Friday, January 15, 2016

Hateful, Indeed: Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight

Kurt Russell and Samuel L. Jackson in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. (Photo: Allstar/The Weinstein Company)

“I have a definite problem with Quentin Tarantino’s excessive use of the n-word. I think something is wrong with him... It’s just the n-word, the n-word, the n-word.”
– Director Spike Lee, in a 1997 interview following the release of Tarantino's film Jackie Brown.

I don’t usually agree with Spike Lee, whose defamatory depiction of Jewish characters in his early movies (Mo’ Better Blue, 1990; Get on the Bus, 1996), before 9/11, was offensive in its own right, but when it comes to Quentin Tarantino’s overuse of the word "nigger," Lee is spot on. In Tarantino’s films it’s generally uttered as much for shock value – and the word can still shock, even in our day and age – and cheap provocation than for veracity or to make a salient point in the story. I didn’t count how often it was used in Tarantino’s latest movie The Hateful Eight but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was utilized more than the 109 times it popped up in his last movie Django Unchained (2012). But it’s also only one problematic aspect of a movie that, even held up against Tarantino’s limited palette of themes and tones, is a singularly redundant, unnecessary and, yes, hateful movie.

The Hateful Eight are a varied group of individuals who, during a very severe Wyoming blizzard in post Civil- War America, end up holed up in a cabin, along with the stagecoach driver (James Parks) who isn’t really a significant part of the tale. They include two bounty hunters, one white (Kurt Russell) and one black (Tarantino regular Samuel L. Jackson); a female murderer (Jennifer Jason Leigh), being brought in by the former for trial (and eventual execution); two Southerners, one a newly-minted sheriff (Walton Goggins) on route to his first posting, the other a retired General (Bruce Dern); an English hangman (Tim Roth); the Mexican (Demián Bichir), who is managing the haberdashery where the group is holed up; and a drifter (Michael Madsen) who is reticent to reveal much about himself. Part Agatha Christie murder mystery, part (very) violent Western standoff, The Hateful Eight still fails to add up to much of genuine interest. It’s more of an excuse for Tarantino to lay forth a thin tale, replete with his usual macho posturing, extreme bloodletting, misogynistic treatment of women (Leigh’s character Daisy Domergue seems to exist in the film only to be hit, slapped and abused throughout) and, of course, repeated use of the n-word, ad nauseam. (There was also no need to shoot the movie in 70mm, complete with overture and intermission, a process usually reserved for epic movies like Lawrence of Arabia or Apocalypse Now. There’s nothing epic about The Hateful Eight – quite the contrary.) All those (tiresome) tropes, and his fractured timeline and narration, have been used by Tarantino before, in his debut Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003), Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004) and Django Unchained. But many of those films, the opening diner scene of Reservoir Dogs, some of the scenes in Pulp Fiction involving John Travolta and Samuel Jackson riffing on pop culture, also possessed some humour which made the movies go down easier. There’s none of that apparent in The Hateful Eight, which traffics in brutality (particularly in its second half) and ugliness, most reminiscent of the ‘dead nigger storage’ scene in Pulp Fiction where a character, played by Tarantino himself, berates Travolta and Jackson for accidentally killing a man in the back seat of their car.

Tim Roth, Kurt Russell, and Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hateful Eight.

At least, Jackson isn’t playing servile in The Hateful Eight, as he did in Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained, but it still beggars belief that Major Marquis Warren, the tough hombre Jackson essays in The Hateful Eight, doesn’t just whip out his six shooter and blow the fucking head off of any of the white men or the Mexican who routinely use the n-word in his presence, especially because, as the film makes clear, Major Warren has no compunction about killing whites. No doubt, Tarantino and his defenders would reply that he is making a political and racial point here, that even a man like Warren would have to put up with a lot of bigoted bullshit in order to get along in the racist U.S. and would be racist himself, but the n-word is still utilized too often to make that point stick. I don’t actually think Tarantino is really saying anything pertinent or relevant about his country other than uttering some superficial talking points. It’s become apparent that only two of Tarantino’s movies, Jackie Brown (1997) and Inglourious Basterds (2009), possess any real depth at all – though Reservoir Dogs and parts of Pulp Fiction are entertaining - and I attribute that to the influences, in the former of author Elmore Leonard (whose novel Rum Punch was the basis of Jackie Brown) and, in the latter of director and Inglourious star Eli Roth, who likely brought the smart Jewish sensibility into this tale of Jewish revenge against the Nazis in WWII. But any hope that Inglourious Basterds marked a new permanent ‘maturity’ in Tarantino’s work, as my friend Alex posited after seeing the film with me, evaporated with his next film Django Unchained, which attempted to transplant Inglourious’ themes into the Deep South but only came across as a pale copy of an original.

That leaves a (morally) empty movie lurking underneath The Hateful Eight, one almost entirely laden with uninteresting, one-dimensional types rather than fully fleshed out personalities. Samuel L. Jackson is typically fine in the film but it’s a part – confident, cynical, sardonic – he’s played many times before in his career. Tarantino doesn’t permit him to wring any new variations in that role. There’s even a cringe-inducing scene involving Jackson and Bruce Dern’s Southern General Sanford Smithers, which plays on the white man’s supposed perception of the black man’s sexual prowess and large endowment that would not be out of place in the 1975 exploitation film Mandingo. (Let’s agree that Tarantino’s observations on race relations are pretty vapid. Even the movie's placement of a letter written by President Abraham Lincoln, which plays a key part in the proceedings, are more of a Hitchcockian MacGuffin than an intelligent commentary.)

Only Walton Goggins’ putative sheriff Chris Mannix is allowed any transformative qualities over the course of the movie, resulting in some interesting characterization. (I don’t take too much stock in any year’s Academy Award nominations, but I am astounded that Jennifer Jason Leigh copped a Supporting Actress nod for her role as Daisy in The Hateful Eight. I don’t think she’s ever been worse in a movie. The rest of the acting is variable, with Demián Bichir, in particular, getting the short end of the stick, saddled as he is with the near stereotypical, monosyllabic part of ‘Bob’ the Mexican. You could be forgiven for thinking he’s a lousy actor, but you have only to check out his superlative performance in the regrettably short-lived FX series The Bridge to see how Tarantino has done him wrong here.) Even the presence of Italian master Ennio Morricone’s Oscar-nominated score for the film is questionable. The opening credits which list original music by Morricone imply that his whole score is unique to The Hateful Eight but, in fact, much of the music in the film is recycled from Morricone’s effective scores for John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) and John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing (1982), as the movie’s closing credits indicate. (No surprise that Tarantino fudges things here; except for its opening scene, Reservoir Dogs is pretty much a complete steal from Ringo Lam’s fine 1987 Hong Kong crime drama City on Fire, which Tarantino has been loath to admit.)

Essentially, The Hateful Eight is a pretty nihilistic (and long, almost three hours) movie, one that as the bloodletting (and body count) escalates, increasingly becomes an unpleasant slog, one that doesn’t even build to any illuminating or edifying effect. It just proffers more of the juvenile nastiness that permeates, to one degree or another, almost all of Tarantino’s oeuvre (with the notable exceptions, again, of Jackie Brown and Inglourious Basterds). Mr. Tarantino is on record as musing about hanging up his filmmaking spurs when he completes his tenth movie (The Hateful Eight is his eighth film, a number announced with pointless fanfare in the movie’s title credits), but I doubt he actually means that. He likes movies and the attendant ego-laden publicity that follows upon their completion too much to actually disappear from public view, I’d bet – but if true, in the wake of the distasteful experience of suffering through The Hateful Eight, that day can’t come soon enough for me.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he has just concluded a course on documentary cinema.

1 comment:

  1. Daisy struck me as temporarily stricken pure wrath. When she "emerges," we get renewed respect for the fact that the Hangman was able to get her. So for me, not so much just put there to be beaten. Also, to a certain extent, this is what the movie leads to: the Hangman. The only way the rest of us can get away with being assholes is if there is someone out there plugging away at being righteous, in his way.