(This post contains spoilers for The Hateful Eight, Inglourious Basterds, and Django Unchained)
Quentin Tarantino is, like many artists, someone who moves in phases. And, like some but not all artists, he has a tendency to end a phase with a punctuation mark. Moving in sequences of three movies, he has established a rhythm of developing an aesthetic, mastering it, and then setting his achievement ablaze and jumping into the next phase. It’s a trend that may have reached its unsettling, infuriating, riveting apex with The Hateful Eight.
But let’s take it back to the beginning:
Tarantino was billed in the early 90s as “the chatty crime movie guy”. He made films where larger-than-life archetypes sat around and talked about all manner of matters, often of a pop cultural bent. The characters of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction swagger off the screen, braying their “movie-ness”, for want of a better word, to high heaven.
(The sneaky genius of Tarantino’s style was the way in which his digression-heavy dialogue and taste for sudden, shocking violence could upend narratives and add striking swaths of humanity to what might otherwise have been walking cartoon characters.)
This phase ends with Jackie Brown, where Tarantino flipped his own flipping of the traditional script and slowed things down to tell a quiet, more mature story. The characters of Jackie Brown (up to and including Ms. Brown herself) feel like actual human beings with actual human problems and concerns. Part of that maturity stems from the truly magnificent work done by Pam Grier, Robert Forster, and the whole ensemble, but it’s a mark of Tarantino’s new strain of patience that he was willing to holster his usual trove of aesthetic tricks and allow the lines on his actors’ faces, the weariness of their eyes and voices do the heavy-lifting.
Then he went away for seven years. The fuck was that about, Quentin?
His next phase was the homage-a-palooza of the Kill Bills (which I count as two movies and will continue to do until The Whole Bloody Affair becomes something I can own, thank you very much) and Death Proof. And here again, we see Tarantino folding in a new aesthetic (in this case, hyper-stylization) to his own distinct voice, then pushing it until the brakes come off. We get a pair of movies (again, Kill Bill is two movies) in which Tarantino is reveling in sheer technique and style and a third movie that slows things down to a more contemplative pace. The Bills are pure adrenaline filmmaking, even the more somber and character-based Vol. 2. You can hear ‘Q’ cackling off camera as he juggles film stocks, genres, iconography, and introduces a seemingly endless array of larger than life figures to fill out his exaggerated world.
Death Proof, jittery frames and missing reel aside, mostly avoids this overt mania, even as it too is assembled largely from pieces of other movies and genres. The focus once more shifts back towards people, people with petty problems and believable hang-ups. Death Proof is set in actual places of an actual city, and its revolving door of chatty ladies feel like they could occupy any car that lingers by your own on a rainy Friday night.
So, anyway, Grindhouse fails and Tarantino moves on to his new, currently current phase: historical fiction, with MASSIVE quotes around ‘historical’. Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained and now The Hateful Eight work perfectly together as a thematic trilogy, with Inglourious throwing down the gauntlet and setting the stage, Django carrying the ball and running with it, only for Hateful to now come along and douse the whole thing in ice water.
I mixed like three different metaphors in that last paragraph. Screw it, moving on.
Tarantino’s historical-but-not-really films all share a similar underpinning structure. Namely, each of these three films has a grounded historical era (Nazi-occupied France; pre-Civil War south; post-Civil War Colorado) only to introduce an artificial construction through which Tarantino exercises (or is it exorcises?) frustrations of the improperly resolved past. These constructions provide a kind of portal where Tarantino’s tall tales intermesh with history with intensely cathartic results, at least until Hateful Eight arrived.
For Inglourious Basterds, that construction is Operation KINO. KINO, we are told by Mike Myers, is a secret plan to end World War II much earlier than intended by “blowing up the basket” where all the rotten eggs of the Nazi high command are enjoying their latest triumph of propaganda. And, Tarantino-being-Tarantino, the climax of Basterds throws out any and all connection to actual history and sees Hitler and Goebbels gunned down into mincemeat by Eli Roth (Tarantino-being-Tarantino, he can’t resist showing de Führer’s face being shot into itty-bitty pieces) to the ecstatic cheers of paying audiences. I know the cheers because I was among the cheers.
For Django Unchained, that construction is Candieland, an unsparing hellhole in Mississippi where slavery at its most dehumanizing and debauched is practiced openly. Here again, Tarantino introduces an iconic figure to dish out justice in a way that reality did not allow. Django is unleashed upon the slavers and traders of Candieland like a gore-streaked angel of wrath, and once again audiences responded to these images of a modern film rectifying history’s sins with mighty cheers. I know the cheers because I was among the cheers.
Which brings us to Hateful Eight. This fucking movie. The construction within this film is revealed very early on, this time in the form of a letter from Abraham Lincoln that Samuel L. Jackson’s bounty hunter Marquis Warren carries. This letter, in which the since-deceased Honest Abe extols Warren for his virtues as a member of the Union cavalry, is given almost religious reverence when revealed. Swear to God, when the letter is produced during the early stagecoach ride, it’s like the suitcase from Pulp Fiction gets opened up again.
Like KINO and like Candieland, Tarantino is binding his fiction to actual history, and as the tensions from the still-recent War Between the States begin to mount between the trapped denizens of Minnie’s Haberdashery, it would be easy for an audience to assume that once again Tarantino is going to write history’s wrongs right.
But Tarantino knows you expect this of him and The Hateful Eight instead becomes a furious rebuttal to his own most recent work. What Inglourious and Django built, Hateful destroys, and then it salts the damn earth.
It may not be obvious at first just how deep the film’s sourness runs, but it really starts to unveil itself with the mid-film reveal that Warren’s Lincoln letter is fake, forged by Warren to inspire awe and reverence in white folk who might otherwise turn their backs on an aging black man. Like Tarantino in his two previous films, Warren has constructed a helpful fiction that better allows him to move through the world, but is nonetheless founded in dishonesty and suspicion.
(Another connection: Tarantino uses an artificial past to deal with atrocities of yesteryear, Warren uses a manufactured history to cover up his own war crimes.)
The reveal of the Lincoln letter’s fraudulence acts as a kind of kick, ala Christopher Nolan’s Inception, signaling for the audience that it is time to wake up from the moralistic fantasy that Tarantino has constructed. Not only is Warren’s letter a lie, but so was his assumed status as the voice of reason/moral compass within Minnie’s. Immediately following the scene revealing the lie is the instantly-immortal ‘dingus’ speech, in which Warren reveals himself to be every bit as deranged and damaged as the other, more obviously villainous members of the ‘Eight’.
Not satisfied with simply presenting the dark side to his own revisionist tendencies, Tarantino takes things a step further in the closing moments of the film. After a second half filled with blood geysers and brain splats, Tarantino returns to the letter, and to the question of comforting fictions. Warren and Confederate soldier Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins, delightful in his sheer reprehensibility) lie dying, side by side, having mended the titanic gulf between them over mutual bloodlust for the murderous outlaw Daisy (an all-but-feral Jennifer Jason Leigh).
Having delighted in carrying out Daisy’s agonizing death, Mannix asks for the Lincoln letter, takes it in bloody hand and reads the letter aloud. As he compliments Warren on the “nice touch” of referencing Mary Todd (the same touch which we saw moved bastard bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell, Kurt Russell’s mustache) to tears), Mannix crumples the paper into a bloody ball and tosses it aside. In essence, the white Confederate and black Union man reject a narrative of peace and shared humanity and embrace a narrative of mutual hate and destruction. Both are false, but one comes from a place of empathy, while the other necessitates the casting of another as The Other.
And with the rejection of the letter, Tarantino has disposed of the comforting glow of Inglourious and Django, countering his love letters to cinematic catharsis with a screed against the reality of human conflict (specifically racial). The film was already in production when the Black Lives Matter movement (which Tarantino became intrinsically linked with after he spoke at one of their protests and drew the ire of police unions, because apparently a filmmaker criticizing the police is a much bigger concern than police officers being caught on tape murdering people [frequently]) really began to pick up steam, but Tarantino’s film is powered by the same fury.
As my friend Dom Griffin wrote in his review, the promise of the end of the Civil War was the idea of human beings truly living as equals. The same promise was made when Obama placed his hand on the Bible and was sworn in as President.
But the keepers of authority haven’t kept that fucking promise. Not then, not now. Streets still run with needless blood spilled because people with power refuse to stop fighting bullshit wars rooted in madness from centuries ago. It’s sickening, and The Hateful Eight finds Tarantino all out of fucks to give about trying to make you feel better about where this country, this world, is at.
I’ve seen other critics, even those who enjoy Hateful Eight, bandy about the word ‘nihilistic’ when discussing the film’s content and ending, but I don’t quite buy it. In my own limited experience, art and people that espouse a nihilistic view generally can’t work up much of a sweat, detached as they are from the concept of moral weight and moral right.
Tarantino is many things, but detached ain’t one of them. The fury that powers Hateful Eight, the vehemence with which he befouls his prior work, is only possible from an artist who believes that these actions do matter, that the fight is worth fighting, even if the fight is one that cannot be won. True darkness is only possibly accessed by those who understand the dream of the light, and vice versa.
Who knows where Tarantino goes from here. He has a stated desire to retire after ten films, not counting TV projects. The Hateful Eight is listed as his eighth (because he counts Kill Bill as one movie which, again, cheating) so we’ll have to wait and see what sort of note he opts to end on.
Maybe the Lincoln letter curls with dust and is forgotten.
Maybe it is picked up, brushed off, and read aloud with pride once more.
Or do we get a fresh sheet and start anew?