Good Research Paper On The Use Of Time In Heist Films: Inside Man, Reservoir Dogs And Inception

Type of paper: Research Paper

Topic: Cinema, Film, Public Relations, Audience, Time, Pets, Literature, Reservoir

Pages: 10

Words: 2750

Published: 2021/02/24

The genre of the heist film is a very particular and entertaining sub-set of crime film; as with any genre, there are a series of conventions that must be followed (Maltby 85). In this genre, the protagonists are often a rag-tag team of criminals of various allegiances and skills, who assemble in order to pull off an intricate ‘job’ involving meticulous planning and all manner of twists and turns. Most intriguing in the genre of the heist film is when directors and filmmakers play with the concept of time within these films; as the structure of heist movies is usually pretty straightforward, time can be warped and shifted in order to make these issues more fascinating and intriguing to audience familiar with the tropes. In this way, three prominent examples of heist films do interesting things with time to innovate the genre – Reservoir Dogs (1992, dir. Quentin Tarantino), Inside Man (2006, dir. Spike Lee), and Inception (2010, dir. Christopher Nolan). In all three of these films, the chronology of the heist and/or its aftermath is played with in distinct and unique ways using cinematography, editing and music to blur the lines of identity, reality and morality.

Reservoir Dogs

Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 debut film Reservoir Dogs features the build-up and aftermath of a jewel caper committed by six anonymous individuals at the behest of crime boss Joe Cabot (Laurence Tierney), which goes wrong in spectacular fashion, leaving the remaining criminals to contemplate their next move at their safe house. What is most unique about the film’s usage of time is a) its removal of the heist itself from the narrative of the film, and b) the frequent use of labeled flashbacks intended for each of the main characters to flesh out their backstory and fill in details of the immediate aftermath of the heist. While this kind of non-chronological narrative is present in many of Tarantino’s films, particularly his crime films like Dogs and Pulp Fiction, it is perhaps here that it has the most direct effect on the structure of the heist film itself. The result provides a unique and satisfying sense of pathos, mystery and suspense to the heist film, fracturing the narrative in order to hide motivations, allegiances and plot points from the audience until such a time as they are needed.
The scene at the beginning of the film, in which all six of what will be referred to as the Reservoir Dogs (though they are not referred to that by name in the film proper) sit around conversing at a diner, provides a series of comedic character moments as the eight main characters (and, by extension, the audience) get to know each other. However, after the opening credits, the film immediately cuts to after the heist, focusing on a bleeding Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) writhing in the bloodied back of a car driven by Mr. White (Harvey Keitel). This disconnect between the two scenes shakes up the anticipatory tension of the movie itself by removing the heist itself from us, and also offers a hyper-stylized depiction of violence through Orange’s slow bleeding out over the course of the movie (Shaw 137). It also helps to inform these two characters’ relationships, in which White seeks a measure of redemption by saving Mr. Orange, something which is robbed from him as the movie continues.
The use of flashbacks in Reservoir Dogs is twofold. First, some scenes help to fill in the blanks between the heist gone wrong and the film’s main action at the middle point of the film’s timeline. Examples of this include Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) escaping from the police right after the heist, and the ironic circumstances leading up to White and Orange’s opening scene in the car. In this latter scene, in particular, the audience is shown the tragically inept and vulnerable position these erstwhile tough guys are in; it is revealed that Orange was not shot by the cops, but by a terrified woman with a gun, and that the car White drove them back to the safehouse in was hers. By revealing their daring escape to be the result of a brutal carjacking, the film plays on our original sympathies with them. Scenes like this and others show the Dogs to be brutal, heartless killers rather than the charming rogues we saw from the diner scene.
Other types of flashbacks include the labeled backstories for each major character (primarily Mr. White, Mr. Orange, and Mr. Blonde), in which we get a more sensitive side to them and learn their real motivations. Mr. White and Mr. Blonde are shown to have deep-seated friendships with Joe and Eddie Cabot (Chris Penn). At the same time, subtle differences can be found between the characters even in such similar situations – White is shown to have incredible loyalty to Joe, and Mr. Blond is an unstable opportunist who is valuable because of his instability. Because of the ensemble nature of the film, no main character takes precedence, leaving the ensemble to equally carry the work through these flashbacks, as is evidenced in these scenes. However, Mr. Orange’s flashback reveals him, in a surprise twist, to be the police informant meant to go undercover on the heist and bring down Joe Cabot in the process.
Orange’s flashback is the longest of all, and becomes its own short film in the middle of the picture; however, this is purposeful, as it recontextualizes all that came before it. White’s relationship with Orange, which is one of the major thematic and character-based through-lines throughout the film, as White’s attempt to gain redemption through Orange is subverted by this secret allegiance to the police (Conard, 2007). This is also the last flashback in the film; with Orange’s story told, the rest of the film can continue apace, and the criminals themselves get their comeuppance.
The use of flashbacks in Reservoir Dogs helps to surprise the audience by making them second-guess not only the identity of the characters, but their morality as well – with Orange’s reveal, the audience is also torn between the likeable characters they experienced in the film thus far and the desperate, pathetic criminals the film ends up showing them to be. In excising the heist itself, the film focuses on what came before and what came after, the film unconcerned with the spectacle of the crime as opposed to the criminals committing it.

Inside Man

Spike Lee’s Inside Man, while providing a slick but conventional heist film on the surface, also provides a similar sense of intrigue and suspense with its use of time and editing. The film begins after the heist is finished, with Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) bragging to a camera about how he has pulled off the “perfect robbery,” with the audience having the impression that his fourth-wall-breaking monologue is in the context of his getting caught. Following that, the heist itself continues apace, with Detective Frazier (Denzel Washington) attempting to stop the robbery and save the hostages while apprehending Russell. The heist, however, is eventually revealed to be a fluke – a decoy heist in which the criminals secretly built a hiding area behind a fake wall while the ‘heist’ was happening, Russell using the robbery to mask its construction. Lee uses elliptical editing to show the same monologue from the beginning again in its new context – Russell was not in a cell, but waiting in that hiding area. This recontextualizes the scenes that came beforehand, offering a unique surprise for the audience and creating yet another layer of intrigue in the reveal. Like Reservoir Dogs’ reveals, the big reveal at the end of Inside Man circumvents the structure of the heist film by having the surface heist be a stalling tactic all along, subverting the audience’s expectations. In using the bookmarked framing device of Russell’s monologue, one outcome is assumed by the audience and then proven to be wrong later in the film.
While editing and time are important in all three films explored in this paper, Inside Man’s dedication to the long shot is particularly admirable during the heist scenes, as it provides an additional sense of intrigue and deception for the audience. For instance, in the scene in which Dalton asks for his hostage’s cell phones, then threatens a man named Peter Hammond for possibly still having his, a single-shot technique is used to provide the kind of tension that is elicited when events occur in real time (Hogan 3). In this sequence, two main compositions in a single shot are maintained – the shot in which Dalton pretends to deliberate on Hammond’s fate while Hammond sees this performance, and the other shot in which the audience is shown reacting in horror to Hammond’s off-screen beating. In this respect, this cinematographic technique is utilized to instill fear in the audience as well, placing them in the shoes of the hostages. By linking the two shots into a fluid movement, a tension from the use of real time is created in the audience (Hogan 3).
Using these innovative editing and cinematographic techniques, Lee elevates the rote story at the heart of Inside Man to create an innovative twist on the heist-crime film. The cat-and-mouse game between criminal and detective, both of whom are equally the film’s main characters also provides a spin on the heist genre, which typically shows the perspective of the criminals as the ‘good guys’ who must outwit the bumbling lawman. By placing the audience completely outside the point of view of the criminals, these characters serve to fool the audience just as much as they do the hostages and the detectives. Unlike the heistmasters of Reservoir Dogs and Inception, the criminals of Inside Man remain an impenetrable mystery until the end, the audience placed in the hands of those who are at their mercy (the hostages and Det. Frazier).


Perhaps the most innovative use of time and editing in the heist genre is Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi film Inception, featuring yet another team of criminals (led by Leonardo DiCaprio) who are tasked with using experimental dream-sharing technology to ‘incept’ a rich target (Cillian Murphy) with an idea after placing him in a constructed dream space. The traditional heist trappings are combined with a subtle heightening of the stakes through science-fiction dream logic, creating a multi-layered heist action film that works not just on multiple chronologies, but multiple scales of chronology. This results in a tiered heist running along four different timeline that run at different speeds, aided by innovative music techniques from composer Hans Zimmer to indicate to the audience how time is being warped and slowed down while in the world of a dream.
Just like with Reservoir Dogs and Inside Man, Inception does use flashbacks and nonsynchronized chronology to hide information from the audience; however, it does so in a way that cements the film itself within a dreamlike atmosphere. Flashbacks and bookending sequences flow seamlessly one into another, as if in a dream; the film opens with a surreal sequence in which Cobb (DiCaprio) wakes up on a beach and is dragged to a palace, where an old man (Ken Watanabe) waits for him. After this, the next immediate cut shows Cobb, the same age, talking to Watanabe’s Saito, now young again. This sets up the initial mystery that must be solved, all of the events of the film taking place in order to get the audience back to that initial scene.
One of the ways time is illustrated in the film is through the use of music, with composer Hans Zimmer providing a fascinating twist on traditional action movie scoring by using slowed-down musical compositions to indicate the warped nature of time within the film’s narrative \. This is evident from the very beginning, as the film’s production credits roll over a slowed-down, rhythmic tonal boom, which is enhanced by brass instruments and percussion. This crescendo-ing rhythm is revealed to be a dramatically-slow version of “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien (I Will Have No Regrets)” by Edith Piaf, used in the diegesis of the film as a musical cue everyone uses as their indicator that the ‘kick’ is coming to get them out of the dream (Iztkoff, 2008). This mixture of diegetic and non-diegetic music provides a needed sense of structure to the proceedings, and also offers an unconventional underscoring for the film’s narrative itself. By letting the audience hear how much slower time is progressing, they are constantly aware of the ticking-clock scenario of the heist.
Despite the use of flashbacks, the central setpiece of the film is the hour-and-a-half-long ‘inception’ heist, in which Cobb’s band of dream warriors invade the mind of Fischer (Murphy) in order to implant an idea. Unlike the typical heist film, where a bank is robbed or a priceless piece of art is stolen, Inception’s caper is equal parts hacking and psychology, hoping to get Fischer to do what they want by helping him fix his issues with his industrialist father. This is accomplished through the construction of several dream layers, in which the team members descend in each stage of helping Fischer achieve catharsis. It is established in the film that time runs more slowly in the dream world, but events in one layer affect the next, and the time-dilation effect is compounded with each layer. This results in a series of four different action scenes that are constructed to run alongside each other at differing scales of continuity. This is an incredibly innovative use of time that gives each team member differing tasks, with a constantly shifting ticking clock, thus building the tension in very fascinating ways.
The architecture of this multi-layered heist offers opportunities for the editing to constantly remind the audience of what each character is doing, allowing the tension of setpieces to compound themselves as the team descends each layer. In the first layer, Yusuf (Dileep Rao) must evade armed men on motorcycles in a van. Meanwhile, in the second layer, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) must protect the sleeping team against attackers in a hotel. In the third layer, the team must find a way into a locked safe that Fischer’s mind dreamt up in order to get him the catharsis they need from him. Despite the endless planning of the team, things go wrong that affect each layer – when Yusuf prematurely starts the ‘kick’ to get them out of the dream by crashing the van off the bridge onto the river, the rest of the team knows they must prepare for the second kick. As the situation becomes more complicated, the film’s editing constantly cuts back and forth to each layer – Nolan constantly cuts back to Yusuf’s van, falling slowly in mid-air, then cuts to Arthur scrambling to initiate a ‘kick’ when the van’s fall robs his layer of gravity, and so on. This constant intercutting reminds the audience of the different scales of time that are being operated on within the film, and maintains a constantly escalating sense of tension. By the time all of the layers successfully achieve their ‘kick’ to bring everyone out of the dream, this provides the audience with a catharsis of their own, resolving the stakes in a highly effective way.


The varied and innovative use of time through editing, cinematography and music in Reservoir Dogs, Inside Man and Inception innovates the heist film genre in myriad ways, subverting expectations and improving the audience’s experience within these films. Reservoir Dogs’ use of flashbacks and structural omission of the primary heist places a greater emphasis of the film on the characters, buildup and aftermath. The foreshadowing and bookending editing of Inside Man bait-and-switches the audience in order to help the criminals get the upper hand over both the audience and the characters. The dilated timeline and dreamlike editing of Inception also innovates the heist-film structure by allowing its audience to keep track of four simultaneous heists and action scenes at the same time.
These alterations and subversions of the typical heist film structure create fascinating new ways to captivate audiences and help to illustrate different issues related to identity, memory, and loyalty. The combination of camaraderie, trickery, and deceit indicative of the heist movie genre is present in full force within these films – however, they also extend to fooling and thrilling the audience and their perception of time and the nature of the narrative. All three films hide vital facts from the film by withdrawing elements and moments from the narrative in chronological order so that they can reveal them later – Orange’s identity as a cop, Russell’s real plan to fool the cops and steal what they really wanted later in the narrative, and Cobb’s real history with his wife, Mal, in limbo. On top of that, the time-bending nature of filmmaking permits these unique capers to be pulled off under the audience’s noses, providing new thrills in the form of long takes and the intricate interplay of differing heist scenarios.

Works Cited

Conard, Mark T. “Reservoir dogs: redemption in a postmodern world.” The Philosophy of Neo-Noir. 2007.
Hogan, Joseph. "Illuminating Realism: A Bazinian Analysis of Spike Lee's" Inside
Man"." Cinesthesia 1.1 (2012): 2.
Itzkoff, Dave. "Hans Zimmer Extracts the Secrets of the Inception Score." The New York Times, July 28, 2010. Print.
Lee, Spike (dir.). Inside Man. Perf .Clive Owen, Denzel Washington, Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Universal Pictures, 2006.
Maltby, Richard, ‘Genre’, Hollywood Cinema, second edition, Oxford, Blackwell, 2003, pp. 74-
Nolan, Christopher. Inception. Perf. Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe. Marion Cotillard. Warner Bros., 2010. Film.
Shaw, R.L. “Making sense of violence: a study of narrative meaning.” Qualitative Research in Psychology 1 (2004): 131-151.
Tarantino, Quentin (dir.). Reservoir dogs. Perf. Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen.
United States: Miramax, 1992.

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