Does anything good happen in The Hateful Eight?

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I don’t like films where nothing good happens, my wife told me years ago. I can’t remember the film that occasioned this remark, and I don’t find myself beholden to her rubric, but I still find myself applying it to films now and then. Especially after watching Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.

Does anything good happen in The Hateful Eight?

(This is not the right question to ask about a film, but—).

This question isn’t the same as, say, Is any part of The Hateful Eight good?—because so many of the elements are good—excellent even—Ennio Morricone’s score, Robert Richardson’s cinematography, Yohei Taneda’s set design.

And the acting is great, or sorta great, or it’s hard to tell, maybe. Let’s say the performances are great. I mean, it’s Tarantino, so the acting is always at least one level removed from reality—even in Sam Jackson, the realest dude, the dude who carries the film as former Union officer, Major Marquis Warren. Sam Jackson is Tarantino’s main man, his star of hyperreality, and his performance is electric here.

But for hyperreality, it’s Jennifer Jason Leigh who stands out in The Hateful Eight. Her portrayal of prisoner Daisy Domergue is refined Looney Tunes slapstick. Cartoon soul. Watching Walton Goggins (vile racist ex-Confederate marauder Chris Mannix) or Kurt Russell (bounty hunter John Ruth)—both of whom get lots and lots of lines and screen time—one can’t help but realize one is seeing an actor acting—or, more Tarantinoesque—a character acting.

But Jennifer Jason Leigh, remanded to a punching bag for much of the film—or even stranger, a chained work-wife to Kurt Russell’s John Wayne parody (via Kurt Russell’s John Wayne parody as Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little Trouble)—JJL imbues her Daisy Domergue with a wily pathos that surpasses both the script she’s made to read and her Seussian name.

Not that JJL’s Daisy Domergue’s isn’t vile, nasty, deeply racist, and hateful…but her hatefulness points towards something, I dunno, complex. Real. True. (I should mention now Laura Bogart’s essay “Hipster Misogyny: The Betrayal of The Hateful Eight,” which I think offers an intriguing read on the film. Bogart seems to argue that JJL’s DD is not complex enough, or not given enough complexity, which, hey, okay, fair enough—but I think also that Bogart was disturbed by the film’s conclusion—which I was too, disturbed). 

But: Does anything good happen in The Hateful Eight?

What do I mean here by good? Should I just admit I don’t know “good,” but rather feel “good”? Okay. I don’t know good through definition, but rather by example. Fuzzy precis. Good: Perhaps a moment of redemption, but like, say, an earned one, a real one, one not forced through a Hollywood formula. Good might be kernel of hope—a real moment of hope, not just an up established for a foreshadowed down. Or maybe by good I just mean something aesthetically true.

Tarantino’s best films—the Kill Bill films, Pulp FictionJackie Brown, and Reservoir Dogs—point to something good in their conclusions—and by conclusions I mean both literal endings and thesis statements. I’m not sure if I find this same “goodness” evident in the conclusion of The Hateful Eight, or, if it is there, it’s awfully ambiguous.

The conclusion of The Hateful Eight is the not-exact opposite of the end of my favorite Tarantino conclusion, the end of Kill Bill 2:

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And The Hateful Eight’s conclusion is the not-exact opposite of the ending of Jackie Brown’s bittersweet take on redemption, loss, and escape—American lives that earn second acts.

And The Hateful Eight’s conclusion is the not-exact opposite of the ending Pulp Fiction, a film that resurrects Vincent Vega and sees Sam Jackson’s Jules Winnfield suspend wrathful violence and judgment on Tim Roth’s Ringo (or Pumpkin. Or whatever his name was).

And what about those films that didn’t make my silly little list of “Best Tarantino” — Inglorious Basterds (which is one of my faves, actually, just to watch for like, pure entertainment), Django Unchained, and Death Proof (which actually belongs on that best-of list, maybe, or at least the final sequence)? Shoshanna Dreyfus using film as weapon to end the Nazis? Django’s righteous rampage against slavery? Or the ecstatic violence of “the girls” destroying serial killer Stuntman Mike?

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What most of QT’s conclusions share in common is that they somehow mediate the relationship between revenge and justice, and do so in a way that’s aesthetically convincing. The Hateful Eight also seeks to be a film about the relationship between revenge and justice. Its final moments attempt to aesthetically recapitulate much of American history into a morbid sequence of violence.

[Fair warning: There’s a discussion of the conclusion of The Hateful Eight coming up, including what some folks might call spoilers].

Tarantino’s long-simmering nightmare boils over: Poison, abjection, vomit. Castration, a bed, blood. A hanging, a howling, a witch. Cooperative violence. And then that letter from Lincoln. A false letter, but a beautiful one, its words buoyed by Morricone’s swelling strings. A document in a film that fetishizes documents, its characters requesting and demanding them of each other repeatedly. The Lincoln letter seems to provide some kind of solace to the last survivors as they approach death. The letter serves as a post-orgasmic-violence nightcap for these strange (literal) bedfellows. “Now that was a nice dance,” remarks Warren; “Sure was pretty,” Mannix replies. They are describing the hanging of Daisy Domergue. Panting, exhausted they fall to sleep. To death.

The note of hope The Hateful Eight’s conclusion might offer in the form of racial cooperation between Mannix and Warren administering justice seems tainted by everything that comes before it (the abjection, the racism, the sexism). However, the film’s punctuation mark, the aesthetic anesthetic of the Lincoln letter (followed by Roy Orbison’s anti-war tune “There Won’t Be Many Coming Home”) offers a kind of redemptive note. What does it mean though that Major Marquis Warren authored that letter himself? Is this the sham of a conman? Or the force of imaginative agency protecting itself in an unjust world? Both? In the Lincoln letter, rhetoric is transmuted into feeling and feeling into belief.

This is the power of aesthetics: To evoke the feeling of the feeling—the feeling of believing through feeling. Notably, Warren’s Lincoln letter darkly mirrors his earlier comment to General Sandy Smithers: “You startin’ to see pictures, ain’t you?”

Warren tells the story of sexually violating Smithers’s son in revenge for the man’s attempt to murder him. The story horrifies Smithers, and whether or not what Warren reports is “true” or not is irrelevant—the story he tells is aesthetically true—just as his Lincoln letter is aesthetically true. Warren’s explicitly sexual story capitalizes on Smithers’s fear of the black male body (Smithers’s fear is obviously allegorical) in an evocation of absurd cruelty and revenge that Tarantino may have meant to portray as, I don’t know, humorous.

And yet Tarantino seems to punish Warren’s telling of his story in the most primal, hateful way—through castration. This is bad and ugly and not good.

But: Does anything good happen in The Hateful Eight?

Is there something good in Daisy Domergue’s creative act, in her playing the Australian folk ballad “Jim Jones at Botany Bay”? I mean, I think so—or rather, to return to my language above, I guess I feel so. Daisy’s guitar and voice are strangely beautiful, a bizarre affront to the film’s ugliness.

(And yet Daisy is bad. Truly hateful).

But it’s a moment at the end of “Last Stage to Red Rock,” the first chapter of The Hateful Eight that captivated me the most. After a violent ejection from said stagecoach, Daisy sits up among silver birches, catching snowflakes on her tongue.

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For a moment, all the ugly ideology—the racism, sexism, and violence—is suspended. Still: the snowflakes are the first signal of the approaching natural violence of the blizzard. The hateful eight—well, there were nine folks in there if we’re counting (RIP O.B.)—or ten, hell, really—but those hateful eight could have cooperated to survive the blizzard.

But: Does anything good happen in The Hateful Eight?

I’m still not sure. I thought I might figure out an answer to the question if I just started writing, but I haven’t. I don’t know. (And good god, I’m sorry if I wasted your time, gentle reader). I’m not sure if anything good happens in The Hateful Eight, but I do think The Hateful Eight is good—because I want to see it again.

 

5 thoughts on “Does anything good happen in The Hateful Eight?”

  1. A great piece of film writing, which is really hard to find these days. Nice job!

    You make a correct observation: most of QT’s films have happy endings, but not Hateful 8. This is a nasty film, and I love it.

    This film does not mean well.

    (Pretty sure a few of the performances are meant to be “bad.” Demian Bichir and Bruce Dern, their characters are uncomfortable with the role play that’s required to execute the ruse. Sadly, I thought Michael Madsen was missing that talent last seen in Kill Bill 2 – BUT maybe that’s by design, too.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Demian Bichir seemed to be playing a bad parody of Eli Wallach’s Tuco fro The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Bruce Dern did the “double performance” well (as you point out, he’s performing a ruse)—and I guess I prefer his not using a fake Southern accent if he didn’t want to…but I found it odd that he didn’t even use Southern inflections. (Contrast with Tatum Channing’s Jody, who seems to have wandered in from a Zora Neale Hurston novel). Madsen seemed really lost in the film—maybe in the edit? He seemed like he was supposed to be a brooding heavy, but I never quite felt it….Zoe Bell’s Judy was one of my favorite performances—she completely animates the film, shifts its mood….as I nitpick here, I should point out that I think I love the film—been thinking about it a lot.

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  2. An excellent meditation on The Hateful Eight — people expecting to be entertained in the usual ways will be disappointed — the operative thing to keep in mind is the title — the Eight are full of hate. The film writer Glenn Kenny has observations that are similar to yours, though instead of meditating on “good” he focuses on “hope.”

    http://somecamerunning.typepad.com/some_came_running/2016/01/notes-on-the-hateful-eight.html#comments

    Liked by 1 person

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