Quentin Tarantino’s films have always reminded me of that old joke:
“Why does a dog lick its balls?”
“Because it can.”
Look, the guy’s a genius. I don’t deny him that. At best, his films are pop-art masterpieces, marked by colorfully rococo dialogue, arresting images, kick-ass music, and a highly referential film vocabulary that somehow manages to bolster his own bold originality.
But Tarantino is also a director who indulges himself—a lot. One often gets the vision of him sitting in his director’s chair, rubbing his hands together gleefully. (Or sometimes, even worse, a vision of him jumping up and down like an overgrown toddler, shouting, “Again! Again!”)
Self-indulgence in a director isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Nor, for that matter, is flaunting one’s perversities proudly on the screen, which Tarantino does as well. But in Tarantino’s case, the perversities include blood splatter and the liberal use of the N-word, and, in general, getting away with things that society thinks is taboo. (Why? Because he can.)
Some of Tarantino’s worst instincts are on display in The Hateful Eight, which—damnit!—could’ve been so great. It basically takes a Clue-style mystery and places it in an amoral, post-Civil War Old West, where a bunch of scoundrels on both sides of the law are holed up in an inn during a blizzard. We first meet bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell doing John Wayne), when he’s taking his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock, Wyoming. Along the way, they encounter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), who’s dragging four dead bodies through the thick snow. Once one of the most decorated black men in Lincoln’s Union army, he’s now a bounty hunter himself (unlike “The Hangman,” he usually brings ’em in dead). They let him and his bounty on board and then come across yet another man on foot, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), former Confederate soldier, one of the Marauding Mannix Brothers, who claims that he’s on his way to Red Rock to be deputized. Both Ruth and Warren are skeptical, but they let him on board anyway, as he’ll surely die on foot (and if he really is the new sheriff, he’ll be the one paying their bounties).
Mannix and Warren are surprised that Ruth has a woman as his prisoner—that is, until Daisy opens her mouth. She’s a nasty piece of work, a scab-picker with a malicious grin and blackened teeth, who seems more bemused than terrified by her predicament and never hesitates to gleefully provoke any of her male captors.
Realizing they’ll never make it to Red Rock in a blizzard, the three of them—plus the driver—decide to spend a couple of days at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a stagecoach stopover, where Minnie herself is nowhere to be found and the lodgers—including Englishman Oswaldo Mobrey (Tim Roth), former Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), and the Mexican Bob (Demian Bichir), who claims that Minnie left him in charge—are a somewhat motley bunch.
Along with the still-fresh Union vs. Confederate tensions and the general watch-your-back ethos of the Old West is the fact that Daisy’s bounty is worth $10 grand, creating an atmosphere where virtually no one trusts anyone.
Great stuff, right? And better still, Tarantino uses a gorgeous Ennio Morricone score, creating a direct line to those Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns that he clearly adores. (Although this film has more in common with Sam Peckinpah than Leone.)
But there are problems. Right out of the gate, there’s the violence toward Daisy—one of Tarantino’s thumb-nosing jokes. Through the course of the film, we see her smacked and kicked and head-butted and much, much worse. The violence, thankfully, never takes on a sexual component, but Daisy hasn’t been neutered here—part of what makes this violence so funny (to Tarantino, that is) is precisely the fact that she’s a woman.
The film’s racial politics are possibly more offensive: Tarantino seems especially fond of brandishing the N-word, which is period appropriate, I suppose, but numbingly excessive here.
And it gets much worse. . .
[THE FOLLOWING IS BOTH A SPOILER AND DECIDEDLY NSFW, SO IF YOU WANT TO AVOID IT, SKIP TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH.]
At one point, Warren tells a story designed to piss of Dern’s General Smithers so much that Warren will have an excuse to shoot him in “self-defense.” It’s a tall tale, although I suppose it could be true. As Warren describes it, he captured Smithers’s son, made him strip naked and walk miles in the snow. Then when the younger Smithers was so cold he would’ve done anything to live, Warren dropped trou and forced the young man to fellate him. Warren tells this story with great gusto, going into particular details about the size and status of his member, which begs the question: Does Tarantino even understand the racial minefield he’s stepping into? Since the days of slavery, white men have irrationally feared black sexuality and its power, and Tarantino plays the whole thing—including the casual homophobia, of course—for shock value and laughs. (Why does he even include this highly fanciful digression? Say it with me: Because he can.) Several scenes later, something truly telling happens: Warren gets his dick shot off. (Not by Smithers, which would almost make sense in this context.) So first Tarantino evokes the idea of the large black phallus, then he destroys it. In Tarantino’s mind, did Warren have it coming? Or does Tarantino himself take some perverse pleasure in destroying the thing he fears? Either way, there was no turning back after that for me. Tarantino had lost me.
But for all I didn’t like about The Hateful Eight, there certainly is lots to recommend—beyond that evocative Morricone score, there’s Robert Richardson’s beautiful cinematography, which showcases the isolated tundra; wonderful attention to detail (like the stakes the men plant in the snow so they can make their way to their outhouse in the blizzard); and, of course, the excellent performances. Samuel L. Jackson, with his deep baritone, his gift for garrulousness, and his aura of gravitas mixed with mischief and even a little danger, seems to be the perfect Tarantino leading man. And Jennifer Jason Leigh has created a wildly original comical character here—so unpredictable and repulsive you simply can’t look away.
At three hours long, though, the script, which is presented in chapters, is not nearly as tight as Tarantino thinks it is. Some of the minor characters are undeveloped; a flashback to explain how we got here contains precisely zero surprises. The “America at a crossroads” dynamic—the idea of these characters stumbling to find themselves in a post-war America—would’ve worked better if Tarantino hadn’t always opted for cheap bloodshed or a shocking joke. The Hateful Eight feels like a battle between the grownup Tarantino and sophomoric Tarantino. In this case, the kid in the back of the class blowing spitballs won.