The Hateful Eight (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

The Hateful Eight (2015)

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A storm's coming, and eight strangers stranded in a solitary cabin on the hill are about to have a rough night.  One among them is a killer, picking off these mercenaries and reformed criminals one by one.  If any of them is going to survive the night they'll need to figure this out fast, or succumb to the hatred of an unseen enemy.  Quentin Tarantino writes and directs The Hateful Eight, and stars Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Kurt Russell, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Into the murderous subsurvienceTo even the most casual of readers, it’s clear I haven’t been updating as much as in the past.  There’s a bevy of reasons, but the most important is many movies just haven’t been interesting me.  The Oscars hemmed and hawed their way through my screen, I saw a few of the stragglers left, and the DVD slowly gathered dust as my attention waned.  What I thought would be a good cure for this valley was Quentin Tarantino’s latest, The Hateful Eight.

I’m not a Tarantino groupie, one of the few people bored by Pulp Fiction, and thought both Death Proof and Inglorious Basterds were terrible.  On the other side, Django Unchained was a magnificent change of pace and saw Tarantino turned some of the criticisms of his movies back on himself.  Tarantino the director-as-actor became a barely comprehensible huckster who gets himself blow up, all while Tarantino the director pointed at an alternate history where black performers dominated spaghetti westerns.  Django Unchained had its problems, most notably where Kerry Washington’s Broomhilda was concerned, but by criticizing himself Tarantino created one of his best films and my nominee for greatest scene of the 2010’s (so far).

The Hateful Eight began slow, gathered disdain through Tarantino’s typically spicy dialogue, and finally collapsed into a void of horrible as Tarantino indulged in all his worst impulses.  I suppose that’s better than forgettable, but the overt misogynistic, racial, and homophobic violence which forms the core of The Hateful Eight is barely preferable.  For those who think Tarantino cloaks himself in the veneer of an alt-filmmaker who uses his clout to write things so hateful they’d sink lesser directors, The Hateful Eight will offer little in the way of a counter-argument. It’s, in fact, so bad I may join them.

You may wish Daisy is ushered into death early in The Hateful Eight because of how frequently and violently she's beaten.

You may wish Daisy is ushered into death early in The Hateful Eight because of how often and violently she's beaten.

To be clear, representation does not equal endorsement, but the misogynistic energy which fuels much of the violence in The Hateful Eight is gleeful at points.  Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character Daisy, who seems to have been nominated for an Oscar for almost the same reasons Leo was, is savagely beaten so many times it stops being shocking and becomes something to mark down on a score card.  There’s a feisty appeal generated by Leigh which makes a good bit of the early beatings tolerable.  But by the time her captor, the savagely noble John Ruth (Kurt Russell), vomits blood straight onto her face we come close to the realm of slapstick.

I like thinking the best of movies, but there’s nothing about this moment which moves it toward comedy.  Tarantino uses little stylistic flourish as Ruth dies and keeps beating Daisy, and there’s a sort of “matter of fact” flat framing to the moment he finally vomits on her.  In the hands of Sam Raimi or the Soska Sisters I could see this having a simultaneously funny and chilling effect.  Daisy is in Tarantino’s hands though, and this violent humiliation comes after a string of similar humiliations with more to come.  The “joke” of the violence isn’t on the white men of the cast, but the one woman and two minority men.

We can gab around for hours about how accurate Tarantino is or isn’t being to the period.  Accuracy be damned, it’s still Tarantino who decided to torment Daisy partly on the basis of her sex.  Then there’s the matter of Major Marquis Warren, played by Samuel L. Jackson with a cool and lethal self-confidence, who is another in a long list of Tarantino’s black characters who get the n-word, among other terms, thrown at him.  The change of context between Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight for this is crucial, as the racists of Django Unchained are punished in an ahistorical but satisfying manner, while the most prominent racist of The Hateful Eight turns out to be one of the “good guys”.  Then, as one of Warren’s first free actions, he murders Bob “The Mexican” (a poorly used Demián Bichir).  By this point we’ve learned of Warren’s own dishonesty – so, in the eyes of most of the white characters, one dishonest minority murders another with another flash of violence.

Amidst all the bigoted violence and slurs emerges a weird sort of apologia for the straight Confederate white male.  One of the only deaths in The Hateful Eight which emerges with a strong sense of style is when Warren shoots Confederate General Sanford (Bruce Dern).  The smoky aftermath recalls the elongated interrogation and sudden execution of one of Tarantino’s earliest characters in his screenplay for True Romance.  Here, the smoky and blood-splattered aftermath fueled by racism from the General, and with Warren feeding him a story about how he forced the General’s son to please Warren orally.  All bigotry is bad, but not all bigotry is harmful to the same measure, and Tarantino’s decision to collide Warren’s homophobic story with the General’s racism is as firm an example of heteronormative white cluelessness in storytelling as there is.

The odd beautiful shot here and there isn't enough to make up for Tarantino's ideological shortcomings, the repetitive nature of the script, or the boring camerawork once we're situated in the cabin.

The odd beautiful shot here and there isn't enough to make up for Tarantino's ideological shortcomings, the repetitive nature of the script, or the boring camerawork once we're situated in the cabin.

It’s entirely possible that I’m looking at this with the wrong lens and I should approach any bit of this as satire.  But from the relatively flat and regular framing of Daisy’s torture, to the way Tarantino writes one minority against the other, and finally the almost heroic death of the Confederate General, I have to conclude the white racists are the good guys here.  That’s the natural end of each of these plot threads, and cycles (as many things do) back to Tarantino’s own filmography.  Django Unchained ended with the black man threatened with castration only to take full revenge on his white slavers.  The Hateful Eight‘s only black character is immediately castrated via pistol shot the second he’s presented as better than the whites in the room.  The former is a movie of retribution, the latter punishing uppity black folks.

What makes this all somehow worse is how boring The Hateful Eight is on top of the vile, yet somehow heroic, ideology.  Tarantino’s decision to film The Hateful Eight in 70mm is one I automatically support as a cineaste.  But as a critic, he lets an awful lot of space go to waste.  It works well for some of the opening shots which set the dour tone for The Hateful Eight, especially the Jesus slowly covered in snow – literally salvation getting frozen out of the cabin.   Once locked in the cabin it has all the cinematic appeal of a stage play.  The camera feels affixed to a turret in the middle of the room, circling around as one character steps out of line to deliver dialogue like a Greek chorus, and then steps back.  I could say the theatrical staging shows how the ideals of racism, sexism, and homophobia can be theatrical conceits built into our moral fabric to differentiate one person from the next.  But then the other half of that is how often the Confederates get the exciting deaths, how one of the eventual “good guys” is a Confederate, and the how the only black guy gets castrated.

Everyone in the cast is wasted on this material, even if they do a great job working with what they have.  Russell is the only one who manages to give his character some heft despite an early exit, and came off like a Lyndon B. Johnson unstuck in time then given a gun as he needed to prove his manliness to himself and others via violence.  Leigh made me wish The Hateful Eight was a silent movie with how she toyed with her body in a way that made me think Chaplin grew up on Friday the 13th sequels.  The most unfortunate waste is from Walton Goggins, who is one of my absolute favorite performers working today.  He plays a riff on the same overly literate racist he did in Django Unchained, Miracle at St. Anna, and too many other movies.  Goggins can elevate any villain to Shakespearian levels but Tarantino recycles Goggins from Tarantino's own movie, and writes little for Goggins to pop with.

This is, of course, under the assumption that the underlying ideology should pop to begin with.  But therein lies the problem, Tarantino can't help but pop.  Can you imagine if he really let the actions speak for themselves, and filmed The Hateful Eight as though it was a Bresson filmed, drained of anything we'd consider acting?  I can wish, but I can't imagine, because Tarantino is Tarantino and he's content to let his awful characters do their thing with little interest in resolving the deeply bigoted elephants crowding the room.

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Tail - The Hateful EightThe Hateful Eight (2015)

Screenplay written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.
Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Kurt Russell, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Posted by Andrew

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