on utilitarianism, quentin tarantino, john rawls, and mr blonde

Stuck in the Middle with You: Mr. Blonde and Retributive Justice

Joseph Ulatowski

If they hadn’t done what I told ’em not to do, they’d still be alive.

Mr.Blonde, Reservoir Dogs (1991)

Whoever has committed Murder, must die.

Immanuel Kant, Metaphysics of Morals (1797)

None of the memorable scenes of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs have affected viewers so much as the one in which Mr.Blonde (Michael Madsen) tortures a cop while dancing to “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealer’s Wheel. Some viewers have argued largely on the basis of this scene that the violence in Reservoir Dogs is entirely gratuitous and that the film is thus morally indefensible as a work of art (call this the “orthodox view”). Oliver Conolly writes:

The infamous scene in Reservoir Dogs in which someone’s ear is cut off is not of any interest in terms of any insight into the psychology of the characters in the film. It is hard to see how it could interest anyone except someone with a particular interest in that particular form of torture.69

We can easily see that this must be mistaken. The fact that a person would gleefully cut off someone’s ear gives us a great deal of insight into that person’s psychology, just as the differing reactions of the other members of the gang to this action give us insights into theirs.

We may also learn something about the moral universe of the movie by thinking about the reasons given by the other characters for why Blonde’s treatment of Marvin the cop either is or isn’t a cause for concern. If we look at the perspective of the characters for whom it is not a problem, we may find that their acceptance of his brutal behavior has larger repercussions for our understanding of real-world philosophical problems. In particular, we may discover that some of the “gratuitous” attitudes toward violence displayed by these criminals are not all that different from some of the attitudes that underlie certain widely-accepted theories of justice and punishment.

In contrast to some film critics and philosophers of film, I maintain that Blonde is a far more complex character than someone who just enjoys shooting—and presumably killing—people. The naive belief that Blonde is nothing more than a psycho torturing for the fun of it stems from the critics’ assumptions about the correct theory of punishment. Given a different theory of punishment, we can make better sense of Blonde’s actions.

Let’s look at two theories of punishment: the utilitarian theory, probably held by the critics who misunderstand Blonde’s actions, and the retributive theory, which makes those actions appear more understandable.

But first, what is a theory of punishment?

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lines from the pulps: james gunn’s deadlier than the male

"She had a full-breasted figure in the Biblical style, the kind that suggests camels and water-jars."


There’s sex-talk!

Mrs. Krantz perked up. "About the new one?" she asked avidly.

Mrs. Pollicker nodded. "He smells," she said. "All the time. Like an animal."

Mrs. Krantz opened her mouth with a wet smack of ecstasy. "Oh, my, ain’t you human!”

Mrs. Pollicker stood up straight. "I rather think it is primitive," she said, pleased.

Plus there’s violence! 

Danny took his knife out of his pocket. He had something to say and he meant to move quickly, but his reactions were slow. The red-headed man struck him full in his open mouth, so hard that he smashed his jaw and teeth, and Danny’s mind was full of flashes and darkness. His head hit against the wall, and the red-headed man hit him again. Danny fell forward with his arms around the man’s legs, and the red-headed man brought his arm up in almost an incidental gesture to the side of Danny’s head. After that Danny did not think any more at all, not just because he was unconscious, but because he was dead.

—from James Gunn, Deadlier Than The Male (1950), the source for the legendary 1947 Robert Wise film noir Born to Kill, starring Claire Trevor and Lawrence Tierney.