’s fairly apparent that our culture is much more accepting of heterosexual pairs with significant age gaps. It never ceases to amaze me how a romantic interpretation of the Orange/White dynamic apparently doesn’t even enter most people’s minds.

      Have you read the Reservoir Dogs original screenplay? If not, I highly recommend it. There are subtle changes; for instance, the “Like a Virgin” monologue is followed directly by a scene of Mr White laying a bloody Mr Orange down on a mattress. In the final version of the film, that mattress is replaced by a ramp, but the subtext remains. If I recall correctly, the hair-combing wasn’t included in the slug lines of the script, and neither was Mr White’s tearful (and frankly, near-histrionic) reaction to Mr Orange’s revelation. Initially, he was written as smiling at the LAPD as he pulls the trigger in a final, defiant “fuck you”! However, the end product makes it apparent how much he truly cared for Orange, and how much the betrayal shattered him.

      You make an excellent point about White’s double-standard when it comes to Orange. To be honest, I didn’t mention it because it could be argued that he realized that the young man was still relatively inexperienced and shot the civilian out of pure instinct rather than any kind of pre-meditated malice or sadism, as was Blonde’s case. On a related note, I get the sense that White blamed himself for Orange’s injury because he didn’t take the driver’s side door. As Orange’s mentor, he should have put himself in that position, since it posed a greater strategic threat. Regarding his decision to betray Joe over a man that he’d only known for a few weeks, I think that is the single most telling detail in terms of the nature of White’s emotional connection to Orange.

      I completely agree that Orange plays the role of the “femme fatale” (we all know how much Tarantino has been influenced by Scorsese, and I’ve always felt that De Niro’s Johnny Boy in Mean Streets played that role in relation to Keitel’s protagonist, Charlie). I’ve also heard Orange and White’s bond described as a “sadomasochistic love relationship”; if memory serves, it was critic Amy Taubin in the film’s own 10th Anniversary DVD commentary. In line with the “femme fatale” reasoning, Tarantino’s song choice for the wedding ring scene is even more appropriate. White is literally made a fool for love. (Don’t you also find it interesting that both Beatrix Kiddo and Freddy Newendyke use the guise of heterosexual marriage as part of their respective alter-egos?)

      Thank you for sharing that quote from Tarantino (paraphrased: “women who get the movie defend it passionately”). I’m going to have to research that one – I’m fascinated to know when he said it, and in what context. It’s a shame that so many men have been told by our society to either ignore or shun non-heteronormative romance. And I completely agree; if Orange had been female, I don’t think there would be much remaining doubt in anyone’s mind as to why White sacrificed everything to protect him.

  • Marie

    Very good read that I mostly agree with. Reservoir Dogs is probably one of my favorite Tarantino movies just because of Mr.White and Orange’s relationship (and Tim Roth’s performance). I hope he actually said that about women getting the movie more so than men.

    However I do disagree with the idea that Orange is the kind of undercover cop who becomes morally corrupted. In particular this line:
    “If Detective Freddy Newendyke had been uncompromised, he would have shot White while his back was turned to him”
    See maybe I don’t know much about undercover cops but I don’t think it’s their responsibility to get revenge and murder criminals (keep in mind while White actually kills the two officers Orange is not exactly in the position to shoot him spontaneously and Mr Brown is still alive).
    His job was to help in arresting Joe. Killing White in this situation would not have gotten him closer to that goal (possibly made it even harder), would not have saved lives and would not be the law abiding thing to do.
    Him shooting the woman in the car was a split second reaction, automatic self-defense, something that could happen to anyone, cop or criminal. The expression on his face afterwards and his repeated mention of the woman’s baby means to me that he is indeed still better than the men he led into a trap.
    I think throughout the movie Freddy does everything in his power to fulfill his duties. Regardless of his attachment for Mr. White, which makes it all the more tragic.

  • Jake

    This is amazing. And I think it explains the level of commitment White & Orange had to each other.

  • jenny

    Thank you for this very detailed analysis. I definitely needed an explanation for why Mr Orange confesssed. It really ripped me up because he could have still accomplished the mission and lived on. I didn’t realise that his attachment to Mr White changed all that. Amazing. Great film.

  • Sara

    I love it! I love in depth analyses like this. You’re awesome, and it always makes me happy when other people care about movies as much as i do.