15 Great Movies Dealing With Consequentialism

8. Gattaca (1997)


Philosophy of Science is a growing field, as myriad amazing scientific advances have complicated moral situations, producing ever more alternatives to the traditional options in any decision. Not too long ago, there was intense debate about the morality of cloning, as scientists successfully cloned a sheep. The debates have progressed today and will indubitably continue to, eventually potentially reaching a dystopia like that found in Gattaca.

In Gattaca, Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke again) is an “inferior” man, at least genetically speaking, but has dreams and goals that are more apropos for someone of a better gene pool. Given that others have been bred for superior genes, he must pretend to have the best genes so that he can succeed.

What’s so consequentialist about this? Just the not-too-distant possibility of genetic design, as Gattaca seeks to show the problems of genetic engineering. Moral problems abound, and one must wonder if the ends sometimes justify the means (i.e. to prevent certain diseases via genetic engineering) and, if so, how far this slippery slope can go before it reaches chaos.


9. Badlands (1973)


In this Malick masterpiece, Kit (Martin Sheen) falls in love with Holly (Sissy Spacek) in a small town and they decide that they must be together. Kit, to put it politely, “is no good”, and quickly shoots and kills Holly’s dad because he disapproves of the young couple’s relationship. In a “that escalated quickly” sort of few minutes, Kit goes on to kill several police in the Dakota badlands as they head north to Canada to live and love in freedom.

Holly, unlike Kit, is a bit more thoughtful and, notwithstanding the fact that her dad was shot by her boyfriend, is troubled by the moral and prudential choices Kit is making on her behalf.

It’s a classic love story in which love conquers all, but unique in that it does not place love or physical attraction as the highest good. Kit’s actions are wrong and cannot be condoned, and so Malick, with his typical beautiful, lofty, and meandering poetic cinematography, subtly denounces consequentialism.


10. Breathless (1960)

Breathless film

In similar fashion, Breathless is a Jean-Luc Godard masterpiece written by Francois Truffaut in which imprudent decisions lead to catastrophe. In it, Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a narcissist (and impersonator of Humphrey Bogart at times) that decides to resort to thievery for no apparent reason.

He then impulsively murders a cop and, as if in response, pursues an American woman, Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg), that he had met earlier in Nice. He plans to leave Paris for Italy, and is completely unaware of the doom that is following him because of his actions.

Both Michel and Patricia fall victim to foolish consequentialism, favoring their friends and each other over virtue. She hides him in her apartment. He tries to seduce her. She becomes pregnant. Etc, etc.

While Michel’s ends are unattainable by any means, Godard does offer a criticism on consequentialism and presents an allusively stylish film that is irresistible and devilishly entertaining.


11. Changeling (2008)


A serious change from our other films, Changeling is a dark Eastwood film (aren’t they all?) in which Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) fights the LAPD after her son, Walter Collins (Gattlin Griffith) is abducted. Not too long after he is kidnapped, the LAPD bring Christine a substitute imposter child, which she (somewhat) quickly realizes is not hers, and the ruggle thus begins.

Full of obvious Foucaultian History of Madness tropes, Changeling depicts the horrific lengths the LAPD is willing to go to in order to maintain their image and PR. Christine is locked away and labeled insane after she continues to fight the police (and their ends-justify-the-means mentality eventually makes her go insane in a sense) but she continues to hope she will eventually find her son.

The film questions how far the police will go to for any end that they deem “good” and the methods the police can resort to when they are opposed.


12. The Game (1997)


A David Fincher masterpiece (as all Fincher films are), The Game follows Nicholas van Orton (Michael Douglas), a wealthy I-banker turning 48, the age at which his father committed suicide. Stressed, self-centered, and wearied from his job, Nicholas is fixated on his father’s death and unsure what to do with himself. Then, he gets a birthday gift from his brother, Conrad (Sean Penn), inviting him to participate in a game.

A psychological thriller, The Game queries what lengths are acceptable for psychological healing and well-being. To what end ought one go to cure his friends of mental illnesses? Fincher provides no answers, but does provide a gripping narrative that leads viewers to decide for themselves as relationships spiral out of control and lives are at stake.


13. The Hunt (2012)

the hunt

This Danish drama follows Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), a kindergarten teacher in a close-knit community. One of his pupils, Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), accuses him of sexual misconduct out of naiveté and confusion, and is then led on by countless officials and counselors to uphold her accusation of Lucas’ misbehavior, despite her efforts to renounce the lie.

While a powerful commentary on psychology and the “always side with the victim” mentality ever prevalent these days, The Hunt explores the ways in which certain sciences are willing to go through any means whatsoever to get the results they want. Lucas is treated horribly, and there’s never any real resolution or forgiveness that’s worthy of the trials he’s put through. Utterly ostracized and dejected, Lucas is a mere means to an end.


14. Michael Clayton (2007)

Michael Clayton

Michael Clayton is about power, prestige, and money—three things that often lead to nefarious behavior and actions. Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is the “fixer”, the lead repair consultant for a top law firm that swiftly solves all problems. In this film, he’s brought in to fix a situation: a renowned lawyer has suffered a mental breakdown trying to represent a hugely successful chemical company facing a large lawsuit.

The tagline of the film, “the truth can be adjusted,” describes well he stereotypical nature of consulting and law, and it also serves to describe an environment in which Michael is at home. Yet, something about this case is tricky and ugly. Will Michael use any means necessary to fix the problem? Will his firm?


15. The Big Heat (1953)

The Big Heat (1953)

A classic Fritz Lang film noir, The Big Heat follows Sergeant Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford), an honest cop investigating a suicide case. An early trendsetter, the film has everyone close to the victim tortured and removed from the investigation so that there can be no clear resolution for Sgt. Bannion, and so that he gets a bad taste in his mouth. The more he investigates, the more at risk he and his family becomes, as the perpetrator is willing to go to any means necessary to “close the case.”

Eventually Sgt. Banion’s wife is murdered and his property is destroyed, and he discovers that everything is the work of a mastermind crime syndicate that runs the entire town.

Unlike most people, Bannion refuses to back down, and in classic 1950s style he pursues the syndicate and fist-fights his way through to justice, refusing to accept such consequentialist reasoning. We know from the beginning that he’ll refuse consequentialism, but we’re all dying to know what he’ll have to go through to get there.

Author Bio: Ben Wilson is a recent graduate of Yale college, where he studied Philosophy and Political Science. A film buff and addict, he views film as the proper medium for philosophy in the 21st century.