Quentin Tarantino may have explored the colorful, bizarre, and disturbing world of the psychopath more fully than any other filmmaker. Indeed, films like Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, and Django Unchained all portray—in almost comic detail—a series of characters who kill often and with little remorse, conscience, or humanity. But the crown jewel of Tarantino’s psychopathic portraits has to be his classic 1992 heist film Reservoir Dogs, starring Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, and Steve Buschemi.
In the film, the crime boss, Big Joe Cabot (Lawrence Turney), and his son, Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn), assemble a diverse group of criminals to pull off a big jewel heist, assigning each of them a color name (Mr. White, Mr. Brown, etc.), which is meant not only to protect their anonymity but also to dehumanize them. The heist, of course, goes terribly wrong, and each character responds in their own way to the unfolding of events. What makes the film such a genius exploration of psychopathy is that each member of the crew (Mr. Pink, Mr. Orange, etc.) beautifully exemplifies a distinct color along the psychopathic spectrum.
All of the members of this antisocial gang fall into the general realm of psychopathy in that they all have a problematic relationship to reality and interpret their world as a harsh, threatening place that is rotting away. Hell, for them, is the frustrating existence of other people who have competing wants and interests—people who believe they also should have the world to themselves. The “dog pack” also shares a culture of hyper-masculine hostility, which objectifies women as sex objects and demeans them as psychologically weak.
The pack members can interact only briefly without reinforcing their self-esteem as superior White men by aggrandizing themselves through racial jokes and comparisons that demean and dehumanize Blacks. Even with each other, they are always ready with an insult, either to retaliate against a perceived slight or to stifle another man’s attempt to put his head above the pack.
In one of the opening scenes of the film, the dog pack members meet each other for the first time over breakfast at Bob’s Pancake House. Tarantino brilliantly uses a discussion about tipping the waitress to reveal both the common worldview of the cons and how their attitudes toward that world and the people in it differ.
The most different is Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), who actually ignores the tipping discussion entirely while he closely attends to the playful struggle for dominance and control that is happening below the surface. Mr. Blonde is a sadistic psychopath. He is completely at home in this antisocial world, because it justifies his bliss of being the master of dispensing hell to those around him.
Not all psychopaths are sadistic, but many have strong sadistic traits. Mr. Blonde is willing to risk everything to fulfill his sadistic pleasure in torturing and mutilating a captured cop. Mr. Blonde has the poorest contact with, and regard for, reality. He believes that if you dare to enter into his world, you deserve what you get.
Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) is a criminal psychopath, although a high-anxiety version of one. He has the clearest handle on external reality, perhaps even better than the undercover cop, Mr. Orange. Although Pink is prone to what he calls panic, he has animal-like agility to quickly land on his feet and return to a keen focus on self-interest.
He is the first to know that there is a rat in the dog pack, and he keeps his eyes and hands on the diamonds. He is clear on the facts, but his interpretations of them are hobbled by his profound inability to make basic emotional judgments. When he returns from the botched heist after killing officers and seeing pack members killed, he has to ask Mr. White, “Is this bad?” Mr. White has to assure him that it is not good.
Although he is also a psychopath, Mr. Pink is the one in the dog pack who has the best overlap with the paranoid type. This hones his awareness, vigilance, his sense of having been given a raw deal in life. His psychopathy also comes through clearly in his anger and anxiety-driven impulsiveness. As he says, “Everybody panics. When things get tense, everybody panics. It’s human nature.” He cannot imagine the quiet mind under maximum stress, the mature virtue of courage.
Like Mr. White, who trusts Joe implicitly, Mr. Pink has known Joe since his childhood. But Pink remains unattached to anyone in the pack to the bitter end, even considering that Big Joe has set them up, sold them out, or at least has abandoned them. He watches the conflicts within the pack play out until all are dead except him and almost gets away with the diamonds.
As intriguing as the psychopath (Mr. Pink) and the sadist (Mr. Blonde) are, the heart of the film is in the dynamic between Mr. White and Mr. Orange. Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) is a sociopath. His orientation to crime comes from being socialized into criminal society by men like Joe, whom he looks to as a father figure.
Sociopathic gangs are often led by psychopaths who are normal enough to project an aura of warmth and power. Young men, like Mr. White must have been, are drawn to the Joes of the world like moths to a flame. Mr. White regrets that this world exists as it is, and he wishes to repair it by being loyal to his antisocial godfather and his associates and by having the integrity of being a professional. He wants to believe that, like Robin Hood, he and his associates are representatives of the downtrodden and unappreciated. They are on a mission to balance the scales of justice that society has loaded against them.
Mr. White knows that Mr. Blonde is a sadistic psychopath who can only think and feel by shooting and cutting. He dis-identifies equally with both Mr. Blonde and the police, who he sees as a morally illegitimate gang with uniforms and all the lazy habits that come with a steady paycheck. Mr. White is able to orient and calm Mr. Pink and to comfort and protect Mr. Orange.
Mr. White is trying to do the right thing by people, at least from his criminal mindset. Ultimately, he cannot forgive Nice Guy Eddie for bringing Mr. Blonde into the heist, because Mr. Blonde embodies the unthinking destructiveness that Mr. White does not want to become.
Mr. Orange (Freddy) is an undercover cop with a narcissistic (and histrionic) personality. He has a personality disorder because he is turned on by taking unreasonable risks to prove he is “super cool” and superior to the dumb cons he is duping. Aptly his apartment is plastered with adolescent superheroes like the Silver Surfer.
His self-inflation and denigration of others motivate him to perform dangerous undercover work. His goal is to exploit and manipulate through deception. He has a generally intact conscience, knowing right from wrong, but he believes he can do no wrong to the criminals he’s trying to trap.
Freddy is the great impostor, the master trickster and bluffer, a Machiavellian. The film is set in L.A. near Hollywood, the capital of illusions where thousands of people dedicate themselves to great performances every day. Holdaway (Randy Brooks) coaches Freddy to be a great actor, to simulate the alternative reality of a lie and to remain detached. Prior to the botched heist, Holdaway has already guided Freddy to identifying White as a hold-up man from Milwaukee. White is as good as caught at this point.
Although he is ignorant that Freddy and Holdaway have his real name (Laurence Dimmick), Mr. White rightly senses that he shares a bond with Mr. Orange that is unlike his bond with anyone else in the dog pack. Mr. White is constantly striving to protect his self-esteem from the corrupt, disappointing, and abandoning models of his youth by being a good soldier and a professional criminal with principles. Mr. Orange is bolstering his self-esteem with ideals of perfection and mercurial grace that will help him slay the dragon of crime (Joe Cabot), but it is a grace of deception and manipulation that is also ultimately hollow.
I have said that Mr. Blonde has the most tenuous, distorted hold on reality, but I must question if Mr. Blonde’s hold on reality is any more impaired than Freddy’s. Freddy is an undercover cop who puts his own life on the line, in order to follow through on his plan to play the cons for fools. Mr. Orange knows that he can manipulate Mr. White by telling him his name and therefore becoming a real person to him.
After he is wounded, Freddy asks “Larry” (Mr. White) to hold him, knowing that this physical contact and gesture makes it less likely that Larry will leave him to die. But ultimately, when it seems not to matter, Mr. Orange reveals that he is Freddy, a cop. Did Mr. Orange pull off his cover to prove that he was the ultimate trickster, or was this another attempt to make human contact with Mr. White’s better angels by offering up his real identity and his guilt?
This post has explored Reservoir Dogs as a kind of illustrated primer on psychopathic types. The second post in this two-parter will look at the world Tarantino created for these personalities to inhabit through the lens of the philosophy of meaning and signification.