For Jaime Grijalba
In the last scene of Bigger Than Life, the 1956 film directed by Nicholas Ray and produced by its star, James Mason, Ed Avery, the middle-class teacher played by Mason, is lying in a hospital bed after a psychotic episode brought on, ostensibly, by cortisone abuse. That episode was previously depicted in a scene much beloved of cinephiles, a scene in which Avery enacts the Biblical passage in which God demands that Abraham sacrifice his son. When Avery’s wife Lou (Barbara Rush) reminds Ed that God subsequently rescinded his merciless demand, Ed thunders, “God was wrong!” In any event, Ed, now subdued, and having experienced what his doctor (Robert Simon) describes as “a deep, refreshing sleep,” may now see his family. A moment of truth awaits. If the psychotic episode was indeed a definitive break with reality, Ed may not be the same kind and thoughtful family man he was before cortisone began twisting up his personality.
Ed’s awakening is not initially promising. “Turn out the sun,” he says, referring, as it turns out, to his room’s overhead lamp. Then, looking at his doctor, he asks the usual questions and admits: “I’m disappointed.”
“About what?” asks his doctor.
“You’re a poor substitute for Abraham Lincoln.”
The seeming non sequitur strongly suggests that Ed’s still loony, but no: he recognizes his family, he remembers his breakdown, he grows emotional, beckons for his son, and says, “I was dreaming. I walked with Lincoln. He was as big, and ugly, and beautiful, as he was in life. Abraham.”
And then he remembers.
“Abraham!” he shouts.
No one, save for a very willful person, would insist that Quentin Tarantino is an artist with an overweening, or maybe one would better say primary, interest in morality. Either in the abstract or in practice. Tarantino is, though, an artist who has a great deal of interest in manipulating audiences with respect to affinity and empathy. And as a filmmaker whose biggest point of reference is genre cinema, he owes a lot, in terms of ideas if not overt technique, to the genre cinema artist nonpareil, Alfred Hitchcock. Tarantino’s affinity for genre cinema also ties in with a certain sadistic streak (we should remember that no less a figure than André Bazin detected a similar streak in Hitchcock, and found it largely if not wholly objectionable). This sadistic streak, more than just compelling him to depict galvanically hyperbolic acts of violence in the goriest of details, also drives him to concoct ethical conundrums that place audience in uncomfortable and uncomfortably shifting positions.
So, The Hateful Eight. It opens, more or less, with a shot of sadly hanging wooden Christ in the snow, and for a long time the image seems merely generically cheeky. There’s a stagecoach, with John “The Hangman” Ruth inside, chained to Daisy Domergue, a prisoner for whom he intends to collects $10,000 for in a town called Red Rock. On a sled ahead of the stage, stranded in snow are piled several male corpses. These belong to another bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren, an African-American Civil War veteran who prefersto kill his prey before bringing them in for his reward. These three, and the exempted-from-hatefulness stage driver O.B., are the first characters the viewer meets in the film.
While they are played by movie stars who are expert at turning on the charm, and they participate in several exchanges that peg them as intelligent, articulate, and even ingratiating, Kurt Russell’s John Ruth and Samuel L. Jackson’s Marquis Warren are not “good” guys, or “good guys,” except in the context of their circumscribed and mutually agreed-upon worlds. These men are killers; they make their living at it. I think one has to take Tarantino’s word with respect to his title—these and the characters to come are indeed hateful, regardless of how the movie will continue to undermine that fact. As for Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Daisy Domergue, she does not charm, not in a conventional sense—her greeting to Warren is an dryly perky “Howdy, nigger!” about which more in a bit. She is unusually cheerful for a woman chained to a man who continually elbows her in the face and smites her with the butt of his handgun. Tarantino’s film, like several of his others, is divided into designated chapters, and the chapter right after is intermission is called “Domergue’s Got A Secret.” But Daisy acts as if she has a secret very early on, giving Warren insinuating looks, and even a wink at one point. Could be she’s crazy—her wild eyes and seethingly inappropriate grin suggest as much. As it happens, she is not, at least not in the sense of being delusional.
On the ride to Minnie’s, Ruth and Warren revive an acquaintance that had begun some months before, and buttress their affinity via the sharing of what they refer to as “the Lincoln letter,” that is, a letter to Marquis from Abraham Lincoln that the Major keeps as a particularly proud souvenir.
Just as the viewer may have begun to cozy up to Major Warren, who is one the one hand a bounty hunter, but on the other hand isn’t persistently punching a defenseless woman in the face, a new stage passenger, Walton Goggins’ would-be Red Rock sheriff Chris Mannix, tries to pour cold water on any coziness. After Mannix recounts the tale of just how Warren escaped from a Confederate prison. Warren shrugs at Mannix’s indignation. “The whole damn place was made out of kindling…so I burnt it down,” he notes. Everybody in the stage laughs except Mannix, who points out that the fruits of Warren’s labors, his escape aside, were “47 men, burned to a crisp.” He then raises on his hand, so to speak, claiming that those men included more Union casualties than rebel. “You joined the war to keep niggers in chains,” Warren says with no small irritation. “I joined the war to kill white southern crackers.” John Ruth finds this amusing enough.
The interactions between the four male characters that turn out to not be in cahoots with Daisy are all about, as it happens, overturning whatever positive impressions the viewers may have formed. A basic knowledge of Civil War history will enable one to connect the dots between “Mannix’s raiders Marauders” and “Quantrill’s Raiders,” and the resultant pictures a viewer may derive from that are not pretty. Marquis Warren’s grudge against confederate general Smithers extends beyond the general fact that Smithers was a leader of white southern crackers and harks back to a specific incident suffered by Warren. So, the guys we are offered as possible heroes (I’m including Smithers in this bunch not because it’s particularly logical, but because you never know, especially up until five minutes or so before the film’s intermission) are, to recap, a bounty hunter who’s especially meticulous about making sure his captives are subjected to a grisly and sadistic method of execution; a man who shrugs off the indiscriminate slaughter of nearly 50 souls that resulted from his deliberately undertaken actions; and two out-and-out war criminals at least.
This is not, I would have to argue, insignificant. These really are not good people. But the audience’s sympathies and their manipulation rely on some of them being considered at some point in time to be less non-good than some of the others. And then, more. The twists in the moral dynamic do bring to mind the action of a corkscrew, but by the same token the movie’s narrative is so dispersive and discursive—such a splatter, eventually—that another metaphor might be that of a ping-pong game in which the ball very frequently gets banged far away from the table. Whatever the metaphor, one is obliged to admit that even the characters capable of behaving in a charming, ingratiating, sympathetic way all lack a certain, shall we say, emotional maturity. (This may also be true, as seems to be a particularly popular line these days, of the man who wrote these characters. But let’s not get carried away, either; Tarantino, as far as I know, has never actually killed anyone.)
Given these circumstances, it’s only proper in a certain scheme of things that these characters all behave in ways that ultimately doom them. The critic Armond White has astutely pointed out that in this film Samuel L. Jackson’s character serves as an alter ego for the director himself. This conclusion can be bolstered via examination of some of Tarantino’s more ostentatiously fulsome interviews, in which he’s claimed explicit forms of identification with African-American men. Inasmuch as Warren can be seen as the ultimate “hero” of The Hateful Eight, it is also noteworthy that he’s the character who solves, at least in part, its central mystery; he’s the Hercule Poirot of what Tarantino’s called, more than once, his “Agatha Christie mystery.”
But he is ultimately a self-defeating character. The big scene that ends the first half of the movie shows Warren at first (seemingly) caught in a lie, and then, having rationalized his lie, shows him settling, rather arbitrarily, a very personal score. It’s here that the movie, which up until this point has been so narratively straightforward as to seem not just conventional but stage bound and potentially stagnant, starts to break out of its shell. Tarantino’s manic declared “hatred” of John Ford notwithstanding, it’s also here that the ironies of Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance relative to truth and fable start to resonate in a rather ghastly register. After the authenticity of the “Lincoln letter” is very credibly dismantled by Mannix, Warren seems genuinely crestfallen, but rather than dismiss his interlocutors in a huff, he deigns to rationalize his choices. He seems particularly unhappy to have disappointed John Ruth. (“Guess it’s true what they say about you people. Can’t trust a fucking word that comes out of your mouth,” spits a disgusted Ruth, and perhaps the word he’s looking for is “shifty?” Polite but defiant—and obviously trying to maintain relations out of a certain self-interest—Warren counters, “I know I’m the only black son of a bitch you ever conversed with so I’m gonna cut you some slack.”) But, he insists, he has his reasons, and they are, he insists, good. The man whom everybody in the cabin save Ruth, stage driver O.B., and the Mexican Bob call “nigger” over and over says ““The only time black folks is safe is when white folks is disarmed. And this letter had the desired effect of disarming white folks.” As for his ultimate justification, he reminds John Ruth that the Lincoln letter was, in a very real sense, the thing that got him on to the stagecoach with Ruth. Saved his life, in other words.
After which Warren starts right in on General Smithers. While it may well be “true” that Warren did meet and kill Smithers’ son, the evidence that Warren is making up the story of torture and sexual abuse is strong indeed. It’s in the visual language: not so much the “flashback” visualizing the incident in the tale Warren tells (which, like the soon-to-come narration, are bold strokes of meta-directorial intervention), but the close-ups of Smithers’ eyes when Warren’s tongue rolls out another particularly juicy detail. “Big black pecker out of my pants,” say, and then that near-avuncular smile as Warren explains “it was full of blood so it was warm.” This leads up to what is currently and will likely remain the films most famous and quotable line: “You’re starting to see pictures, ain’t ya?” Indeed he is, as is the audience, literally, because Tarantino’s putting the improbable images up there. In a recent interview in the Guardian, the poet Claudia Rankine said “Blackness in the white imagination has nothing to do with black people” and continued “When white men are shooting black people, some of it is malice and some an out-of-control image of blackness in their minds. Darren Wilson told the jury that he shot Michael Brown because he looked ‘like a demon.’ And I don’t disbelieve that.” When Smithers goes for his gun, Warren looks even more like a demon to him than he did when he first entered the cabin. Warren was, of course, counting on that. It enables him to get the drop on the guy, and blow a hole right through his chest.
But this ultimately will prove a pyrrhic victory. Consider: when Marquis Warren arrives at Minnie’s Haberdashery, he notices that Bob’s a Mexican, he notices that the chair that only Sweet Dave is allowed to sit in is occupied by another person, he notices that a jellybean is on the floor. But rather than try to get any of this sorted right away, he indulges in a diversion that ends with him killing a man who, as it turns out, is of no material threat to him. And he does so in a way that creates a sufficient distraction for one of Daisy Domergue’s cronies to poison the coffee. (Or, as Tarantino’s in-need-of-a-copy-edit narration puts it, “something equally as important happened.” Oy.)
“Domergue, to you this is MAJOR Warren,” John Ruth says as he’s about to let Warren on the stagecoach. Daisy gives a droll little wave and says “Howdy nigger,” implying a bit of unspoken knowledge: here, she sees, is someone a rung or two, or three, below her on the social ladder—despite her being both a woman and a despised criminal.
Nevertheless, up to the point when Warren kills General Smithers in “self defense,” as Tarantino’s narrator (who is Tarantino himself) tells us was the general consensus of the cabin’s inhabitants at the time of the shooting, Daisy Domergue has been the only person on the receiving end of staggering physical violence, which she almost invariably grins at once the smarting stops. In an article for Variety by Kris Tapley, about the notion that the film is misogynist, Tarantino insists, “You’re supposed to say, ‘Oh my God. John Ruth is a brutal bastard!’” Okay, but by the same token, most of John Ruth’s shots at Daisy are performed and timed like gags in a Three Stooges short, particularly the bit where he tosses a bowlful of stew in her face. You don’t have to be a woman-hater to laugh, because the brutality—its realism in a certain dimension notwithstanding—is played for comedy.
Tapley’s piece also quotes critic Stephanie Zacharek to the effect that Daisy’s continued defiance in the face of her abuse registers as the “triumphant opposite” of misogyny.
But is Daisy’s triumph, if you want to call it that, really worth celebrating? For me the most staggering sequence in The Hateful Eight is its Chapter Five, “The Four Passengers.” It represents one of the most audacious and effective uses of flashback structuring I’ve seen in a Tarantino film, and if you know Tarantino’s films, you know he does a lot of flashback structuring. The chapter shows just what happened at Minnie’s Haberdashery prior to the arrival of Warren, Ruth, Domergue, and O.B.. It introduces the audience to the only good, and only truly likable, characters in the film: The coach drivers Ed and Six-Horse Judy, and the crew of Minnie’s Haberdashery: Minnie, Gemma, Sweet Dave, and a day laborer named Charlie. These folks are total innocents, kind, welcoming, good-humored. And given what the audience knows at this point in the film, the audience now also has to know that it is about to see them die.
It is kind of droll that Tarantino cast Channing Tatum, the Prom King of Gawker Nation (this is through no fault of his own, I feel compelled to note), in the role of what is in fact the movie’s most loathsome character, the ringleader of the killers “Mobray,” “Joe Gage,” and “Bob.” Tarantino even obliges Tatum to utter the phrase “pile of niggers,” which is close to Pulp Fiction’s ostentatious and perpetually distasteful “dead nigger storage” on the objectionability scale, not once, but twice. (Discussing the supposedly rampant use of the racial epithet at a recent panel, Jackson amusedly speculated that prior to having to say her first line in the film, Jennifer Jason Leigh had probably never uttered the word “nigger” in her life. He continued: ““It’s not disingenuous, it’s honest, and it’s coming out of characters’ mouths from an honest place, especially in that particular time. People are just getting past a war that divided a country, that freed a bunch of people that a bunch of people didn’t want freed, and they’re running around free, so who are we talking about? Oh those ‘free colored people?’ Um, no. Nobody was saying that.” Discussing the supposed preponderance of the word in Tarantino’s Jackie Brown in 1998, the novelist Elmore Leonard said, ““Spike Lee said the word was used 38 times. I wondered how many would be acceptable. Maybe 19? If that’s the way the character talks, if that’s his sound, you gotta go with it. You can’t say, `Oh, he has to stop at 20.’”) This is really not very nice at all. But nothing in this scene is nice or comforting. The violence isn’t choreographed or played out for the least comedic effect, as it has been and will be a little later.
“Mobray” and “Gage” and “Bob” dispatch their victims with brisk relish; it’s particularly awful to see Tim Roth’s impassive Pete/“Mobray” put a second bullet into Brenda Owino’s Gemma. And then to watch Michael Madsen’s “Joe Gage” do the same to Zoe Bell’s Judy. (It has been noted that Tarantino, fond of what are likely first-draft nomenclature in-jokes, gave Madsen’s character’s alias the name of a director of all-male porn; similarly, Marquis Warren is a gloss on Charles Marquis Warren, a real-life Western movie and TV director.) It makes all the male bonding stuff Tatum’s Jody and his gang engage in play as masculinity at its most toxic. And the violence is so immediate that it’s easy to forget, I suppose, that it’s all being executed for Daisy’s sake, and in Daisy’s name. And nothing she says or does in the actual diegesis suggests that she has any objections whatsoever, which fact could lead a viewer to infer that she’d have no problem doing it herself. This perhaps opens up the question as to whether any of the violence done to her, or her grisly final moments, were “deserved.” Like the man in Unforgiven (the Western in which no single character even commented on the fact that the main character’s companion/hunting partner was African American) said, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it,” and he may have been right. But if he was right, it's cold comfort for the victims of the massacre in this movie.
Like Bigger Than Life, a film many critics have interpreted as being about a very particularly American kind of grandiose madness, The Hateful Eight ends with an invocation/evocation of Abraham Lincoln. As the probably mortally wounded Mannix and Warren hang Daisy Domergue, Mannix reads aloud Warren’s “Lincoln letter.”
Previously decried by Mannix as a fake, it’s at his request that Marquis Warren retrieves it, for what the audience has every reason to believe is its last reading anywhere. For some reason, Mannix now wants to believe. “Nothing can bring together a black man and a white, a young man and an old, a country man and a city man, than a dollar placed between them,” the critic and historian Nick Tosches. But what’s bringing Mannix and Warren together at the end is…a thirst for vengeance? Well, sure, but one ought to remember that unless he really is lying, Mannix is the duly appointed sheriff of Red Rock, and by putting in with Warren and executing Daisy Domergue, the fellows form
one nation under God perpetrating the opposite of “frontier justice.” But deriving great personal satisfaction from their work nonetheless. Regardless of how you interpret what they’re up to, what they’re up to is very nasty indeed (the hanging figure of Domergue does come to perversely resemble the hanging wooden Christ of the movie’s opening), and part of this film’s cinematic jolt, if it carries any power for you at all, derives from the sensibility dissonance in which a grindhouse ethos is mounted in an overblown “distinguished” presentation. The UltraPanavision, the overture, the intermission; the second-rateness and claustrophobia of Ice Station Zebra do not quite provide precedent for the Italian zombie-movie gore and Euro-redolent extremes of pessimism and cynicism that distinguish this movie’s vision. (By the same token, much Euro-sadistic cinema doesn’t have the visual clarity and fluidity that Tarantino brings to this largely in-close-quarters narrative; in terms of making every space a cinematic space, Tarantino is not Kubrick, it’s true, but he gets the job largely done.) Said pessimism and cynicism has sent more than one writing viewer of the film to the Good Liberal Fainting Couch, and I can’t say that’s not understandable. Tarantino’s approach does have, undeniably, more than a touch of “giggly viciousness.” I think “giggly viciousness” is Martin Amis’ phrase, and if I continue to remember correctly he coined it as a description of something he’s proud to have grown out of. Some people, some artists, never do. It’s an open question as to whether unexamined self-righteousness is the most apt response to an artist who does not.
I don’t think it’s particularly constructive to spend a lot of time speculating as to whether the cynicism and pessimism of The Hateful Eight is “earned” or not. One recollects Sam Fuller’s original ending for his 1957 Western Forty Guns. This would have showed his ostensible hero, Griff, as a guy who would actually kill the woman he professed to love in order to then gun down the foe who shot his brother. This was not permitted, so Fuller concocted a ridiculous but ultimately very pleasing compromise: he made Griff so good a shot that he could plug the woman he loved so accurately that the woman he loved would fall but not suffer permanent or even vaguely life-threatening injury, clearing the way for him to then kill the foe who was holding her as a shield. Had Fuller been permitted to go with his original ending, could he have been said to have “earned” it?
Whatever Tarantino’s intentions or aspirations, the cynicism and pessimism of the movie is, I think, inarguably pertinent. Because Tarantino arguably revels in a mess rather than even trying to offer a solution, does that make him part of the problem? The extent to which this is or is not genuinely troubling would depend on the extent to which you rely on film and film criticism to be “problem”-oriented.
But let’s go with it a little. If Aretha Franklin’s performance of Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center Honors in December can be seen as the most inspiringly optimistic vision of race relations in America in 2015/2016, The Hateful Eight can be seen as a purposefully rebarbative nightmare vision of same. This ought not surprise. As an individual, Tarantino may well have a social conscience, and even a social consciousness, but there’s no way that he’s ever been what you could call a socially responsible filmmaker. A few years ago, in a “State of the Cinema” address at the San Francisco Film International Festival, Steven Soderbergh, with mordant facetiousness, advised young filmmakers, when seeking financing, to “in the process of telling [your] story, , stop yourself in the middle of a sentence and act like you’re having an epiphany, and say: “You know what, at the end of this day, this is a movie about hope.’” One ought give credit where it’s due, finally: Tarantino, cinema sensationalist nonpareil, has made a movie entirely not about hope, for what it’s worth.