Vague spoilers for The Hateful Eight, in case you care about such things.
“I just don’t want to be an old-man filmmaker. I want to stop at a certain point. Directors don’t get better as they get older. Usually the worst films in their filmography are those last four at the end. I am all about my filmography, and one bad film f—s up three good ones. I don’t want that bad, out-of-touch comedy in my filmography, the movie that makes people think, ‘Oh man, he still thinks it’s 20 years ago.’ When directors get out-of-date, it’s not pretty”
Those are the words of Quentin Tarantino, an obsessive fan who forever changed the face of cinema. It’s curious that he talks about wanting to retire after his tenth film, and “old-man” directors losing touch, because he is getting up there himself. It’s been more than twenty years since he made his directorial debut. Tarantino has matured in some interesting ways, but as he’s gotten older, his interests have become more narrow. He hasn’t grown “out-of-date” -at least not yet. His finger can still identify the conversations that mark America’s pulse. Politically, he’s evolved; but stylistically, he’s regressed.
It seems unlikely that the enfant terrible who led the cavalry of American independent film has grown into a political animal, but here we are, and the guy who once represented the detached coolness of the nineties has become a man who’s engaged in the most contemporary statement imaginable: he’s gone out to protest police brutality. Tarantino has always had a lot to say, but for most of his career -and outside of giving the Palm D’Or to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11– he hasn’t been as opinionated about politics as he’s been about film, especially in his movie. Now that Tarantino wants us to know that he cares, one becomes ver interested in what he has to say. So, what does he have to say?
Unlike the revisionist fantasies of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, which search for emotional satisfaction in humanity’s darkest moments, Tarantino’s latest movie offers no catharsis. The Hateful Eight is a Western of pure cynicism. Set in the early nineteenth century, and in the middle of a cruel Wyoming winter, the film finds eight (or so) deadly creatures trapped under the same roof, waiting inside a remote cabin for the blizzard that rages outside to be over.
Who are these eight grotesques? The arguable star of the show is Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a black ex-Union soldier turned bounty hunter. Warren carries with himself a couple of corpses that he wishes to exchange for some cash when he gets to the town of Red Rock. The other bounty hunter in the cabin is John Ruth (Kurt Russell), who prefers to bring in his bounty alive, and thus, brings the deadly and despicable Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) as his prisoner.
The tension between captive and captor is strong enough without the presence of Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), the racist rebel who claims to be the new sheriff of Red Rock, and old Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a legendary Confederate General himself. Fancy Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), Mexican Bob (Demian Bichir), and cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) all play key roles, even if they aren’t quite as big as the others’.
Once all these characters are in the same room together, the movie becomes a chamber mystery in the style of an Agatha Christie novel. Jackson plays the part of a deadlier and more intimidating Detective Poirot, as it becomes clear that someone in that cabin is not who they say they are. In true Tarantino fashion, it all culminates in a flashy spectacle of bloody explosions. But in the end, there are no winners. In the movie’s final moments, it becomes clear that these vile characters are meant to represent the agents that inhabit the remote cabin that is America, and they have trashed the place, leaving nothing but blood-splattered walls and corpses on the floor.
This is an unusual and interesting message for Tarantino, who is usually at least as interested in sentimental passions as he is in allegory (one thinks his infamous staging of Hitler’s death had as much to do with crafting a satisfying story than any political messaging). I bring this up because, unlike most Tarantino movies, it is very hard to enjoy watching The Hateful Eight. Sympathizing with any of these maniacs is impossible, and as soon as a character shows any nobility, it is undercut with a brutal elbow to the nose.
One can only try and fail to like any of these characters, even if the actors are doing some pretty satisfying work playing them. Samuel L. Jackson gets to deliver the meatiest speeches Tarantino has written for him since Pulp Fiction, and he does so with gusto (even if I still admire his defiantly cartoonish performance in Django best). The stand-out in the cast is Walton Goggins, who adds a surprising amount of layers to an already well-layered character. The weakest link is Tim Roth, who gets the Christoph Waltz part and plays it in the most predictable way imaginable.
Quite a few people have accused Tarantino of misogyny in his treatment of Daisy. I find the question of whether or not the director is a misogynist not as interesting as the presence of these particularly problematic elements in the film. It’s true that the casually comedic tone with which Daisy is punched and abused through the movie’s first half is off-putting, but I can’t agree with people who interpret the movie as a story in which men with all kinds of opposing agendas agree to come together against a “lying bitch”.
This read of the film would classify Daisy as the ultimate evil within the film, the most hateful of the eight. It’s hard to buy this argument, not only because Jennifer Jason Leigh brings a childish innocence that makes it easy to find humanity underneath Daisy’s grotesque exterior, but because she never truly gets to a position of power, not even in the film’s third act, when things start to go her way. Daisy has to bargain, negotiate, and tolerate abuse throughout the whole film. I find her an essential part of Tarantino’s bleak portrait of America, which he argues has been built on misogyny, racism, and greed.
Which brings me to the other uncomfortable accusation leveled against the film: Tarantino’s excessive use of the n-word. This is a complain that has accompanied Tarantino since he became famous, and that has resurfaces not only because of how many times the word is said in the movie, but by the fact that it is used for comedic effect a couple times. But such is the nature of our diverse times, and it will always be easy to spot certain social blind-spots in an aging man, especially one as over and uncensored as Tarantino.
But if we’re talking about blind-spots, the most fascinating -and problematic- moment of the film comes halfway through the film, in the form of an impassioned speech delivered by Samuel L. Jackson’s Major Warren. The speech is meant to be ugly, but also triumphant and shocking. It derives its power from two uncomfortable premises. First, that there are few things more humiliating than homosexual sex. Second, that black men have long penises.
Now, both of these premises -as eye-rolling as they are in 2015- work to scandalize within the film, and yet, they linger with the audience, because they are the thematic center-piece of one of the movie’s solitary moments of triumph. The very last scene of the movie frames The Hateful Eight as a nihilistic indictment of America, but not all of it is an ice-cold examination. Tarantino is a virile filmmaker, one that cannot escape his fetishes. He is a penis.
And why not use that metaphor? Tarantino is obsessed with guns, with swords, with stand-offs that only end in splashing blood. What are Tarantino’s scenes of extreme violence, those that drench the screen in bright red, if not the cinematic equivalent of an ejaculating penis? Especially in The Hateful Eight, which is structured as a long and winding dick-measuring contest between the men trapped in this cabin.
How to reconcile, then, Tarantino’s seeming disdain for the brokenness of American society with his total excitement for bloody images? Tarantino has repeatedly used terms such as “hard-on” to describe movie violence. This is a movie about the death of America that has a hard-on for the violent results of America’s failures. Wouldn’t it be fascinating, if indeed, Tarantino is dealing with the realization that his pleasure derives from the results of true nastiness?
Not that this movie is particularly interested in such ironies. If anything, the movie can only skim the very surface of this conversation before drowning in Tarantino’s indulgences. Not in the amount of violence, or the amount of N-words, but the movie’s length and structure. One of The Hateful Eight‘s biggest failures is that the reason it’s so hard to sit through the movie is not its nasty soul, but its overlong and boring familiarity of Tarantino’s old tricks.
Is Tarantino interested exclusively in staging long conversations that stretch out forever? This seems to have become his prime interest for a while, but after achieving amazing tension in Basterds, he repeated the trick to diminishing returns in Django, and has now built an unnecessarily long and winding movie around it. By the time The Hateful Eight gets to its intermission (an hour and forty minutes into the movie), things are just starting to get going. Later, toward the end, the movie detours into an unnecessarily long flashback.
Perhaps the ultimate irony of The Hateful Eight is that this piece of pure cynicism has been released as a “roadshow” experience meant to showcase Robert Richardson’s Panavision cinematography, and allowing the projection of the movie in 70mm film around the country. This seems like an exciting idea on paper, but it’s weirdly ill-fitted for The Hateful Eight. A more exciting, less grim, movie like Django or Basterds would’ve been a much better fit. Not to mention the fact that outside of some snowy vistas, the “glorious 70mm” is used almost exclusively -and rather inappropriately- on claustrophobic interiors.
Why choose this “Roadshow” release if the movie isn’t an epic in the vein of Gone with the Wind or Lawrence of Arabia? (both movies mentioned in the Hateful Eight program as examples of Roadshow attractions of the past). Why pay extra for the Panavision when the movie is going to be shrunk and projected in a 1.85 screen anyway? Why promote the 70mm so heavily when the projector is going to shake incessantly and the image is going to be out of focus because no one will pay the money to train projectionists? Tarantino fetishizes the experience of watching film as much as the movies themselves. With this release experiment, he has recreating the details of the experience, but not the essence.
Grade: 5 out of 10