Morality in Reservoir Dogs

I revisited one of my favorite films recently, the fiendishly repugnant, Reservoir Dogs, after a chance hearing of “Little Green Bag” in a commercial, the musical number that, over the opening credits, takes the audience from the pre-burglary breakfast to the post-burglary bloodbath. In reading some reviews and papers on the film, I noticed that most claimed that the roundtable discussion at the diner, which opens the movie, is an introduction to Tarantino’s talent for writing compelling dialogue, but is otherwise irrelevant to the rest of the movie. I disagree on the latter point; the opening scene introduces the main characters so thoroughly that much of the dialogue actually foreshadows the themes and plot developments of the picture, once we get past the theory about Madonna’s “Like A Virgin”, and get to the issue of tipping.

Mr. Pink (Buscemi) declines to chip in for the tip for the waitress due to a resistance to follow inconsistent social rules of etiquette, and while the other gentlemen are amused by Mr. Pink’s antics, Mr. White (Keitel) seems genuinely bothered by the lack of concern Mr. Pink shows for workers that are doing a hard job, and, he notes, are often single mothers. When the organizer of the heist, Joe (Tierney) returns from paying the bill and inquires about who didn’t contribute to the tip and why, Mr. Orange (Roth) informs Joe, telling Joe Mr. Pink’s reasons for not tipping, foreshadowing the fact that Mr. Orange is to be revealed as an informant. While following the botched heist there is much discussion of who is the rat in the group, a prevailing conflict throughout the movie is the tension between Mr. Pink’s and Mr. White’s worldviews, and as this tension is introduced in the opening diner scene, this opening sequence is central to establishing the characters of Mr. Pink, Mr. White, and Mr. Orange. (It’s also worth noting that Mr. Blonde (Madsen), who turns out to be a murderous psychopath, playfully pretends to shoot Mr. White in the diner scene, and the character is no more involved in the conversation than that, so we can take this as foreshadowing as well, though we never see and only hear of how he shoots all of the sales reps during the burglary.)

The tension between Mr. Pink and Mr. White is absorbing because on the one hand, we respect Mr. White’s commitment to Mr. Orange, and the other sympathetic moral stances that he takes (such as being kind to waitresses), but on the other, we think he is morally despicable for saying that to get results sometimes you have to chop off someone’s fingers or break a woman’s nose with the butt of a gun, and then calmly say, “I’m hungry, let’s get a taco”. Mr. Pink doesn’t care at all for moral concerns, and is interested purely in self-preservation and getting the job done; the audience is not led to care for Mr. Pink. And yet, with his frequent protestations that he is the only one of the group acting professionally and rationally, he is the only one to make it out live. Some reviewers have taken this conclusion to suggest that the lesson of Tarantino’s story is that morality is a social construction that you must shed in order to survive. I don’t think this necessarily follows from the story; I think, if anything, Tarantino’s story suggests that it is dangerous to be inconsistently moral, as it becomes impossible to manage going back and forth between a morally engaged/sensitive perspective and a morally disengaged/detached perspective.

Moral irrealists, such as Mark Timmons, think that we can and do act without attention to moral concerns but that we can turn our moral sensitivity on, so that we can think in a moral framework and make what we take to be categorical and non-subjective moral claims (see here for more on this theory and my concerns with it). Timmons’ claim is not just that we should see morality in this way, but that we do in fact turn our moral sensitivity off and on. The story of Mr. White suggests that Timmons’ theory cannot be correct, because if we did frequently switch from a morally disengaged to morally engaged perspective (or vice versa) we could land ourselves in serious and dangerous situations where it would be unwise and irrational to switch back to a morally engaged perspective, so that once we turned off our moral sensitivity it would be hard, without profound consequences, to take moral considerations seriously again. Perhaps this is what happened to Mr. Pink. The point is that we cannot go back and forth between morality and nihilism, as Mr. White tried to do, and that maybe even that we should be moral, so that we don’t ever find ourselves in the situation that Mr. Pink was fortunate enough to escape from.

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  1. #1 by Daedalus Lex on October 23, 2014 - 3:13 pm

    Great attention to detail. I haven’t seen the film in years, but could the moral implications be more of an existentialist sort? I.e., the world has no rational order, and any logical framework that pretends to explain (morally) “who will end up where” must collapse under the weight of the world’s absurdity? I really don’t know, as I don’t have your grasp of the film’s details, and your analysis seems a fine one – but perhaps even finer when thrown into the mix of competing hypotheses. So I’ll have a go at it.

    The existentialist reading might mean that Mr. White’s unpredictably sympathetic/unsympathetic gestures demonstrate how arbitrary the (non-)principle is that governs morality. This doesn’t mean that morality must be “shed in order to survive,” but it does mean morality is futile, which forces you to the existential crisis: either you become a nihilist (eschewing morality altogether) or an absurd hero (choosing to act morally with the foreknowledge that such a choice is absurd). I’d say we can waffle like Mr. White, but don’t expect to be rewarded for it. More generally, I’d say that Tarantino’s films tend to turn the moral sensitivity off, with bizarre shifts in good guys, bad guys, and audience sympathies. But the more absurd the film’s arc is morally, the more obvious it becomes that we in the audience have a human need –against all moral odds – to be pulling for someone, anyone, on that screen.

    • #2 by ausomeawestin on October 23, 2014 - 8:12 pm

      Thanks much for the kind words, and for offering another hypothesis. I stand by my comments on foreshadowing, but my arguments about the film’s comments on morality are just me combining two subjects I love for some fun, I don’t think there is a right answer exactly, and I quite like your understanding of the film and think it’s a reading that works equally well.

      In fact, I think it’s quite useful to, as you point out, notice how this sort of existential crisis propels most of Tarantino’s characters (Django definitely seems to be an exception). You say that morality is futile in the sense that the moral choice is absurd, and this seems to work quite well with Mr. White and Tarantino’s most compelling characters, for who the concept of the flawed character is taken and flipped it on its head — rather than Tarantino showing us good people with weaknesses for vice, Tarantino relishes in the nuances of bad people with weaknesses for virtue, for acting in the face of the absurd. Thanks for sharing this very interesting viewpoint, one which makes Tarantino’s movies all the more compelling — I’m already starting to think of his movies differently now due to your comments.

      Cheers

      • #3 by Daedalus Lex on October 23, 2014 - 8:33 pm

        All good points on the table. And I too see Django as an exception.

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