Black Westerns: The Hateful Eight (2015)
Quentin Tarantino has recently got in the habit of making thorny, difficult films, which it is possible to respect but not enjoy. He increasingly seems interested in indicting his audiences, something I noticed first in "Inglourious Basterds," his revisionist World War II movie.
Perhaps the first example of this is a moment in the film when a German officer is beaten to death by a baseball bat. His killer is ostensibly one of the heroes of the movie, a Jewish soldier enlisted as part of a campaign of terror behind enemy lines. But the scene is perverse and sadistic, with the officer behaving in a way that tracks as noble while the heroes behave in a way that tracks as that of war criminals.
It continues like this through the film, including a scene in which the audience is treated to a German propaganda film about a sniper, with the Germans celebrating the mass shooting of Axis soldiers, and then "Basterds" essentially turns into that propaganda film, with audiences expected to celebrate the mass shooting of German soldiers.
I don't know what this impulse is. It's an essentially cinematic one — an exploration of the power of cinematic storytelling to push narratives, and how this can be a problem. It seems weird to me that Tarantino is using history as a backdrop for this. "Inglorious Basterds" very much was set in the shadow of the Holocaust, and the Holocaust wasn't a cinematic event, but a real one.
For all his nods to cinematic elements borrowed from genre filmmaking, Tarantino makes exceptionally detailed films: His eye for period details is as precise as a documentarian, from the way German soldiers dressed to the fact that Germans count on their fingers differently than English people. This sort of verisimilitude makes it feel as though Tarantino were addressing himself to history, but it's just an accumulation of superficial surface detail; it's not in service of history.
His films are actually about film. "Inglourious Basterds" is entirely a fabrication: There was no ingenious Jew hunting SS Colonel, there was no terrorist force made up of Jewish soldiers, there was no attempt on Hitler's life in a theater. He has nothing to say about the Holocaust, except that the fact of it makes Nazis convenient villains, which makes audiences implicated for enjoying a film in which they are grotesquely tortured and murdered.
Which makes "The Hateful Eight" especially troubling. Again, it's a film that seems to have as its basic thesis the following: "If you like a Tarantino film, you must be a psychopath."
I would make the case that Tarantino is even less in control of his message here than he was with "Basterds" or "Django." But first, I do want to talk about the accumulation of surface detail, because they are worth mentioning.
"Hateful Eight" is an example of one of my favorite types of Westerns, the snowy Western. Perhaps it is because I am from Minnesota, but I like images of horses in the snow, and I like cowboy costumes that look inspired by mountain men. Some films fail at this: "The Revenant," as an example, feels like it is a movie set in the winter by people who have never experienced winter.
But Tarantino, or at least his design team, visited the Autry Museum of the American West and looked at actual costumes from the era, and so everyone is swaddled in fur coats and warm leather. In the film, snow is heavy, freezing, comes with dangerous blast of frigid air, and dangerous. Knowing a blizzard is coming, characters pound poles into the ground and string ropes, connecting a stagecoach lodge, a stable, and an outhouse, knowing that it will be the only way to locate them once the snow falls; despite these precautions a man nearly dies going to the outhouse.
I haven't seen snow represented this well outside of a Coen Brothers film; it's hard not to assume Tarantino must have actually experienced a blizzard at some point, although I haven't found evidence of it.
Tarantino also represents a racially diverse West. Samuel L. Jackson plays a bounty hunter; originally the character was Django, and this was to be a sequel, but, for whatever reason, that didn't work out. The stagecoach lodge is owned by an African American woman and her staff is likewise African-American. One of the men staying at the lodge is Mexican. All told, maybe 30 percent of the cast is made up of people of color, although mostly in supporting roles. For a film set in Wyoming a few years following the Civil War, this is about as diverse a Western as I have ever seen.
The story is relatively simple: A group of horrible men and one horrible women are trapped in the lodge during a blizzard, and, over the course of the film, they kill each other.
But Tarantino's impulse it to problemtatize this, and, increasingly, reproblematize it, so that our alliances constantly shift. The film is almost three hours long, and almost everybody in the film has moments when they are sympathetic, and everyone has moments when they are terrible.
It does not help that Tarantino injects race and gender into the film. Many of the characters are southerners who fought for the Confederacy, do not regret it, and are unabashed racists. Our two bounty hunters, played by Jackson and Kurt Russell, are Northernerns, and Jackson actually fought for the Union, and so, unless we are also racists, our sympathies are initially with them.
But both are actually terrible. Russell relentlessly abuses his prisoner, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, in scenes that critics found troubling, as the filmmaker seemed to delight in showing violence against the character. In fact, she is the brunt of violence in the film, and I suspect Tarantino was using this knowingly, to remind us that Russell is also a villain. But that's an explicitly cinematic use of something not cinematic; specifically, violence against women.
Jackson, in the meanwhile, goads an older Confederate general, played by Bruce Dern, into a duel he cannot win. He does this by telling the story of the general's son, who came to collect a bounty on Jackson's head. Instead, Jackson disarmed the man, tortured him, and sexually assaulted him before killing him. It is possible this story is a fabrication — Jackson has been shown to be a liar in the past — but Tarantino never lets on, and Jackson seems to know an awful lot about the general's son for somebody just spinning a tale.
As much as Leigh is met with gendered violence, Jackson is met with racialized abuse, and, again, this seems to be serving a cinematic function. It seems to exist to make us lose sympathy for characters, to remind us that they are, in fact, as hateful as the title suggests. But, once again, this is using a real-world evil as a storytelling device. At once point, Jackson lectures Russell, telling him he doesn't know what it's like to be a Black man in the West. But there is no real evidence that Tarantino does either — Jackson's character isn't based on anyone in particular, he carries a forged letter from Lincoln that isn't based on any forged letter than anyone actually carried.
As with "Django," we have a story about a Black character written by a White author, and, unlike "Blazing Saddles," the films were made by a director who felt no need to partner with a Black writer to authenticate his work. I am likewise not Black, and cannot get offended on behalf of Black audiences, but I am Jewish, and I know there are Black audiences who find Tarantino's representation of their experiences as troubling as I found his representation of Jewish experiences in "Basterds." We do not need our actual pain to be fictionalized for genre exercises.
Most troubling is the climax, because here is the moment when I think Tarantino is least in control of his material. As much as Tarantino tried to establish Jackson as a villain, he failed, because Jackson is an extraordinarily compelling presence, because he has been subject to racist abuse that audience are predisposed to finding onerous, because he is a Django-styled bounty hunter that audiences are predisposed to finding interesting, and because we can ignore his claims of sexual violence and his murderousness as either lies or justifiable revenge for racism.
At the end of the film he partners with a Southern man, played by Walton Goggins, who starts off the film seemingly like he is just another racist but, over the course of the film, behaves nobly, and seems to have renounced his racism in favor with partnership with Jackson in the end.
So the film has failed to establish them as villains, and what to they partner on? Spoiler here, but they hang Jennifer Jason Leigh and delight in it. Critics, especially women, read this scene as mortal enemies managing to put aside their differences for a common cause, and that is misogynistic violence. It seemed that way to me as well.
I know there are some who have defended this, including Leigh, saying that Leigh is treated as an equal in the film, and so is simply the recipient of equal violence. But this just isn't the case. Leigh receives far more violence than anyone else, and it is specifically gendered violence. She is subject to repeated physical abuse, which nobody else experiences, often coupled with verbal abuse that explicitly references her being a woman (most often referring to her as a "bitch.")
And even if the violence were equal, it wouldn't be equal. Women experience violence very differently in the real world, and that violence is often explicitly misogynistic, in the same way that Black people experience violence differently, and it is often racialized. So when Jackson and Leigh are abused in this film, they aren't just two additional villains getting knocked around; they are on the receiving end of a type of violence that is specifically used to control them, to denigrate them, as a woman and as a Black person.
The hanging of Leigh at the end doesn't feel justified by her behavior in the film. She hasn't been more hateful than anyone else, and, arguably, has actually been less criminal than most. And yet she is singled out for a slow, agonizing death that her killers delight in. This feels less like a just climax and more like a lynching.
If that was not what Tarantino intended, then I am right that he didn't have control of his audience. If it is was he meant, then it is another example of Tarantino implicating his audiences, using narrative and cinematic techniques to sway his viewers until they are rooting for a racist and a rapist to lynch a woman.
And, I have to say, I don't see the point of that. Is it, like "Basterds," a cautionary lesson about how easily narrative techniques can be used to propagandize, to make audiences root for villains? Does that subject need to be explored again and again, in increasingly grotesque ways, making use of actual social ills like racism and misogyny, only to indict audiences for enjoying films?
I mean, what sort of filmmaker makes movies whose only oblique point is that, if you enjoy their movie, you're a sucker and a monster?