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‘The Hateful Eight’: A new chapter in Tarantino’s history of violence

| Thursday, January 14, 2016

“Imma get medieval on yo a**.” You know that line, regardless of if you know its source. The pastiche of high and low culture — historical references and the terminology “yo a**,” respectively — provides one clue as to its source. Considering the line’s speaker is a six-and-a-half foot tall, recently-sodomized, shotgun-wielding man played by Ving Rhames, there’s really no doubt that I’m talking about a Quentin Tarantino movie. And of course that movie is “Pulp Fiction,” Tarantino’s 1994 calling card that seemingly fulfilled the promise of the incipient indie-film boom of the 1980s and signaled the consummation of modern auteur filmmaking. That the scene described above sounds — even feels — like it belongs in a Tarantino movie alone supports his auteur status; even more revealing are the clear evolutions of his themes and style.

Scene_Title_TheHateful_PrintLucy Du | The Observer

And if we hope to understand Tarantino’s latest movie, “The Hateful Eight,” then understand his style we must. Manipulation is at the heart of it: Tarantino prides himself on making audiences laugh just moments after he depicts extreme violence. More concrete recurring aesthetic elements in his work create films that are almost sinfully decadent, and naming a few of these elements is a reminder that the prudish need not purchase tickets. Non-linear storytelling, distinctive camerawork often characterized by intense close-ups, memorable and at times iconoclastic use of pop music, chatty scripts, strong women, themes of coincidence or chance, extensive homage to 20th century B movies, vulgar dialogue, black comedy and, of course, violence are not just fair game, but expected fare when viewing a Tarantino movie.

Violence proves Tartantino’s most controversial and interesting theme in “Reservoir Dogs,” a temporally fragmented tale of a heist gone awry. He casually dispenses with half of his cast off-screen, then coldly depicts every gory detail of the mutually assured destruction of the survivors as they search for a police informant — colloquially, a rat — in their ranks. The violence, much like the dialogue, is unmistakably Tarantinian: characters that are shot are lucky to die instantly, lest they bleed to death on the floor over an agonizing stretch of time; a hostage’s ear is severed with a razor blade in a spectacularly unsettling scene that plays out like an upbeat music video; and the climactic shootout, in a nod to Tarantino’s beloved Spaghetti Westerns, assumes the form of a Mexican Standoff.

Mexican Standoffs, with their successive close-ups of the three combatants, their crescendo of orchestral scores and their almost comically prolonged dramatic pauses, depict death in an exclusively cinematic way. That Tarantino would return to this trope in all of his subsequent movies except “Death Proof” says just as much about his worldview as it does about his much-discussed stylistic influences. It would be shortsighted to claim that Tarantino’s apparent fixation on violence stems only from his obsession with 20th century genre movies, and not also from a desire to make a statement about violence in art and society.

Nonetheless, Tarantino is not without his detractors, who often condemn the portrayal of violence in his films. Much of the critical narrative surrounding his career depicts a video store savant, an enfant terrible hell-bent on stripping his favorite genres — Westerns, martial arts movies and Blaxploitation films, to name a few — for parts, leaving pools of blood in his moral shattering wake. Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic famously accused “Pulp Fiction” of aiding “cultural slumming.” For critics like Kauffmann, the escapist jaunt in the seedy underbelly of the L.A. mob seen through a kaleidoscope of influences — influences that were at times high-brow, but predominantly low-brow— could not possibly represent any relatable experiences. Haters, as the saying goes, gonna hate.

Unfazed by Kauffmann and Co. — or perhaps buoyed by the overwhelming praise his work drew from most critical circles — Tarantino soldiered on. Having made a name for himself with “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction,” both rebellious, postmodernist appropriations of genre aesthetics, he became even more ambitious. “Jackie Brown,” Tarantino’s underrated follow-up to the acclaimed “Pulp Fiction,” was a barrel of contradictions: an irreverent homage, an avant-garde Blaxploitation movie.

2003 saw the release of “Kill Bill,” a violently hilarious and hilariously violent two-part revenge epic that is the most unmistakably Tarantinian movie to date: its story disjointed, its characters seemingly caricatures and its body count absurdly high. As Tarantino’s own aesthetic became more refined — or, if you prefer, exaggerated — in works like “Kill Bill” and “Death Proof,” the tune of some of his early critics changed from “all style and no substance” to “I told you so.” “…‘Kill Bill’ feels much too taken with its own hip vision,” Stephanie Zacharek wrote for Salon, capturing the essence of the typical complaint against Tarantino’s early 21st century work.

Wrong as these critics were, an examination of Tarantino’s late work suggests he was compelled to prove the naysayers wrong, as his themes became more focused and his presentation less subtle. “Inglourious Basterds,” the director’s magnum opus, was a caustic revision of history, a challenging tale of revenge and the first film in his very violent filmography to truly be about violence. “Django Unchained” pushed the envelope even further, examining how race and violence bend the archetype of the hero by deconstructing both the Western and masculinity. With “Django,” the ever-racially-aware Tarantino sortied into a topic thought taboo by most filmmakers: slavery.

In his eighth and most recent film, a post-bellum Western appropriately called “The Hateful Eight,” Tarantino blends disparate genres — the Western and the drawing-room mystery, the melodrama and the psychodrama, the thriller and the character study — in a way he hasn’t since “Pulp Fiction.” But now, in keeping with the recent trajectory of his career, he overtly uses this aesthetic phantasmagoria to address themes like racism, sexism and police brutality. Tarantino, a director unabashedly infatuated with American popular culture, is now making films that are indubitably about America itself. Subtlety be damned.

The plot is simple: bounty hunter John Ruth, AKA “The Hangman,” has fugitive Daisy Domergue chained to his arm, the better to keep her from escaping into the Wyoming wilderness, or even worse, from being stolen by a rival bounty hunter. Ruth’s paranoia reaches a fever pitch when the pair is forced to wait out a blizzard in Minnie’s Haberdashery, an inn of sorts, along with six strangers, some of whom may or may not plot to set Daisy free or steal Ruth’s bounty for themselves. It’s no spoiler to say that the souls of all involved are at hazard. In addition to Ruth and Domergue, the doomed include a so-called hangman, a taciturn loner, a would-be pen pal to Abraham Lincoln, the newly appointed town sheriff and a disgruntled former Confederate General.

The majority of the three-hour long film takes place in the confines of the haberdashery, allowing ample time for these characters to share war stories and discuss politics. The quiet setting and plot mechanics call into question Tarantino’s decision to shoot on 65-millimeter film, an antiquated yet regal format typically associated with epics like “Lawrence of Arabia” or “Ben Hur.” The finished product, however, is filled with such beautiful texture and variations in light that you won’t even remember to wish they’d point their 65mm mega-camera at a snow-covered landscape — though you will nonetheless be thrilled when they occasionally do. And the photography provides more than just aesthetic pleasure. Light that enters the haberdashery through cracks in the door and walls is filtered through rogue snowflakes, combining visual cues from noirs and Revisionist Westerns, thus providing the audience with a framework to understand the film.

HatefulEightTimeline_Graphic_WebLucy Du | The Observer

If you were forced to put a genre label on “The Hateful Eight,” it is a Revisionist Western-noir. The violence isn’t of the romantic, bloodless variety seen in classical Westerns like “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” or “Rio Bravo.” Every punch hurts. Every bullet hits an artery. Each offense demands moral consideration and upsets your stomach. In that sense, “The Hateful Eight” is reminiscent of “Unforgiven,” Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning Revisionist Western that examined the psychological effects of violence.

But, in living up to its name, “The Hateful Eight” takes things further than “Unforgiven” by filling the screen with characters that are, well, hateful. Eastwood’s film provides a sympathetic surrogate for the audience in the form of The Schofield Kid, a self-named wannabe-gunslinger. When the big-mouthed Kid shoots a man on the toilet at point blank range, his carefully constructed façade of masculinity begins to crumble; the Kid talks the talk, but he sure as hell don’t walk the walk. And when he finally cracks, slipping into alcoholism as he realizes the man on the toilet “ain’t never gonna breath again, ever,” you feel for him. If you don’t exactly forgive him when he hangs up his six-shooters, you at least commend the act.

Conversely, all of the roughly eight characters in Tarantino’s picture are despicable. The n-word is casually tossed at Samuel L. Jackson’s Marquis Warren, and Daisy, the sole woman, is at the receiving end of even more insults. At their best these characters are sardonic (like when they mock one gullible tenant of the Haberdashery who actually believed the aforementioned Lincoln correspondence was real), at their worst they are truly, deeply hateful (like in the film’s most haunting scene, when one character tells the most disgusting yarn, just to incite a shootout). Don’t expect the idealized character arcs and moral revelations of “Unforgiven.” Even facing death, these characters are utterly disgusting. Remorse is not in their vocabulary.

What’s interesting is how some critics seem to think remorse is missing from Tarantino’s own vocabulary, as his conscious decision to omit the overt moral teachings of films like “Unforgiven” has been the source of much of the negative criticism of “The Hateful Eight.”

“‘The Hateful Eight’ is too extreme, too ghoulishly violent, too besieged by its ensemble’s overriding villainy, to feel like anything other than a dark chamber piece,” David Sims wrote for The Atlantic. But isn’t it this unrelenting discomfort that Tarantino strives for? If “The Hateful Eight” is too black-hearted for many viewers to enjoy its violent genre-trappings, isn’t that itself a powerful message?

Many viewers — including yours truly — relish violence in movies, and Tarantino knows it. He knows I giggle as the Bride cuts her way through the Crazy 88 in “Kill Bill.” He knows when fans buy tickets for “The Hateful Eight” that they are paying, in part, to see violence projected in “glorious 70mm.” And he delivers.

The rimshot? After depriving the audience of any action for its first hour and a half, “The Hateful Eight” becomes too thoroughly and hatefully violent to enjoy — it’s a wakeup call. We may laugh when Samuel L. Jackson waxes poetic about the killing powers of the AK-47 in “Jackie Brown,” or when various lawmen kick the snot out of the big-mouthed Daisy in “The Hateful Eight,” but real gangland violence and police brutality are no joke. As the second half of “The Hateful Eight” unfolds, Tarantino’s brand of violence is no longer effortlessly, seductively enjoyable. It’s all too real. It turns out this video store savant is actually a true American auteur, an iconoclast whose work is much more than just pulp fiction.

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