Hell on Earth - Reservoir Dogs,  directed by Quentin Tarantino, 1991

One of the most memorable modern portraits of hell is the play No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre. Garcin, Inez and Estelle, all former strangers to each other, are locked in a room together without flames or instruments of torture. Almost immediately they begin to torment one another, and the hostilities continue to escalate throughout the one act play. At the end of the play Garcin states clearly what we as an audience have been aware of from the beginning:

So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is–other people. (Sartre 47)

Of course, Sartre’s real point is that we do not need to wait for the after-life to experience hell because we are already in it. In Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1991), a group of men, all strangers to one another, are hiding out in a warehouse after a failed jewelry heist. They suspect that they were set up and that one of them is a “rat.” Tarantino may be doing a pastiche of Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) and other gangster pictures, but he is also, perhaps unconsciously, revisiting Sartre’s hell.

There are differences in personnel and setting, but the situation is essentially the same. In No Exit, hell is vaguely Victorian with Second Empire furniture. The characters are genteel and are concerned with class distinctions. The battle between them is a replay of the battle between the sexes, the inevitable conflicts that would arise if one man and two women were stuck in the same room for all eternity. In Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino makes literal what Sartre metaphorically implies. Hell is on Earth in the warehouse of a morgue. The characters are crude, profane gangsters who acknowledge only the class distinction of power. The battle between them is one of childish machismo and turns on the question of one of them being a rat. The fact that they are trapped in hell is never mentioned. It is their isolation from the “real” world and the blood-drenched circumstances they create for themselves that communicate the unstated hell to the viewer. Both of these very staged, artificial works are studies in group isolation and the misery we inflict on one another as we create hells for ourselves.

However, the key similarity between the two works is that the characters are complete strangers to each other, and this lack of knowing is the primary source of the hellish events that take place in each work. In No Exit, the characters try to overcome their mutual alienation by “confessing” their sins to one another. As the play progresses, all of their dirty secrets are brought to life, but this does not serve to bring them closer together. They do not bear one another’s burdens. Instead, they use what they have learned to destroy one another psychologically. In Reservoir Dogs, a crime boss hires a group of thugs who don’t know each other and names them Mr. Blonde, Mr. Pink, Mr. Brown, etc. However, in a weak moment, one of the gangsters reveals to Mr. Orange that his name is Harry. Because of that slim connection of shared information, Harry places complete faith in Mr. Orange who turns out to be the rat. The result of this small personal sharing is that all of the characters but one end up dead and the one left standing is arrested with the jewels.

Although both are staged in an unreal, timeless environment (Reservoir Dogs, as Pat Dowell points out, is “Hermetically sealed and running for cover from any kind of contact with the real world” [4]), both are obviously meant to convey some perspective on human relationships in the ordinary world of the here and now. It seems that Sartre and Tarantino agree on the kind of hell we have made for ourselves right here on earth. We are strangers to one another, and mutual alienation and isolation is our natural state. When we finally do get to know one another, lower our tough masks and reveal our true selves, we are met with anger, betrayal, torture and death. They seem to be saying that friendship and empathy are not worth the risk; they seem to be telling us to stay locked up in the isolation chambers of ourselves.

No Exit and Reservoir Dogs tell us a great deal that is true–we often make hells for ourselves by our behavior, to be open is to be vulnerable, betrayal is a common occurrence, and to live as strangers to one another is to live in hell. However, there are larger truths that these grim artists don’t seem to see–the world is a beautiful place, people are often kind and caring, and to let another person into your life is worth the risk.

Most of all, they have forgotten the bright side of the road. We have the ability to make a heaven for ourselves as well as a hell. As Garcin said, “hell is other people” (Sartre 47) but the kingdom of heaven is within. All we need to do is activate it and it will establish a perimeter of peace around us.

About The Author

Thomas Beltzer is the author of Antojitos: Little Cravings (Edwin Mellen Press, 2000). He currently lives in Fredericksburg, Texas and teaches at Austin Community College.

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