not in our stars, but in ourselves
It’s been a long time since I divorced my feelings about Quentin Tarantino the auteur from my feelings about Quentin Tarantino the human being, but I admit: I still walked into the Coolidge feeling a little uneasy about The Hateful Eight. I’d avoided reading any actual reviews, so most of what I heard was reverb on Twitter – and it seemed to me that the people embracing the movie qua movie were not the kinds of people with whom I tend to agree. You know: bros, gamer-gaters, Male Feminists™, that kind of oblivious white male-centrism that Tarantino the person embodies. Still, I know he can make one hell of a motion picture, so I kept an open mind. It is genuinely great that he’s managed to bring back the now-antiquated 70mm format from the brink of extinction, even if only for this one movie, and that he’s used his considerable clout to ensure that trained projectionists show The Hateful Eight themselves – switching from reel to reel after each second cigarette burn in the top-right corner of the picture. For all this alone, it’s worth seeing in a proper theatre. And yet, and yet. I still find myself trying to identify just how and where it all sits in my stomach, because I don’t think it sits as well as it might.
The story is simple enough. Bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is transporting Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock, Wyoming, when an impending blizzard forces them to seek shelter. Along the way, they pick up fellow bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and self-proclaimed mayor of Red Rock, Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins). The motley crew ends up at Minnie’s Haberdashery, where a few more are waiting out the storm: Bob (Demián Bichir), Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), and General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern). It doesn’t take long before Warren, in particular, smells a rat – particularly after some poisoned coffee. In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (as it’s known now), one of the characters says, when it becomes clear that the ten strangers trapped on an island during a raging storm have all been brought there for some nefarious purpose, “There’s a n—– in the woodpile.”
It’s rather surprising that Tarantino doesn’t recycle that very same line here, given his predilection for the word. I’m not here to beat that dead horse, however. There are plenty of other artistic, philosophic, and moral choices to question in The Hateful Eight, and the possibly correct use of a racist slur (given the time period) isn’t really worth the time or effort. No, what struck me as objectionable was the film’s apparent thesis. Without giving away too much, I can tell you all what you probably gathered from the trailer: Daisy gets the holy hell beaten out of her. As a matter of fact, there are points when she looks (and behaves) an awful lot like the Pazuzu-possessed Regan in The Exorcist: blood streaming down her face as she screams, winces, grimaces, spits. Since Tarantino is, according to him, such a film scholar, it’s probably an intentional reference. Or maybe it’s not. I really can’t say. Is he knowingly casting the one major female character in his movie as a throwback to a teenage girl whose near-descent into hell represents the horror of femininity? Or is it just a coincidence? It’s strange, either way. It’s especially strange because Tarantino has, to his credit, written some fantastic women throughout his career: Mia Wallace, Jackie Brown, Beatrix Kiddo, O-Ren Ishii, Shosanna Dreyfus. They aren’t the dreaded Strong Female Character trope – they’re genuinely interesting, compelling, complex human beings who just happen to be women. Daisy is, up to a point, a decently written character herself, and Leigh is terrific in the role. There’s just something about her, about her treatment and her villainy and her lack of agency, that strikes some unusually sour notes.
This all might come down to the film’s tone. The few murmurs I’d heard before I saw it seemed to indicate that it was like Tarantino’s version of the aforementioned Christie novel: a sort of chamber mystery in which characters are killed off, one by one, while one of them tries to figure out who’s responsible. I don’t think the And Then There Were None comparisons are wrong, but I think this is more like Tarantino’s Clue: a murder-mystery-comedy chamber drama, but with a hell of a lot more graphic violence. And no Tim Curry. Tarantino loves his bloody deaths, and he apparently thinks they’re loads of fun, in a sort of porno-money shot way. He stages the many explanatory speeches, grisly deaths, and whodunit aspects of The Hateful Eight much more in line with Clue – which is just there to have a good time without any real scares or stakes – than with Christie’s entertaining but entirely serious book. Perhaps I’m just getting too old, or perhaps the world is just getting too gruesome, but I didn’t smile at the joke this time. Going into the movie, I thought of Kevin B. Lee’s video essay about the death toll in Tarantino’s films up to The Hateful Eight, relieved that there would presumably be a finite number of deaths to add to the 500+ Tarantino has shown us so far. Relief was not what I felt while I watched. I felt like I’d seen all this before, put to better use in better movies, and like I was tired as I watched it here.
Before all the Tarantino bros come storming my apartment with torches and pitchforks, I would like to clarify that I think The Hateful Eight is worth seeing. The performances are all terrific. The movie looks amazing. The score by Ennio Morricone is sinuous and wonderful and still stuck in my head. Nevertheless, I do wonder if anyone would bother with this film if it weren’t for the Ultra Panavision 70 gimmick. I hate to be so crass and cynical, but there it is. For what reason would Tarantino make a big show of shooting a chamber mystery in 65mm, insisting on projecting it in 70mm? Yes, of course, it looks wonderful – but the old widescreen epics were (a) epics, and (b) shot in such a massive format to distinguish them from the perceived threat of television. It was a gimmick then, and it’s a gimmick now. We’ve gotten some great works of art out of it, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t think for a minute that this is one of them.