The Most Beautiful Fraud: The Hateful Eight

Quentin Tarantino has always been a polarizing figure.  To his defenders, he is a visionary, a revolutionary, a provocateur, a brilliant technician who makes explosively exciting films drawn from an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema history and who challenges both our expectations and our stereotypes; to his critics, he is a misogynist, a racist, an exploitative button-pusher, and a rip-off artist who substitutes artfulness for art and mistakes theft for homage.  As is usually the case with such galvanizing artists, neither side has had it exactly right; Tarantino has never been the unalloyed genius his fans see him as or the irredeemable fraud his detractors accuse him of being.

At least, until now.

Tarantino’s new film, The Hateful Eight, is the kind of movie everyone who hates him would expect him to make; it’s everyone’s worst expectations of him made terrible flesh.  If the cartoonish, thieving, shallow race huckster his worst critics paint him as had come to life, this was the movie he would come up with. It’s bad on almost every level, with the sole exception of Ennio Morriconne’s flawless score — and even that’s undercut by the inexplicable appearance of a White Stripes song early in the film, one of many gratingly wrong notes that occur throughout.  It belongs in a much better movie; the same cannot be said for much else in The Hateful Eight, from the script to the actors to the entire elaborate nature of the production.  It’s Tarantino’s worst movie by a country mile, and it’s hard to see how it could have ever been anything but a misbegotten mistake; this isn’t a good idea for a movie that went disastrously off the rails, it’s a terrible idea for a movie that shouldn’t have been made in the first place.

It starts out well enough:  The Hateful Eight is a bottle-episode Western that cheats you from the start into thinking it’s an epic wide-screen revision of Hawks or Ford.  I saw it at the Music Box in Chicago, one of the theaters that sprang — as we learned in a mini-documentary before the movie started — for a new screen, stage, and sound system to accommodate Tarantino’s 70mm epic.  And, indeed, it begins with a lengthy overture complete with title card that leads into some magnificent footage of a stagecoach surging through the bleak snows of Wyoming and plodding past a roadside statue of Jesus in agony, all accompanied by that magnificent Morriconne score.  Then the coach stops to pick up Samuel L. Jackson’s renegade bounty hunter Maj. Marquis Warren, and the good times come to an end, both for the characters and for the viewer.

Much has already been made of the curious fact that Tarantino chose the 70mm format, designed to show the epic sweep of landscapes and the broad, ranging majesty of wide-screen shots, and then made a good three-quarters of the movie take place indoors, in a small rustic cabin, where it adds virtually nothing to the visual appeal.  The camerawork, expertly done by Robert Richardson, is generally excellent, but does it need the Ultra Panavision 70 treatment?  There’s about 15 minutes of The Hateful Eight that justify the equipment; the rest of it could have been shot on a cell phone for all the grandeur it conveys.  It’s probably a good think insofar as it’s triggered a discussion amongst cineastes about the revival of meaningful film formats, and the Music Box will get their money’s worth out of a planned February festival of much better movies shot in 70mm, but what was the point here other than for Tarantino to show that he was capable of doing such a thing?

In fact, the entire roadshow presentation is a wash.  It comes with some fancy marketing materials, to be sure, which is fine for people who are easily cowed by advertising or want something to sell on eBay 20 years from now, but the overture was nothing but a frill, and the intermission would be unnecessary if this bloated movie lost some weight, which it easily could have. The roadshow version adds twenty minutes to an already over-padded run time; The Hateful Eight is guilty of a lot of things, but perhaps the worst if you at least give Tarantino credit for being an exciting filmmaker is that it’s boring.  There’s lots of humming, guitar-playing, stew-eating, door-opening and -closing, and endless, pointless, agonizingly worthless talk.  It could have lost one entire act, the roadshow gimcracks, and at least a half-hour of stuffing and it still would have been too long.

Tarantino usually has the good sense to pepper his movies with enough action and tension to keep audiences from focusing too much on the many problems worming their way through the scripts, but here, there’s no tension — we already know that these are a bunch of moral degenerates who are going to kill each other the first chance they get — and precious little action until the second half.  (The first half ends on a particularly appalling note, with Jackson’s character goading Bruce Dern’s into a situation where he can be murdered with impunity, because, I guess, racists are bad.  This entire segment goes on and on, and features the movie’s second most repugnant moment — Jackson spinning a yarn about literally raping and murdering Dern’s son — but as gross as it is, its worst quality is that it makes absolutely no difference to the plot.  It could have been left out completely and it wouldn’t have changed anything other than to save about 20 minutes of screen time.)  Once that action comes, a whole section of it devoted to the slaughter of a bunch of cheery, likable innocents we’ve never seen before, a device that seems daring and provocative to the million freshman writing students who think they’re the first to have discovered it, but which seems pretty worn out coming from a 52-year-old veteran filmmaker.

The weariness of the over-the-top action — intense to be certain for a mainstream director, but no new terrain for bottom-drawer horror films, and is that really the position that Tarantino wants to occupy? — aside, there’s so much more to dislike.  It may be a mug’s game to point out how completely repugnant and all the characters are, given the fact that the movie is called, after all, The Hateful Eight; but there’s a pretty broad line between ‘unlikable’ and ‘repulsive’, and Tarantino smears Samuel L. Jackson’s big black cock all over that line.  The movie is so gaudy in pressing buttons meant to make sensitive people cringe that one might suspect that there’s not much to it beyond juvenile taunting, and one might be right.  The mere fact that so many critics — most of them white and male, but my glass house is fresh out of stones — have fallen all over themselves to claim that it’s not racist* or sexist** probably clues you in to what you’re in store for, but the sheer pulverizing gratuity of it all is pretty hard to take.

The reason why is that it’s all to no good end.  When I think about moviemakers who are provocateurs, who do shocking or grotesque things in their movies, I never think of Quentin Tarantino.  If I’m thinking of people who invert our expectations or show us horrors in order to challenge our assumptions about society or film, I think of Lars von Trier or Michael Haneke; when I think of people who do the same to create a mood that unbalances us or leaves us free from our moorings, I think of Gaspar Noé or Lucrecia Martel.  Tarantino makes grindhouse fare.  And that would be fine, if that’s all he were trying to do — and here I play a dangerous game, no doubt dancing around in the palm of the man’s hand just as he intends; after all, he literally made a movie by that name, and often claims to be doing nothing more than bringing people boundary-pushing entertainments.  But, and I think this is critical when reacting to a movie like The Hateful Eight, he is trying to have it both ways.  When he is criticized for the racial or sexual rules in his films, he shrugs and says he’s merely trying to carry on a tradition of thrilling if brazen pulp entertainment; but when he is complimented for doing the same, he proudly nods and puts on the mantle of the thinker, whose incitements are meant for a higher purpose.

So what, then, are we to make of the one-dimensional characters in The Hateful Eight, who are portrayed with Simon Legreeish dialogue, mustache-twirling subtlety, and no more motivation than that they like watching people die?  What are we to make of Daisy Domergue, whose sole purpose in the movie is to be an unarmed, helpless woman who is constantly physically brutalized, humiliated, and finally, literally lynched with the assurance that her horrendous death gurgles in glorious Panavision are justified because she’s a bad person?  Daisy is given no motivation, no history, no background, literally no character other than that she is an evil woman who leads a gang and supposedly killed someone; this justifies the scene where her brother’s head is blown off, and she is subsequently slowly strangled to death, soaked in gore, in front of us (to, I might add, widespread cheers and clapping from the audience I saw the movie with).  For this, the fine actress Jennifer Jason Leigh won an Oscar nomination, and she has spoken of it as her big comeback, a chance to do real acting again. This?  This is what she was waiting for, a litany of abuse, being called a bitch a dozen times, and pulverized until she is a bloody toothless mess, given no power, no agency, no identity beyond ‘The Evil Woman’?  No wonder big Hollywood actresses seem so dissatisfied of late.

There’s also the matter, rehashed endlessly, of Tarantino’s love affair with the word ‘nigger’.  He gets a free pass from Samuel L. Jackson, of course, who knows a sinecure when he sees one, but this has been discussed enough elsewhere that I don’t want to waste any more time on it.  Suffice to say that if you find Tarantino’s racial obsessions, which he treats here with the depth of a shadow, to be a problem for the filmmaker, The Hateful Eight will do nothing to put your mind at ease, and if they don’t bother you, you’ll have a lot more chances to giggle naughtily when his white characters say ‘nigger’ again a hundred times. His movies, at the very least, usually have a saving grace in their humor, but here, there’s almost no laughs; it’s a very grim affair for all its oversized hamminess, and the one recurring laugh-line comes, of course, from white people calling a black man a nigger.

What else?  The acting is generally poor, less so because there’s not much talent on display than that the talented cast (with the exception of the atrocious Kurt Russell, who apparently was just given a copy of Big Trouble in Little China with the note ‘do worse’) doesn’t have much to do beyond yap, yap, yap with their poorly fleshed-out characters.  The plot is ragged and contains nothing we haven’t seen before, right down to the unnecessary flashback.  There’s a completely pointless voice-over in the second half (by Tarantino himself, no great shakes as a voice man) that appears out of nowhere, tells us nothing we couldn’t have figured out on our own, and never shows up again.  The script doesn’t have much going on.  Think of how well Tarantino has done when he works with talented co-writers; the liveliness and vivacity of Pulp Fiction, so keenly etched by Roger Avary, or the lived-in, believable cast of Jackie Brown, drawn from the works of Elmore Leonard, and compare them to the dismal nothings of The Hateful Eight.  It has his usual references and pseudo-references, but this time, the cracks are showing and they disappoint rather than detract.  It’s low on visual fireworks, and when they come, they’re too little too late.  It’s just a massive waste, burning up a screen twice as wide as it needs to be.

I’m sure there’s more to dislike, but I’ve already gone on twice as long as I need to in a losing effort.  I learned that from Quentin Tarantino.

*:  Or, indeed, that it’s the film world’s boldest endorsement of Black Lives Matter, as one commenter insisted, after which he must have needed an economy-sized pot of IcyHot to treat the muscle cramps from all that stretching.

**:  Because, in the words of another auteur de thinkpieces, Quentin Tarantino simply cannot be sexist. Case closed!

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