Pink's idea of justice seems
a bit hard-hearted, but we must admit that in the end, it's Pink
who escapes alive with the diamonds so maybe his self-interested
approach has more advantages than his more passionate colleagues
by John Denvir
We too often remember Quentin
Tarantino's films for their images of violence. The image of
a thug slicing off a policeman's ear in Reservoir Dogs
is a hard one to forget-even though it never appears in the movie.
The actual mutilation takes place off screen, a fact that indicates
Tarantino is interested in more than violence for violence's
sake. I find Reservoir Dogs more interesting as a movie
about justice than one about violence. Tarantino's idea of justice
has little to do the "legal justice system" with its
juries and prisons and such, but with justice as the hope that
everyone gets what they deserve, their just deserts. Each of
the film's main characters is motivated by a sense of justice,
but what justice demands varies dramatically from individual
to individual and these differing perceptions lead inevitably
most readers have not seen the film recently, I would like to
start with a short plot summary to refresh our memories. Reservoir
Dogs is a "heist" film, or more accurately, a "heist
gone bad" film. A group of crooks plans a robbery of a jewelry
warehouse. Tipped off by an undercover policeman (Tim Roth as
Mr. Orange) who has infiltrated the gang, the police show up
to interrupt the robbery. Two of the gang are killed and another
(the same Mr. Orange) is seriously wounded.
We pick up the action when Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) is bringing
the "gut-shot" Mr. Orange to a deserted warehouse where
the gang had agreed to meet after the heist. They are met there
first by Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) and a little later by Mr. Blonde
(Michael Madsen) who has brought with him a tied-up policeman
the gang members hope can identify the snitch. They are soon
joined by Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn), the gang leader's son
and deputy, who assigns Blonde to guard the prisoner while he,
White, and Pink retrieve the jewels.
When Blonde is alone, he proceeds
to torture his captive. He candidly explains that he doesn't
care whether the policeman tells him the truth or not; it just
amuses him to torture a cop. This is where the ear slicing takes
place. He also intends to burn his victim alive. Just before
Blonde is able to set the policeman aflame, he is shot dead by
Orange who he had mistakenly believed was unconscious. Nice Guy
Eddie, White, and Pink return, soon joined by the gang's leader
Joe (Lawrence Tierney). Joe has no doubt about the identity of
the informer; he "knows" it is Orange because Orange
is the only one he had not worked with for years. He pulls out
his gun to execute Orange, only to be confronted by Mr. White
who claims that Orange is innocent. He asks Joe what his proof
is, but Joe responds. "You don't need proof when you have
instinct." White draws his gun and tells Joe that if he
shoots Orange, he will shoot Joe. At which point Nice guy Eddie
draws his gun and tells White that if he shoots his dad, he will
shoot him. A triple shoot-out ensues, leaving both Joe and Nice
Guy Eddie dead.
At this point Mr. Pink decides to leave with the jewels, feeling
risking capture by the cops is safer than remaining with his
homicidal colleagues. That leaves Mr. White and Mr. Orange. Orange
knows that the police are about to arrive to rescue him and arrest
White, but still he tells White " I'm a cop. I'm sorry,
terribly sorry." At this point the police enter the building
and shoot White dead, but not before he kills Orange.
We can see five different conceptions of justice operating here,
each motivating a different character. Mr. Blonde represents
the first conception of justice. White is a psychopath who has
already killed a whole slew of warehouse employees during the
robbery. He clearly enjoys mutilating the cop for no better reason
than the enjoyment he experiences torturing a cop. This seems
more like sadism than justice. But in Blonde's defense, we must
admit he would not complain if the policeman held the knife and
acted the same way towards him. Justice to White is no more or
less than inflicting pain on your enemy as circumstances allow.
Joe represents another idea of justice, the charismatic leader's
justice. Joe is the gang's boss, the man who gives the orders.
It's Joe who insisted that all the participants in the actual
robbery take the names of colors to keep their true identities
secret. He's an affectionate, generous man towards his workers,
but insists on total obedience. He takes responsibility for the
group's success and claims the right to decide questions of guilt
and punishment. He figures Orange must be the snitch since Orange
is the only new man on the job. No more need of proof than that.
Once he makes that decision, permitting opposition would be perceived
as a sign of weakness, undermining his authority. Orange is a
Consider the difference between Joe's idea of justice and that
of Mr. Pink. Mr. Pink is the individualist in the group, always
thinking about what will profit him personally. But he too is
bound by an idea of proper conduct toward his fellows, an idea
that appears to be driven by the idea of contract. He is willing
to perform any obligations he has voluntarily undertaken, but
nothing beyond the terms of the contract. Tarantino allows Pink
to explain his ideas in a very funny monologue about why Pink
doesn't tip waitresses. They are paid to serve the food; he has
agreed to pay the bill. He hasn't agreed to add a tip and chooses
not to. The fact that "society" wishes to place this
nonconsensual burden on him does not move him in the least. He's
also supremely indifferent to his colleagues' arguments that
waitresses need the money. If they don't like the pay, they should
find a new job.
Yet Pink believes himself a professional and acts like one. For
instance, he rescues the diamonds and rather than abscond with
them brings them to the rendez-vous as agreed. He is also the
first to realize someone must have tipped off the cops and insists
they discuss rationally what to do next to identify the snitch.
Pink's idea of justice seems a bit hard-hearted, but we must
admit that in the end, it's Pink who escapes alive with the diamonds
so maybe his self-interested approach has more advantages than
his more passionate colleagues realize.
Mr. White and Mr. Orange both exhibit morally more ambitious
conceptions of justice than the others. White feels that his
relationship with his fellow crooks gives them a claim on his
sympathy. Not willing to be bound by the letter of their agreement,
White reacts spontaneously to Orange's injury and feels something
should be done to relieve his pain. This empathy with suffering
should not surprise us; it was White who was enraged by Pink's
hard-heartedness towards waitresses. He takes responsibility
for Orange because Orange is his colleague and (he thinks) friend.
Unfortunately, this need for human connection makes White less
"professional" than Pink by giving Orange information
that the cop plans to use against him. Also Tarantino cleverly
undercuts White's stance by showing how easily he has been fooled
by the undercover cop. It turns out that White has killed his
friend Joe to save a man who knows that the police are coming
in a few minutes to arrest them all, including White. Empathy
that is not mediated by prudence can be dangerous.
That leaves Mr. Orange who goes beyond even White to embrace
what I will call a "redemptive" concept of justice.
When we meet Orange he is quite a cocky young undercover detective
who likes his "super-cool" job playing cops and robbers.
It's only when the blood, including his own, starts to flow that
he realizes that law enforcement impacts heavily on human lives.
In order to stop a burglary that only involved the theft of insured
diamonds, he has set in motion a series of events that will result
in several deaths, including his own. After the shootout when
his protector White crawls to his side, he has a decision to
make. Should he remain silent and wait for the police or confess
his perfidy. Remaining silent is clearly the smart move, but
he can't do it. White's caring for him has created a personal
bond he can't ignore. He feels responsible for the pain he has
caused. Forgiveness-, self-forgiveness- requires action. "I'm
a cop. I'm sorry, terribly sorry." This is a call for his
own death, but one he feels compelled to give.
I think there are some lessons we can take away from this film.
First, the need to act according to some idea of justice seems
hard-wired into the human brain. Crooks are just as justice-obsessed
as the police who pursue them. Secondly, this need for justice
does not break down neatly into procedural and substantive components
the way law school teaches us. It concerns what we owe our fellows.
Thirdly, individual and group disputes, like Joe and White's,
often stem, not from an opposition of justice to injustice, but
differing ideas of what justice requires. Maybe this realization
could make us more understanding of our enemies' motivations.
We should recognize that none of us operate from a pure concept
of justice, but rather an amalgam of these five conceptions and
probably many more. For instance, Pink thinks himself a rationalist,
but enters into kicking the defenseless cop with abandon just
like Blonde. Do we not, like Blonde, enjoy our enemies' pain?
Or like Joe, prefer submission to our authority to the rigors
of proof? Pink's attempt to determine what obligations he has
voluntarily assumed is also an everyday experience. So too we
are inspired by White's taking responsibility for his fellow's
welfare and admire, if not wholly understand, Orange's need to
atone for his misdeeds. In the end, we may find that "justice"
turns out to be "just us."
Posted August 1, 2006
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