Niall Anderson struggles bravely with Tarantino’s sadistic Western epic The Hateful Eight
There was a lot of irony about in the 1990s. Liking things that were a bit rubbish became known as ‘ironic enjoyment’. Liking things that you’d always liked, but pretending you didn’t really, became known as ‘ironic detachment’. The 90s was, among other things, a great decade for ironically appreciating tits in magazines.
Quentin Tarantino was an early inductee to the Irony Hall of Fame, a judgement that felt weird at the time and only feels weirder now. Is talking about Madonna while preparing for a bank robbery really an example of irony? In the 90s it was. Tarantino’s various quirks as writer and director – in particular his insistent referencing of other works inside his own – had to be ascribed to something. The smart critics looked up from their copies of Frederic Jameson’s Postmodernism and decided that thing was irony.
Suffice to say the tag never quite fit. If it got attached to Tarantino’s name in the first place it was because he absolutely and unironically terrified people. Had the violence in Reservoir Dogs been yoked to a wider sociological point, or been merely sensational, his defenders would have had an easier time of it. But instead it looked and felt like real-life violence, and had the special characteristic of violence of seeming to feed on itself. In other words it was convincingly gratuitous.
‘Gratuitous’ was a big word in the 90s. It meant ‘enjoying things you shouldn’t’. We remember the 90s as a liberal time, and rightly so, given that liberalism is code for the sound of cash registers ringing. But in cultural terms it was a stifling era, dominated by chancers, copycats and resurrected cultural figures whose names had been bywords for embarrassment only a few years earlier. Casting John Travolta in Pulp Fiction seemed to put Tarantino at the epicentre of this pick-and-mix culture, but the result was simply and unironically beautiful. Travolta wasn’t cast as a joke: he was cast because he has a sullenness that’s funny.
Pulp Fiction changed the culture. Thanks to it, we no longer really talk about ‘gratuitous violence’ in film; nor do we look to ‘irony’ to justify iffy content. But Tarantino is stuck in the world that the rest of us created for him twenty-odd years ago. He is annoyed when interviewers ask him about the violence in his films; he would like to be answering different questions by now. But the truth is that everything since Pulp Fiction has been a retreat into either adaptation or indulgence, with violence the only constant. Whatever the setting of his films, we now know where we’re going – towards brilliantly staged violence, via chat.
The Hateful Eight is, in this sense, almost the perfect Tarantino film. The violence is truly explosive, the chat is truly expansive, and between the two modes we come to some sort of sense of meaning. Set in the years immediately after the American Civil War, The Hateful Eight brings together an amoral bounty hunter (Kurt Russell’s John ‘The Hangman’ Ruth), an African American Union soldier (Samuel L Jackson as Marquis Warren), and a Confederate good-for-nothing turned sheriff (Walton Goggins as Chris Mannix), all of whom have fairly obvious reasons to distrust one another. John Ruth also has a prisoner in tow: Jennifer Jason Leigh as Daisy Domergue, a murderous gang member.
The meeting between this quartet takes up most of the film’s first hour, and it’s all quite jolly – in spite of everyone taking turns to punch Jennifer Jason Leigh in the face. There’s a lot of cinematic snow, a suitably muted Ennio Morricone score, and a good deal of entertaining speechifying. You sit there waiting for the surprise, but the surprise is actually the wait – the level patience (not to say indulgence) with which Tarantino lays out his tale.
The leisurely plotting continues into the film’s second act. A storm having cut our travellers off from their destination, they pull up at a lodging house that Warren knows from his time in the army. But something is wrong. For one thing the front door is hanging off its hinges; for another he doesn’t recognise the stableman; for another again, where are the actual owners? There are answers to all of these questions; none of them particularly convincing. There are also other people in the lodging house – all of them suspicious: a retired Confederate general (Bruce Dern), an English hangman (Tim Roth), and a tired-looking cowboy (Michael Madsen). ‘One of these people is not who he says he is,’ pronounces Jackson eventually – shortly after killing one of the other residents.
It’s not much of a spoiler to say that nobody here is quite who they say they are. Among the many things the title of the film refers to is the Eighth Commandment – the one about ‘bearing false witness’. The meaning of the film hinges on two pieces of false witness: one literary, and one moral. Thanks to the literary subterfuge, one character realises that they have been bearing false witness against the one person they shouldn’t: themselves. As a result, the ending of The Hateful Eight achieves a kind of disarming, aw shucks goofiness – or at least it would if there wasn’t so much blood lying around.
The problem is that all of this comes together in the last ten minutes of the film. The preceding three and a quarter hours has been a series of repetitive stand-offs in which Tarantino tries heroically to give the characters reasons not to pull their guns and waste everyone else. The result is a queer staginess, beyond what Tarantino may have intended by setting most of his film in a single room. For instance, when the first shot is fired and the first body falls, everyone else is pretty much standing around saying and doing nothing. They have to, because that’s the story, but the result is that moment-for-moment tension is sacrificed for keeping the overall level of tension high.
The other problem is that the film has been pointing towards one character’s redemption from the start. What makes Samuel L Jackson’s closing peroration in Pulp Fiction moving and convincing is that, ultimately, it’s just another thing that happens that day. It might have happened at another time, in another place. It might never have happened at all. If Jackson’s speech doesn’t precisely give Pulp Fiction meaning, it at least clarifies what the film believes in: that in an apparently random world, a free choice still has inordinate power. The Hateful Eight tries something similar, but the character it falls upon doesn’t really have freedom of choice, so their conversion lacks the gratuitous mercy of Jackson’s in Pulp Fiction.
Much has already been written about the politics of The Hateful Eight, specifically its racial politics. On this score, we’re served the usual stew of righteousness and knowing provocation (Tarantino’s obtrusive interest in the sexual prowess of black men gets its most frankly appalling outing here); the difference is that The Hateful Eight tries to bring these twin strands together in a single sociopolitical point. What that point actually is defies precise summation, but it might be rendered as ‘America, huh? It’s still better than anywhere else.’ Massive historical tomes have been written that come to more or less the same conclusion, but grading a country’s history in moral terms is usually either an exercise in propaganda or laziness. Here it’s certainly lazy, and maybe something worse than that.
To put it plainly, The Hateful Eight has an atmosphere of exhaustion and finality about it. Quite a few Tarantino films – even some of his best – find themselves spinning their wheels after a while. The titanic energies he’s trying to muster occasionally just fizzle out. But The Hateful Eight feels end-stopped from the off. It’s not just the nods to his own prior work; it’s not just the return of Tim Roth, sending up the iffy accents he first tried out in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction: it’s the dogged formalism of the work. It feels like Quentin Tarantino’s idea of what a Quentin Tarantino film should be like. It only rarely feels like a Quentin Tarantino film. I hate to say it, but this is one case where the guy could have done with a dose of irony.