Quentin Tarantino pries open American ugliness in The Hateful Eight. His Civil War/Agatha Christie/John Ford omnibus western uses racial epithets with unbounded insensitivity. The film’s macro-aggressions surpass anything in movie history (outcussing even QT’s own vulgar Django Unchained). In a too-hip-for-the-room way, The Hateful Eight vents the bottled-up venom that is the reality behind political correctness. Not a happy thing.
As always, QT is concerned only with expressing his antisocial impulse. The Hateful Eight doesn’t aim for historical realism, just the movie-based, juvenile fantasies of brash frat boys and oily hipsters. QT casts alter-ego Samuel L. Jackson as Major Marquis Warren, a black Civil War veteran turned bounty hunter who commandeers a group of white ne’er-do-wells who are snowbound at a Wyoming stagecoach stop, Minnie’s Haberdashery. Warren is in the socially inferior but morally superior position of rectifying and scaring his honky entourage: fellow bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell), prisoner Daisy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and henchmen Jody (Channing Tatum), Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), and Bob (Demian Bichir), plus General Smithers (Bruce Dern) and Sheriff Mannix (Walton Goggins). Warren sets things straight like the black stud heroes from the Seventies blaxploitation films that the teenage Tarantino suckled on. But Warren’s revenge isn’t the film’s point; he simply ignites QT’s pandemonium. After an intermission, QT himself steps in as voice-over narrator to claim — and further entangle — the mass-murder plot.
That’s not a stretch; the two-part Kill Bill was QT’s proto–Abu Ghraib satire. (As Jean-Luc Godard corroborated in an interview, no thinking person can deny the concurrence of those QT films with that incident of nasty American GI folly.) Politically unschooled, Tarantino links movie genres to mundane catastrophe; his entire output solders unconscionable cruelty to American moviegoers’ heartless sense of entitlement. He indulges the thrill of destruction that used to be the delectation ascribed to yahoos but, after the sea-change of his Pulp Fiction, is now defended by “intellectuals.”
Tarantino puts unreserved hostility in his white characters’ mouths and challenges anyone to resent it.
No wonder QT launched his publicity campaign for The Hateful Eight by taking an unprecedented position favoring the current anti-police protests. This dubious act of “solidarity” with the Black Lives Matter crusade showed how truly out of touch Tarantino is with African-American lives. His films demonstrate that he relates to black culture only through fanboy fantasy. Despite his specious protesting, The Hateful Eight accepts racial hostility as endemic to American culture. That’s why, having relished Shaft, Hammer, and Slaughter and been aroused by Pam Grier’s films, Tarantino feels he has a right to manipulate a black protagonist and the dynamics of race relations in The Hateful Eight – as if he himself were a black man with a cause. This is an extension of what Tarantino’s producer-distributor, Harvey Weinstein, called “The Obama Effect.”
In response to Obama-era sanctimony, and feeling safe from any accusations of racism, Tarantino acts as if he is justified in ignoring public decorum and any societal misgivings in his outpouring of America’s #1 racial epithet. He puts unreserved hostility in his white characters’ mouths and — with the encouragement of an Academy Award for the scabrous Django Unchained — challenges anyone to resent it. (Major Warren’s adjustment to the N-word distorts its usage by today’s multiculti generation.) In lieu of dramatic excitement, The Hateful Eight derides Obama-era politesse for little stabs of bigoted satisfaction. QT liberates his white characters (and his audiences) from well-mannered reticence.
Language in The Hateful Eight overwhelms the story. It obliterates the law-and-order concern that is basic to the western while trivializing the film’s race-relations subtext. (The scene of a white woman’s lynching doesn’t exactly pay reparations.) Tarantino’s wigger use of “nigger” goes back to pre–Civil-Rights-era defamation — not hip-hop’s fraternal term “nigga,” which linguists might describe as infra dig. Given our current national dialogue on race (ha!), QT’s linguistic offenses are meant to appease both guilt-ridden whites and resentful blacks. This affront is likely to suit the aberrant feelings of outrage that fuel the recent puerile protests. (“See, this proves white cops are racists,” the anarchists will chime. But are they ticket-buyers?)
QT indulges the “post-racial” delusions of the Obama era, which sanction his up-front, unapologetic hostility, freely unleashing the country’s hidden disgust.
The etymology of the word “nigger” and its faddish evolution are not explained by The Hateful Eight’s fiction. Instead, Tarantino’s insensitive goof abuses political sophistication; his liberalism dispenses with caution and opts for shamelessness. He is clearly indifferent to the humanism exhibited in the remarkable 1967 western Hombre, where director Martin Ritt and two of Hollywood’s most talented screenwriters, Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., sought to clarify Civil-Rights-era complexities. As Hombre’s half–Native American outlaw, Paul Newman faced down feckless settlers and brazen villains and was instructed, “You will find that white people stick together.” It was a revelatory moment for liberal Hollywood — never to be repeated.
Today, QT indulges the “post-racial” delusions of the Obama era, which sanction his up-front, unapologetic hostility, freely unleashing the country’s hidden disgust. After the Motion Picture Academy’s endorsement of Django Unchained, Tarantino’s racist invective is likely to have a greater effect than any of the quasi-political games played in films like Straight Outta Compton or Chi-Raq. The Hateful Eight will be seen more widely, and Tarantino’s command of the culture (such as his acceptance by academics) will, regrettably, continue.All this was to be expected from QT’s fashionable degenerate habits. But it’s especially dismaying that the dialogue-driven Tarantino doesn’t rise to the fanboy challenge he set himself by filming The Hateful Eight on 70mm celluloid, as if reviving cinema’s original aesthetic. QT has never been a visually accomplished filmmaker like Ford, Sam Peckinpah, or Sergio Leone, and his close-ups and shallow focus (particularly the undistinguished wintry exterior vistas and the scenes of foreground convulsions while the background is blurred) only recall cheap B-movies. This contradicts the deluxe visual imagery that once made 70mm roadshow exhibitions a moviegoer’s delight. The purpose of David Lean’s, Carol Reed’s, and Stanley Kubrick’s 70mm films was to magnify, if not glorify, human complexity. The complete ugliness of The Hateful Eight only proves that the high-class roadshow presentation has — like racial empathy — gone the way of social etiquette.
— Armond White, a film critic who writes about movies for National Review Online, received the American Book Awards’ Anti-Censorship Award. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.