The hits and misses of The Hateful Eight(Spoilers)
Quentin Tarantino’s latest film The Hateful Eight has a few ambitions. The film wants to be a 21st century Western film built from the relics of its predecessors. These traits include a score from Italian composer Ennio Morricone and a roadhouse style film tour that included screenings from 70mm film stock and breaks during the intermission.
The Hateful Eight is much like the joke about a Texas sharpshooter who shoots holes at a barn and paints targets around the bullet holes after the fact. The painting Tarantino made for the target is admirable, but his aim is middling. Here are a few points where the film hits, misses, and paints a pretty picture around the bullet holes.
A few striking outdoor scenes occur in what may seem like a desolate Wyoming setting. Scenes like a window overlooking a sunset as Warren and Bob return to the roadhouse from the stables. And as Mannix and O.B. Jackson put down stakes and rope from the roadhouse to the outhouse.
The defining trait what can be deemed a “late-Tarantino” film is a setting populated by colorful characters. Sophists may describe these characters as cartoonish, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. The first is Kurt Russell as John Ruth, a bounty hunter transporting murderer Daisy Domergue to to in Red Rock, Wyoming. Ruth’s moral code(transporting a prisoner alive to reach the rafters), rough mutton chop mustache, and John Wayne-like diction place him as a representative of the Western film tradition.
Walton Goggins gives his best performance on screen since the television show Justified ended earlier in 2015. Mannix’s verbal customs code switch between honorable citizen, to obedient soldier in the Lost Cause, to naive backwoods buffoon. It’s left ambiguous whether he was actually assigned to be sheriff or if he was just trying to coast on his whiteness when trying to catch a ride on Ruth’s stagecoach.
Major Warren’s letter from Lincoln
Major Maquis Warren(performed by Samuel L. Jackson) carries a letter purported to be a correspondence between him and former President Abraham Lincoln. After he admits that the letter is fabricated over the dinner table at the roadhouse, he also discloses that he carries that letter to “disarm” white people in a country that still hates black people.
The disarming power of the letter is twofold. For a white Southerner like Mannix, it reminds them of the emancipation of their slaves and victory of the Union over the Confederacy. For a white Northerner like John Ruth, it consoles them with the myth of racial meritocracy where it doesn’t exist despite the end of slavery.
Film and social critics will have a bit to chew on in the coming year about the letter’s significance. They could say that those ideological fictions (horseshit, as John Ruth would have it) reinforces and expresses structures of power. Tarantino’s previous film Django Unchained covered similar ground in illustrating the ideological trappings behind Candyland before Django spectacularly destroys it, which was analyzed by Youtube media critic MrBtongue. Warren even gloats over the power his horseshit wielded when he asks Ruth “It got me on the stagecoach, didn’t it?”
Warren’s race-baiting self-defense gambit
Warren gets into an intense argument with the elderly Confederate general Sanford Smithers over a massacre during the Civil War in New Orleans. The Major grabs his pistol and tried to shoot before British hangman Oswaldo Mobery (Tim Roth) breaks up the fight and tries to separate the Unionists from the Confederates.
Biding his time, Marquis Warren later goads the general into shooting first by leaving a gun by the General and telling the story of his son’s fate at Warren’s hands. Warren’s tale expresses a Confederate man’s ultimate debasement by being at the mercy of a free black man. Warren details that the son was marched through the cold, forced to commit a sex act(making a point to describe his black penis), and was denied shelter from the cold after the fact.
It is left to the viewer to judge whether the story was true or a fabrication by an unreliable narrator. Whatever the truth of the outrageous story, Warren’s contrived self-defense situation speaks to current controversies and incongruities around Stand Your Ground jurisprudence (most symbolized by the lethal fight between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin in 2012). Warren’s act is also an inversion of the history of white men escalating situations to justify enacting violence against black people, most recently symbolized by armed white supremacists firing upon a Minnesota Black Lives Matter protest.
Moral equivalence between North and South
During an argument on the stagecoach, Warren talks about his and Mannix’s motivation during the war. Warren says he joined the war strictly to kill white men, while Mannix joined to keep black men in chains. Mannix rants about how white people will only be safe when black people are terrorized. Marquis Warren’s dramatic and depraved murder of the junior and senior Smithers men before the intermission also illustrates his penchant for sadism.
After the fatal poisoning of John Ruth, The morally compromised Marquis Warren becomes the representative of the North, and his bloodlust, against Chris Mannix’s Southern honor and sense of justice. Their interests converge after Warren tries to deduce who had poisoned the coffee and what transpired at the roadhouse before the second stagecoach’s arrival. Warren’s bloodlust and Mannix’s knightly Southern honor just happened to converge around the fate of Daisy Domergue.
This equivalence is a borrowed trait from the influential westerns such as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and The Outlaw Josey Wales. In The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Lee Van Kleef’s character Angel Eyes, the titular Bad, gained power in the Union prison camp and tortured Confederate prisoners of war to find the location of the hidden gold.
The Outlaw Josey Wales portrayed its titular character (featuring Clint Eastwood again) as a tragic Southern anti-hero and victim of ruthless Union guerrillas massacring their way through Missouri. The film was adapted from a book written by a ex-Klansman and Alabama politico Asa Carter, who had written speeches for prominent segregationist Governor George Wallace. Carter later ran for governor of Alabama in 1970 on a white supremacist platform against Wallace, who had publicly moderated his segregationist position.
The problem with portraying the Union as uniquely ruthless during the war is that it often serves to downplay the cruelty of slavery, which the Confederacy sought to uphold by seceding. While Tarantino wants The Hateful Eight to be a pertinent film about American culture and race relations, this relic of the Western genre limits timeliness and impact Tarantino thinks it should have.
The “do you get it, huh?” shots
Alongside some of the striking natural shots, other shots reach too far for meaning, such as the wooden Jesus sculpture in the beginning and the slow shot of a white and black horse saddled side by side. Shots like these clumsily beg the viewer to interpret the meaning behind them. A film nerd like Tarantino can’t resist this habit.
Michael Madsen’s gravel-voiced character Joe Gage is one exception to Tarantino’s talent for colorful personalities. The tacky hair dye job and relatively scarce words compared to other characters leaves Joe as a walking bag of blood with two bandanas.
The film lost its head as the roster lost theirs
The plot starts deteriorating when a few characters, who are revealed to be in a gang together, start losing their heads to high-caliber bullets. When Channing Tatum’s character loses his head after 20 minutes as the film’s stunt cameo, the movie loses the tension that had built as the film continues for another 20 minutes of negotiating, fainting, and hanging.
Gawking at Daisy Domergue’s suffering
Throughout the film, the cast participates in mistreating Daisy Domergue in one way or another. The film takes slapstick hilarity in each act of violence against her. Even the relatively benign violence of smashing a guitar Daisy was playing has comical intent. The camera gazes intently on the accumulation of bruises and gore covering her face over time. This accumulation of gore wants to represent Domergue’s descent into barbarity. But since all the visceral color on Daisy’s face was a result of brutality against her, the camera seems to want to blame the victim.
While Tarantino does have a knack for dialogue and memorable characters, his mix of gore and comedy is often haphazard. If I’m looking for a filmmaker that manages to balance comedy with carnage, the Coen brothers (and creative progeny Noah Hawley, creator of the Fargo spin-of TV series) do it more reliably than Tarantino. The Hateful Eight stands as a flawed piece in Tarantino’s library. It may get Oscar nominations, but it doesn’t earn the prestige Tarantino thinks it deserves.