Warning the following contains a few spoilers for The Hateful Eight. It is advised that you view the film before reading this piece.
An unexpected uneasiness washed over me while watching Quentin Tarantino’s latest opus The Hateful Eight. It was a feeling that hit me with the same surprising intensity as the blood that paints Daisy Domergue’s (Jennifer Jason Leigh) face at one point in the film. This sense of discomfort did not come from the copious amounts of violence; it is a Tarantino film after all, but rather my own acute awareness of self that the film evoked. As much as I love Tarantino’s films, I have never been more aware of my own ethnicity than I was watching The Hateful Eight.
Quentin Tarantino’s relationship with the n-word and appropriation of “black culture” has been well documented. Truth be told, I have defended the director’s work on numerous occasions in conversations that have veered onto his incorporation of race and derogatory terminology. However, for the first time, I found myself truly struggling with it in this film. It probably did not help matters that I was the only visible minority in my afternoon screening.
The Hateful Eight is essentially a western that wraps its narrative within the tense threads of the mystery genre. Imagine if the film version of Clue took place in the frigid and isolated world of The Thing and you get a broad idea of the film’s framing. However, there are no alien forces here, the danger comes from the eight individuals in Minnie’s Haberdashery, a stagecoach lodge on the outskirts of town, and the blizzard that has trapped them all together. Amongst the group is John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) who is chained to Daisy, an outlaw who he is taking to Red Rock in order to collect the $10,000 bounty on her head. Prior to reaching the lodge the pair encounter another bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), and a former confederate soldier, Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins), who claims to be heading to Red Rock to be the new sheriff.
The coincidence that his stagecoach would stumble upon two separate stranded individuals on the day he is transporting such valuable cargo is not lost on Ruth. Neither is the fact that the lodge is full of individuals who, with the exception of Bob (Demián Bichir), who works at Minnie’s, all seem to have business in Red Rock. Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) is on his way to see his mother, Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) is the hangman of Red Rock, and General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern) is a weathered confederate soldier who seems to be tormented by decisions of the past. Of course Ruth’s paranoia proves to be warranted when an incident occurs, one so important that Tarantino himself brings attention to it via narration, and bodies slowly begin to pile up.
While the film’s tension comes from trying to figure out which of the lodgers is working with Daisy – though uncovering who laced a particular beverage with poison is rather easy – Tarantino treats the lone female at the center of it all as almost an afterthought for the bulk of the film. Instead, he spends his time, when not sadistically playing for laughs the merciless abuse Daisy endures, exploring the bigotry of the era. This, of course, provides Tarantino with a justifiable excuse to use the n-word more freely than the crudest rap album.
After eight films, Tarantino’s love of the controversial word has become a stylistic trademark of sorts. However, it is strange that of all of Tarantino’s works, and for a film set in the aftermath of the Civil War where it actually makes sense for characters to use the n-word and play up racial stereotypes, this film feels excessive in this regard. Race is constantly at the forefront of the film even at times when it does not need to be. It practically overshadows Daisy’s story, which is the real reason the characters, and us the audience for that matter, have all assembled.
This is most obvious when viewing the journey of the lead character, Major Warren, throughout the film. Although he is arguably the smartest guy in the room, his skin colour evokes distrust on both sides of the law. He never feels like the fist-pumping inducing heroic character Tarantino tries to make him out to be. Carrying a letter allegedly written by Lincoln himself in his pocket, which brings him a smidgen of respect from a man like Ruth, he is an outcast who, despite his prestigious record as both a soldier and bounty hunter, is constantly perceived to be a liar.
Major Warren is the personification of everything that whites fear about black males in that era. He is the deceiving sexual predator, who will stick his “black dingus,” one of the many euphemisms Tarantino uses to describe black genitalia in the film, in white flesh any chance he gets. This is especially punctuated in a gorgeously shot sequence when the shunned bounty hunter recounts a tale, to the gentle theme of “Silent Night” no less, about the time he met General Sanford Smithers’ son. The story ends with Major Warren forcing the general’s son, who initially tried to kill him, to perform fellatio on him in his final moments. Whether the tale is true or not does not matter, its main purpose is to get a rise out of General Smithers and laughter out of the audience. However, I found myself cringing while others were chuckling.
The sequence, much like most of the racial jabs in the film, felt uninspired and ultimately has little to do with the central story at hand. It was as if I was at a party where the host was telling a really interesting story, only to interrupt said story every few minutes to throw in an off-colour joke. Do not even get me started on the caricatures that Bob and Minnie (Dana Gourrier) are reduced to in the film. Yes, I understand that the era that the film takes place in needs to be taken into consideration, but historical accuracy has never been something Tarantino has strived for. Frankly, I would argue that he has tackled these racial themes, including the fear of the “black Johnson,” far better in Django Unchained.
In that film it is genuinely terrifying when Django is almost castrated for simply trying to save the woman he loves from the grips of slavery. There is an actual castration of sorts in The Hateful Eight, but again it is played for laughs. An event that might have been funny without the General Smither’s sequence; however, it comes off as confederate wish fulfillment more than anything else, especially since it is the dimwitted racist Mannix who ultimately holds all the power in the final act of the film.
Now I am by no means saying that The Hateful Eight is a bad film, just a rather a misguided one. Tarantino’s excessive focus on race takes away from some of the truly wonderful moments within the film. The performances by the principle cast are great; Goggins, Leigh and Jackson in particular are pure heaven to watch. Not to mention the fact that the cinematography in the film is simply outstanding. I still drool thinking about the image of the wooden snow covered Jesus statute that opens the film and numerous other sensational shots. The film practically demands repeat viewing for the visuals alone. However, I could not help but feel that it was one of Tarantino’s weaker efforts from a story perspective; even the dialogue did not carry the same zest as his previous films.
For a man who brought Jules Winnfield, Jackie Brown, and Django to the big screen, The Hateful Eight felt like step backwards for Tarantino. Instead of getting lost in the mystery surrounding Daisy’s possible hanging, I found myself consciously aware of my race. Who knows, maybe this film just caught me on the wrong day, or with the wrong audience, but I found the constant reliance on racial conflict unsettling and unnecessary.
Outstanding analysis Courtney, on second thoughts a lot of what you have said hear rings true and has even inspired a hearty edit of my review which upon second glance reads kinda rushed. Lots of good points to dissect further, great stuff
Keep in mind this is just reflects my experience with the film. There are many who had no qualms with The Hateful Eight at all.
Oh absolutely, but I too found a few moments a little uncomfortable that I didn’t really spotlight in my review
Fabulous piece Courtney. Unlike most I had a lot of problems with the film and his flippant use of the n-word was on the list. I would have no problems with him using it if I felt there was any meaningful commentary behind the usage. I got absolutely none of that from The Hateful Eight. I would even go as far as to say he uses it for humor more than once. I’m sorry QT, but I don’t find the usage of that word particularly funny.
And then you have the excessive use of it. For me he lost any possible effect by using it over and over again. A part me grew numb to it. Another part of me just shut it out after I realized QT simply wasn’t going to stop. It was offensive but not in the way he intended. It was also a sign of a very spotty screenwriter although I know that’s not a popular opinion.
I agree that he often uses the word for comedic effect but, as you stated, it comes of unintentionally offensive. I normally love Tarantino’s writing, he is one of the best in the business, but parts of this script just felt lazy.
Good analysis. To expand on this, the other races don’t fare very well, either. The Major’s reason for having the Lincoln letter clearly and simply illustrates just how dangerous it is for a black man to even try to move about among whites at that time and place, and how dangerous they were to him.
And although the black store owner Minnie seems okay with whites, even putting up with a former Confederate officer for a couple days, she is racist against Mexicans, if the story about her sign “No Mexicans or dogs allowed” is true.
Of course, the film is about hatred, in all its forms, hence the title.
The letter is suppose to represent a sort of safe passage for Major Warren, but it already obvious, based on the era the film takes place, that it is a dangerous time for blacks. Only somewhat honorable men like Ruth even seem to care about the letter, and even that is only through star-struck lens. Daisy instantly spits on it and Mannix and the rest of the men laugh at the thought of such a letter. Implying it would do little to protect Major Warren in their neck of the woods.
I completely agree that the other races do not fare well in the film either. I had issues with the portrayal of Bob as well, or at least the lack of character development he gets. The woman behind me were so baffled by his excessive demise that they simple chalked it up to Tarantino treating him as, to quote their words, “another dead Mexican.”
Also, much is made of the fact that Minnie hate Mexicans with a passion, however, when we finally met the plucky lodge owner, we never get the sense she has any issues with Bob being in her establishment. She is too busy taking pride in both her big bottom and being able to say “yes” in French. Both Bob and Minnie are treated like stereotypical caricatures rather than real characters.
Great post. I can’t say that this movie surprised me in the least, because it was quintessential Tarantino. Not that it makes it okay to use the director as an excuse, but I guess I’m saying nothing surprises me when it comes to him. I found Django more uneasy to watch than this one, although beating Daisy to a bloody pulp was quite excessive.
I was very curious to see how female audiences would react to the excessive beating Daisy takes. To my surprise the women in my screening, and the ones I talked to after the fact, had no problems with it. I guess the fact that the violence against her is constantly played for laughs makes it easier for many to digest.
Wonderful read Courtney. I found myself cringing quite often, too. The pervasiveness, the casualness with which the word is slung around here actually started to annoy me. It’s like he was actively conscious of a record number of times he could use it and then went beyond that. I totally get that you, and likely many, many others, would be put off by it and that it took you out of the story.
Tarantino is an interesting fellow. Some parts of me would be delighted to get to meet him, and then some other part of me thinks that maybe he’d be really strange to meet and it could be super awkward. (not that i’d ever get that chance! Hah!)
You raise an interesting question regarding if Tarantino is consciously aware of the record number of times he uses the word in his films? I honestly think he does not see its use as being harmful. Like any word in the English language, even the hurtful ones, there are times when its use is justified. By all accounts, this should have been one of those situations where it made sense. However, he just runs wild with it to the point where it feels disjointed from the actual story he is trying to tell.
Great review. Really compelling analysis. The racial stuff really made me squirm too, as intended. Like you said, earlier QT flicks better “excused” the racial slurs. This time it was mean spirited on purpose. As a white man, I dread if I would have been racist back then? The white guilt is there too. However, the speech to Dern gets that extra layer of disgust. I enjoyed knowing it pissed Dern off even more that SLJ is black. And I assumed he made up this story to get under the racist old prick’s skin.
As far as the rest of movie, it was disappointing compared to other Tarantino flicks. Some chapters got bloated. Loved the opening sequence too. Like you said, that shot with the cross was mouth watering. That score too!
With the 70mm, I loved vistas, but why did QT stick to interiors with the extra wide lens? Yes, I appreciated some DePalma touches, like the split diopeter lens, and strong compositions with multiple characters, but I wanted wide vistas and epic Western scope. The first chapter delivered that, but the next 5 Agatha Christie chapters were inside?!
Again, awesome review, Courtney. Insightful!
The speech with Dern is fascinating to dissect. On one hand it is SLJ sticking it to “the man” by making Dern quiver in disgust. However, when you consider the Agatha Christie style mystery at play, the scene has very little impact on the central story. It is nothing more than a simple diversion, considering that Dern is killed before you really know anything about him, for a nefarious act to happen behind the scenes.
True enough. Well said. And I think Tarantino is full of those diversions 😉 Kinda made a career out of it. Not the most complex plots in his stories eh.
Interesting analysis Courtney, particularly about the way that Tarantino has handled the ‘fear of a black johnson’ idea across the past two films, and the use of archetypes. Much of the material you’ve highlighted above got laughs during my screening too, which is surprising when the word “nigger” is spat out with such venom or when a woman is subjected to such brutal beatings by a man. It was a mainly white audience, probably split 60-40 in terms of gender. The women sat near me weren’t laughing at the treatment meted out to Daisy, whereas quite a few men found it amusing. (I suppose there is an element of slapstick around one or two incidents, such as the moment that Jackson’s Warren pushes her out of the carriage while she is still handcuffed to John Ruth, and also the point in which she is covered by food…an image that people might easily associate with silent comedies).
The slapstick moments, like slapping her out of the stagecoach with Ruth attached, generated big laughs in my screening as well. I even chuckled at that point. However, the fact that the excessive about of violence towards Daisy – she is literally a punching bag for 2/3 of the film – did not cause a stir with more female audiences was surprising. The women in my screening laughed all the way through those moments. I guess we have become so desensitized to elements of violence in Tarantino’s film that even Daisy getting violently beaten can get a pass.
Thoughtful post. I heard going in lots of talk of it being rather misogynistic but while watching it, it was definitely the treatment of race that had me cringing (for bob “the mexican” as well). In some ways I think it’s good to have our buttons pushed so that we have the conversation, but I felt repeatedly uncomfortable in this one and I appreciate your being able to put it into words while I could not.
I agree that having our buttons pushed is a great thing about cinema. I have even heard people argue that this film is using western tropes to subtle convey a commentary about modern society. I am not sure I buy that logic, but it is good to see so many people engaging in these thoughtful discussions on race and misogyny.
We went to a screening where two guys were cackling like Max Cady (Cape Fear) every time Jennifer Jason Leigh was punched or otherwise abused. This movie has a lot to answer for where race and gender are concerned. I have a theory that Tarantino made the movie a nihilistic punch in the face to his viewers because of that early script leak. But he has also become increasingly eccentric and high on himself with each movie release. It is hard to figure what might be going on in his mind.
I look forward to talking more Tarantino the next time we meet.
The nihilistic punch angle is an interesting theory, especially considering how protective he is of his work. I do agree that he has become overly confident in his abilities and overall influence of late. While his work can normally back up such swagger, I wonder if he is starting to become blind to some of his own flaws. We definitely need to unpack these ideas further at some point in the near future.
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