The Hateful Eight

The hype for the new Quentin Tarantino film has already started, and Berlin’s Kino International is using the opportunity to show all his old films. Good news for me – sort of – as its been quite a while since I rushed to see a new Tarantino (I checked, and the last one I saw in its opening run was Death Proof, over a decade ago).

The Hateful Eight is set in Colorado after the Civil War, and tensions are still running high, particularly about race. A bounty hunter has chartered a private carriage to take his latest chattel – a women accused of murder – to be hanged. As the snow increases, the carriage fills up with another bounty hunter – Samuel L Jackson accompanied by a few corpses – and someone who claims to be the new sheriff.

Realising they won’t get any further in the blizzard, they stop off at a coach house, which is already occupied by an ex-Confederate general, a strange Mexican and Tim Roth who for reasons best know to himself has decided to come as Terry-Thomas. There are also quite a few more people there, frankly too many to keep in our head at the same time. And we know that not everyone is what they appear to say as every other minute someone accuses someone else of dissembling.

As the film goes on (and boy does it go on), there is increasingly gratuitous violence, and the plot starts to remember the end of Murder By Death (if you don’t know that, be very ashamed of yourself, but its a parody of Agatha Christie murder mysteries where the characters come out with increasingly bizarre explanations for their behaviour based on “facts” that we learn just before the film draws to and end).

So, is it Any Good? Well, its a Tarantino film, so there are entries in the plus and minus columns. On the plus side, it looks spectacular, it is ambitious, and Samuel L Jackson gets to do his thing (although he seems to have been increasingly on autopilot for his last few films). And I must admit that I am a little partial to see Tim Roth clowning about.

On the Other Hand.

First, what made a lot of people (including myself) think that Tarantino was something special was his interesting and intelligent use of dialogue – different characters interacting with each other, even if all they’re talking about is different names for hamburgers. In The Hateful Eight, the characters rarely interact. One emotes, then another. Everyone is allowed to have his speech, but it has little to do with what anyone else has said.

Which brings us to another problem. The film is nearly 3 hours long. There is no need for any film to be nearly 3 hours long, and particularly not this one. As there is no flow, big parts of it just drag. It looks like Tarantino has become too Important a film maker for anyone to be able to suggest that his films might be improved by cutting huge chunks out of them.

Then there’s the race issue. I can hear the defence now. Its perfectly ok for the word “nigger” to be repeated incessantly, as Samuel L Jackson is in it, and people should just see that racism is bad. This is the Southern States after the Civil War after all. That’s how they spoke.

And yet because there’s no contextualisation, there is no grand statement about racism. Rather, its just Quentin trying to be controversial, like a boy swearing loudly in church because he knows its supposed to be naughty. By the time you get to a grand speech by Samuel L Jackson which is based on part on the assumed size of his penis, I found it hard not to think about the white geek sniggering as he writes the script containing what is ultimately a racist cliché.

While we’re on an insensitive treatment to oppression, we know in retrospect that a film who’s opening titles boast of its association with Harvey Weinstein is one strike down before it even gets started.

Strike two comes in Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character, who’s role in the film is to be repeatedly called a bitch and a whore while she is punched, slapped and vomited on. Her face gets bloodier as the film progresses as she is subjected to endless abuse.

It could be claimed that Leigh is getting no special treatment, and hey, Quentin is being anti-sexist by treating all of his characters equally badly. Besides which, Leigh’s character deserves it because she’s a racist. Except he doesn’t treat his characters equally. The film is full of racists, but only Leigh’s character is the victim of continual abuse, and never its perpetrator. Hers is the (WARNING – POSSIBLE PLOT SPOILER) only death about which the film seems to unambiguously gloat.

It is true that every time she is hit, she just laughs, but if this was meant to show her resistance in the face of oppression, it is severely misjudged. Rather it seems to show that the director thinks that domestic violence is nothing special. If the victims can laugh, why can’t we?

And don’t get me started about the claims that Tarantino writes great roles for women. Yeah, he wrote the characters of Jackie Brown and your women in Kill Bill, but how many other women do you see in his films? In a film called the Hateful 8 (although we ultimately end up with more than 8 people in the lodge), there is only one female character of any significance, and as said, she doesn’t come out of it well.

This does not give me a good feeling running up to the new Tarantino film. Again the trailer is dominated by men, with the one obvious female character playing Sharon Tate, who was notoriously murdered by a cult let by a messianic male with control problems (that is not a spoiler – it happened 50 years ago). And Tarantino seems to be much more interested in Brad and Leonardo and co than any of his female stars.

I hope I’m wrong. But its not just about race and sexual politics. It would be great if Tarantino could return to the tightness and eloquence of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. But The Hateful Eight was the last time he tried anything, and tightness and eloquence are most definitely not prominently on display here.

And the saddest thing of all? I’ll go to the new one, and probably a few of the old ones, and I’ll be disappointed but carry on going, as they’ll look ok and at least strive towards interesting dialogue. Oh Quentin. You’re not the worst, but you could be so much better.

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