Quentin Tarantino’s latest, The Hateful Eight, is another deliberately provocative piece, in the sense that it stubbornly features almost everything that the director has been criticised for in the past: it’s overlong and wilfully self-indulgent, it includes his acting (albeit just a voiceover this time), there’s heavy use of the word ‘nigger’ and there’s an uncomfortable streak of misogyny underpinning some of the violence. I’ll get to each of these points in a minute, but first I should probably set out where I stand on Tarantino in 2016. In simple terms, despite being a long-term fan, I’m finding the recurrence of these factors more and more frustrating (some more so than others, naturally). On the one hand there are obvious signs of maturity scattered throughout his recent films, but on the other I think he’s becoming a tad predictable, and hampered by the desire to provoke his detractors. I watch Tarantino films nowadays and I can’t for the life of me decide whether they’ve been made by an individual who is supremely confident in their own abilities or someone who is completely insecure about the way in which they are perceived, and who reacts in a childish way to criticism. I wonder whether he’s too concerned with kicking against the critics in order to hold on to his status as Hollywood’s pre-eminent enfant terrible. I also think the fizz of his early movies has been lost, though I’ll happily agree that there are times during The Hateful Eight when it returns.
This western, in which eight people gather during a storm in a Wyoming store and proceed to savage the concept of harmony, contains a couple of opening chapters that could have benefited from some more economical storytelling. Or a different script editing process – perhaps one in which Tarantino actually heeds the advice of a script editor, presuming that he calls upon this kind of help in the first place. We spend time primarily with a travelling foursome: Kurt Russell’s John Ruth (aka The Hangman), as well as his captured bounty Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Samuel L Jackson’s soldier-turned-bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren and Walton Goggins’ freshly-minted sherriff Chris Mannix. All four are good, and colourfully ribald. Spending time in their company does allow us to get to know these characters (just about) prior to the strange, violent ordeal that awaits them, as well as their political affiliations and prejudices, but it’s simply too long. Tarantino has at least acknowledged the fact that he struggles to cut down his own scripts, particularly when it comes to backstory and incidental information. As for his acting … yes, it’s always sub-par, though I must admit it has never once completely spoiled a film for me. Employing an actor with a more authoritative and less-recognisable voice for the narration would have been a good move.
The director’s argument in defence of the excessive use of ‘nigger’ – probably the most taboo word in the English language today, and used 178 times across Tarantino’s last two films – remains troubling and unconvincing; Tarantino seems to feel its inclusion is essential in works that purportedly deal with the history of racism and slavery in the USA, though I’m not convinced that either The Hateful Eight or Django Unchained get to grips with these subjects in any meaningful way. Both films pay lip service to slavery and racism while using them primarily for the creation of sketchy, underdeveloped back stories or as catalysts for violent incidents; you’ll learn as much about racism and slavery from Clarence Worley, the video store clerk hero of Tony Scott’s True Romance, as you will from the characters in his last two movies. So for me the recent spike in usage of the word definitely feels like an immature reaction to previous criticism, rather than a genuine attempt to discredit its negative connotations through familiarity or to add period authenticity to either movie.
Tarantino’s friends and female collaborators have regularly backed him when accusations of misogyny arise, and Jason Leigh has also fielded questions about it during her press junket. The opening act of this film includes some quite brutal violence directed toward Domergue, though as the story progresses the violence meted out to her eventually blurs with the grisly beatings, poisonings, dismemberings and killings enacted by most of the male characters toward one another. When it comes to enduring physical attacks Tarantino tends not to differentiate between the sexes, so I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt here, though Jason Leigh’s character is certainly singled out more than anyone else: by the end of the film a few survivors are severely wounded but she is the only actor caked in fake blood, and Domergue’s is the only story here that is solely concerned with endurance.
Presumably all of this comes from Tarantino’s innate desire to make his audiences feel uncomfortable; I heard several white men (I checked) laugh repeatedly in the cinema as the words ‘bitch’ and ‘nigger’ were tossed around on screen, and indeed when Jason Leigh is elbowed in the face at point blank range by Kurt Russell there were more than just a few chuckles around me, but I think this reaction stems from nervousness, of not knowing how you’re supposed to react to the extreme imagery and dialogue on screen. And though it makes me uncomfortable to admit it, Tarantino has always found ways to make extreme acts of violence and offensive dialogue sound and look funny. When Warren throws Domergue out of their shared carriage as revenge for a spiteful act, he forgets that she’s attached to John Ruth. It shouldn’t make you laugh, but …
It’s a strange film. In some respects it could be described as classic Tarantino: an emphatic pastiche of a genre piece, it has a fair amount of quotable lines and the kind of sudden (and often violent) surprises that have been a feature of all his films, while the 70mm extended cut roadshow counts as this film’s nerdy but evangelical celebration of the form. Familiar collaborators return, with Tim Roth, Michael Madsen and composer Ennio Morricone joining Russell and Jackson, and there’s space for less obvious old pals, such as Zoë Bell; she may have started out as Uma Thurman’s stunt double in the two Kill Bill movies but Bell has become something of a Tarantino talisman since then. And there’s a smattering of first-timers who instantly make you think ‘yes, of course you’re in a Tarantino film’, like Channing Tatum. Yet I say it’s ‘a strange film’ because his screenplays have never been this baggy, and it was a surprise to find out that The Hateful Eight eventually settles on the one main, claustrophobic location, which it sticks with for the best part of two hours. Even Reservoir Dogs used its flashbacks to take viewers out of the hot, tense warehouse, whereas the one illuminating flashback here takes place in the exact same spot that we’ve just spent the prevous 90 minutes in. It feels oppressive, which may of course be the intended effect, in a way that Tarantino’s movies haven’t been since that electric debut.
There are times during The Hateful Eight when everything seems to be in the right place. Ennio Morricone’s score is a masterful, brooding affair. Samuel L Jackson’s always been a great mouthpiece for Tarantino’s words. Jennifer Jason Leigh manages to make you swing from sympathising with her character to hating Daisy like it’s the easiest thing in the world to do. Robert Richardson’s cinematography, particularly in that slow opening act, is glorious. And the reward for sitting through that leisurely first half is a 90-minute period that fairly zips along with abrupt left turns, shock reveals and wanton grisliness. I liked all of that – who wouldn’t? – but sadly I walked out of the cinema wondering why Tarantino seems so insistent on repeating his mistakes, or why he consistently fails to recognise them, and pondering the nature of a filmmaker who is so obsessed with his critics that every new work feels like a response to things said 10 or 20 years ago.
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino.
Written by: Quentin Tarantino.
Starring: Samuel L Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kurt Russell, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, Demián Bichir, James Parks, Channing Tatum.
Cinematography: Robert Richardson.
Editing: Fred Raskin.
Music: Ennio Morricone, Various.
Running Time: 167 minutes.