The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino, 2015)

The Hateful Eight opens with an overture, scored by the brilliant Ennio Morricone in his first western in decades. Then, after logos from the Weinstein Company and Cinerama, there is a single shot beginning on a wooden cross. It slowly zooms out and tilts to reveal a horse-drawn carriage, a pictorial excuse to let Morricone’s pounding score work its magic while nothing of discernible significance happens. In those opening minutes (I imagine it is seven or eight minutes, although it feels closer to 15, and that’s a good thing), director Quentin Tarantino is promising his viewers an experience, a glorious, 70mm road-show experience that will prove that they do – or at least he does –make them like they used to. It’s a shame that he seems to have run out of tricks to play and things to say.

Tarantino has built a career on intertextual references, quoting films from Band of Outsiders to Saturday Night Fever in Pulp Fiction, making more direct homages to Lady Snowblood and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! with Kill Bill and Death Proof, respectively, modeling a WWII film in Inglorious Basterds in part after the Spaghetti Western and drawing heavily on Mandingo with Death Proof. In Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, and Death Proof the postmodern play was an end on its own, an indulgence in cinema and nothing more, even if they were, to quote James Naremore, offering the viewer “Coca-Cola without Marx.” Cool was itself a desirable trait, and Tarantino had it in droves, even if the de facto genre or sociological commentary, in these films more incidental than planned, was a little flat. By the time he got to Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, Tarantino was on to something different. He understands that movies shape our perception of the truth, a phenomenon most apparent in the inseparability of the Western film from our ideas of the old west. If history is refracted through cinema, it only made sense to take this to a logical extreme and use cinema to right history’s failings, either by killing Hitler or giving one man an out from slavery. To date, only Jackie Brown has come close to bringing the two together, recalling Blaxploitation films while also saying something of considerable nuance about race relations. It is worth noting, however, that even the egomaniacal Tarantino has sung the praises of Elmore Leonard, who wrote the book on which the film is based, for his strong source material. Regardless, Tarantino regular and The Hateful Eight star Samuel L. Jackson has astutely called it Tarantino’s best film and the only one “about adults.”

In his latest, Tarantino eschews the intertextual references within the film itself and lets paratextual information, such as presentation, marketing, and the presence of Morricone, reflect his cinematic know-how. The film isn’t devoid of references to film culture (one character is named Joe Gage, after the pornographic filmmaker), but its play with genre lacks the specific references present in almost all of his work until this point. Without a web of references to navigate and contextualize the violence and narrative, The Hateful Eight is little more than Tarantino’s characters, stories, and jokes, all of which seem to be getting weaker with every film.

For a while, the film lives up to its glorious first shot and flirts with a self-awareness that it ultimately lacks, beginning almost like a twist on The Seven Samurai. Bounty Hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) is rescued from a blizzard by a stagecoach carrying John Ruth “The Hangman” (Kurt Russell) and his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to hang at Red Rock, which also happens to be Warren’s destination. Over a few tense minutes, guns are pointed but no shots are fired, with backstory being conveniently dispensed amidst race- and gender-fueled tension. As they ride on, they encounter another freezing soul, “The Sheriff” Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins), who claims to be newly appointed Red Rock but whose Confederate background quickly earns him enemies. The group escapes the blizzard at an already-crowded Minnie’s Haberdashery, where the rest of the eponymous crew, including Confederate General Smithers (Bruce Dern) is also snowed-in. The Seven Samurai-style recruitment film is cut short, allegiances are declared, tensions mount and makeshift alliances form.

It initially appears as if Tarantino is unhappy with how Django Unchained turned out, as if realizing that crafting a two-hour white savior film only to subvert it in a forced and dramatically inert final half hour prioritized the point over the storytelling. He has moved forward only slightly in period, repeated his themes, and kept his genre (admittedly, referring to both merely as “westerns” does a disservice to their numerous differences). When the bullets begin to fly, however, The Hateful Eight has very little to say about race. Or rather, it has very little insight to dispense about race. Certainly, Warren is on the mark when he says “the only time black folks are safe is when white folks is disarmed,” but sharp one-liners only account for so much of a three hour film, and this one’s story arc and character dynamics lack any commendable insight.

The counterproductive message embedded in Tarantino’s aesthetics is even worse than its shallowness. Stylistically, nothing distinguishes a kill we ought to cheer from one we should condemn. There is undoubtedly a level on which the film operates as exploitation, with discomfort being part of the point, but a film can make a viewer uncomfortable without also subscribing to the ideals which it depicts. The Wolf of Wall Street deploys a number of aesthetic coups to show that the lifestyle it depicts is being sold and also to undercut the message the protagonist is delivering. True exploitation films, from Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! to Ms .45 to I Spit On Your Grave are equally adept at tightroping the line between depiction or critique and endorsement. The Hateful Eight fails to balance on that line, particularly when it comes to violence against women.

Death Proof, Kill Bill, and Jackie Brown all lend themselves to feminist readings that speak a more loudly than Tarantino’s uncomfortable obsession with Uma Thurman’s feet, but The Hateful Eight lacks the control of tone or a script sharp enough to undercut its depictions. Daisy, the film’s sole woman for much of the film, is punched in the face by The Hangman to elicit laughs countless times, with each instance telegraphed through a standard dialogical joke setup for which the attack serves as the punchline. If the film were interested solely in shocking or discomforting the viewer, it would not telegraph the joke so clearly.

Anticipation of violence against women is perhaps the defining trait of the film. When characters first begin to be killed off and the whereabouts of the Haberdashery’s owners are all but ascertained, the film opens a new chapter, cutting back to the carriage from the opening – a “pat yourself on the back” reveal without any real payoff – and witness its arrival at Minnie’s Haberdashery. We know from what transpired just before the flashback that the party, those present at the venue when Warren and Co. arrived, will kill the inhabitants, and after some verbal foreplay, they do. The inhabitants, all or mostly women, are mown down with the same gleeful aesthetic approach as the more acceptable kills, and the film returns to the present to set up the torture of Daisy.

Regarding the idea of “more acceptable kills,” much has been made about the morality (or lack thereof) of each character in the film and the film as a whole, as if the morality of every event is under question. Assuming that it goes without saying that this flashback provides the sole exception to this line of thinking, I would like to propose that Warren is also exempted of the kind of amorality proposed to be on display. Warren kills only those who “deserve it” within the film’s universe – cold-blooded killers and overtly racist Confederate generals who scream “movie villain.” There is some question as to whether he killed fellow prisoners when he escaped in an incident, spoken of but unseen, before the film started, but odds are such a thing never happened. It is a myth that was spread, likely via Warren himself, to create a reputation.

Multiple times throughout the film, Warren’s “Lincoln letter,” a note of correspondence between the character and the president, becomes the center of attention, but it is revealed that Warren fabricated the letter with the hopes of “disarming” white folks. He created and utilized a myth for personal gain. After a couple screaming matches with General Smithers, Warren sets a gun next to Smithers and begins to tell a story. “Picture this” (or something to that effect) Warren says, before telling a story about how he tortured, raped, and killed the general’s son before killing him, and we see the flashback, a laughing Warren receiving a blow job from a naked white confederate with a gun to his head outside in the snow, as if being taken into Smithers’ point of view. Smithers grabs the gun and begins to take aim, but Warren kills him first.

It is possible that the story Warren tells is true. It is more likely that he is again using a myth to his advantage. Warren demonstrates an astute understanding of the white man’s racism with the use of his letter, and here he seems to be taking advantage of the stereotype of African-Americans as sexual deviants (present as well in Django Unchained) knowing it will have the desired effect. Given these two instances, it seems just as likely that Warren cultivated his prison-break myth to brand himself as intimidating and ruthless, a persona he calls on in the film and refers to as a defining trait of his past on multiple occasions. In any case, even if it is real, it was a man trying to escape a Confederate prison that had unintended consequences, and when The Sheriff notes them, Warren appears ashamed. His moral slate is a clean one.

This, along with the massacre of Minnie and her family by other members of the eponymous group, all of whom serve Daisy, sets up a story of heroes and villains. The triumph of the hero, Warren, over the villain, Daisy, is prolonged but definite, concluding with his hanging her while another man’s severed arm gruesomely dangles from her body. The prolonging of the hero’s victory over the villain creates a great deal of anticipation (one that mirrors the numerous hits in the face scattered throughout the film) and also recalls in its prolonging the earlier massacre. Yet nothing differentiates these murders from one another, and they are delayed and foretold in a way the death of the men are not.

There are complicating factors. Daisy is hanged not just by Warren but also the racist Sheriff, and the decision to hang her recalls a speech made by Oswaldo Mobray “The Hangman” (Tim Roth, presumably chosen because Cristoph Waltz was unavailable or uninterested) regarding the differences between frontier justice and legal justice, an impassioned justice versus a more neutral or blind form. Although Warren’s words suggest he is pursuing the latter, it seems more likely that he is in fact grossly misinterpreting it, but what this alliance of a Black man and a racist to carry-out frontier justice on a mass murderer says is anyone’s guess. There are suggestions that the film is tuned into the current American climate, from its discussions of race to the massacre of a Black family to the discussion of justice, but any attempt to follow through any interpretation leads to so many contradictions that the film is either nonsense, incoherent, or entirely uninterested from an ideological perspective. Despite what a couple lines about race may suggest, this is a film with far less to say than it either appears or thinks to. Others have suggested it demonstrates how misogyny is so prevalent and powerful that it can even unite warring races. While an interesting observation, this seems like a curiously ahistorical point, lacking in substance and failing to be entirely convincing.

Is it all in the service of discomforting the viewer? That relies far more heavily on an auteurist reading that I am comfortable with, and it also comes with the presupposition that the achievement of a goal, however pointless, is inherently worthwhile. But even if this is the case, it is much harder to deny that the film, and by extension its director, derives enjoyment from these prolonged, bombastic, gruesome deaths, and there is nothing to suggest self-indictment. To return to Scorsese’s latest, part of what makes The Wolf of Wall Street so successful is that it turns a window into a mirror, so to speak. After the production credits and logos are shown, the very first shot of the film is easily mistaken for being yet another. Itt ends with an audience watching Belfort sell, an experience equivalent to watching the movie. If The Wolf of Wall Street is a diagnosis of debauchery or an examination of a lifestyle that is sold to us but repeatedly undercut, its bookends nevertheless implicate the viewer for the pleasure derived from taking that journey. The Hateful Eight does no such thing. Tarantino is utterly uninterested in examining his own cinematic wish fulfillment and the problems that accompany it.

Even if one were to overlook all the moral and sociopolitical failings of The Hateful Eight and view it purely as a “cool” movie, The Hateful Eight would still have a dishonorable distinction: Death Proof aside, Tarantino has never made a duller film, and I suspect this is because he is not the most humble man on the planet and is in desperate need of a collaborator willing to reel him in. It now seems apparent that for a long time, that fellow artist was Sally Menke. She kept his films moving (which is not the same as keeping them short), suggested that there was more than meets the eye with sharp cutting, and likely pared down the less clever or unfunny stretches of dialogue down into usable parts or cut them out altogether. Similarly, on Kill Bill, which Tarantino wanted to release as what would be a wildly uneven, horribly paced 4-hour film completely devoid of structure, Harvey Weinstein insisted it be released as two films, a strategy that paid dividends both at the box-office and from an artistic standpoint. Perhaps because of his success as of late, Weinstein seems afraid to say “no” and indulged Tarantino’s roadshow fantasies, and the passing of Menke after Inglorious Basterds appears to have left him without people willing to say “no.” Certainly the dip in the quality of Tarantino’s own writing deserves blame, too. With just one plotline, it is easier for him to bring everything to a halt for the sound of his own voice and his big-picture sense of structure is minimized. His most structurally complex films tend to also be his best.

To return briefly to Tarantino’s roadshow production, it is counterintuitive, although not necessarily wasteful, to shoot a film on 70mm and set almost the entire thing indoors, although Django and The Hateful Eight’s opening show off Tarantino’s knack for exteriors. The problem is that having to rely purely on glances and effective cutting shows that he falters in comparison to Sergio Leone, from whom Tarantino has always borrowed liberally, and Nicholas Ray, who set an extended sequence of a much better western in an overcrowded cabin and was able to generate far more through performance, close-up, and spatial relations. Alliances are spelled out explicitly after being foreshadowed too heavily by plot events, and, save for an early red herring, there isn’t a single glance in the film that feels conniving or forces the viewer to pay close attention. His close-ups lack the power of the aforementioned directors. Tarantino opts to be a guide, showing us from one thing to the next, rather than a conductor providing the gestures and rhythms necessary for the real star(s) to dazzle. As noted above, his interest in structure is minimal; his tendency to foreshadow is overwhelming and obvious, robbing his motifs of an exciting or visceral payoff; the few points he has to make are so shallow that when these motifs recur or when ideas broadcasted in monologue are recalled in service of his points they fail to provoke, or at least to reward, thought. The film neglects to capitalize on The Hangman’s jocular demarcation of different parts of the room as analogous to separate parts of the U.S.; its manipulation of space is low enough on the list of concerns that Tarantino himself needs to explain to us what we “missed” while he was “trolling” us with the vision of Warren and Smithers’ son. For a film about eight people locked up with presumed strangers, audiences are left with surprisingly little guessing to do, rendering most of the dialogue staid. At best and mundane at worst

I will accept that Tarantino is trying to unsettle me, but I will not accept that his goal is admirable, and I also doubt his success. So jejune is the film that I must ask: was he trying to bore me as well?

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One comment

  1. […] There are much better examinations of that film than this, from Adam Nayman to Nick Pinkerton to Forrest Cardamenis, but if the film, as some suggest, is like a nightmare version of what people love about Tarantino […]

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