Saturday, February 27, 2016

Eight reasons THE HATEFUL EIGHT falls short of being a great film

This year's Oscar ceremonies are nigh. Someone asked me earlier this week why THE HATEFUL EIGHT didn't fare better with Oscar nominations. It managed only three: Best Female Supporting Actor, Best Original Score, and Best Cinematography. None in the lead acting categories. Not one for Best Director. And in the biggest snub of all: no nomination for Best Original Screenplay. I think I know why. 

Every new Tarantino film is cause for celebration for cinephiles even while each of his films has almost always been polarizing. Still, THE HATEFUL EIGHT falls short of being a great film. 

Tarantino has always been an indulgent filmmaker and his excesses are the reason why he is beloved, but this is the first film where his unchecked tics and fletches, his demons and obsessions, derail the movie. Ultimately, fatally so. DJANGO UNCHAINED got dangerously close to crumbling under the overwrought Tarantinoisms, but somehow managed to stick a landing. But not this one. 

Most of early THE HATEFUL EIGHT is terrifically compelling. I will go as far as to say that the first two thirds is genius, with the sort of dialog that reminds us why Tarantino is an essential American filmmaker. Those parts create a sort of stage-play intimacy and directness, an oppressive suffocation seen in only the best kind of theater, where you know that these contrary, conflicted, all too human characters cannot possibly breathe the same air much longer. And that an emotional implosion is imminent. That Tarantino creates this so beautifully in the first two hours of THE HATEFUL EIGHT makes it all the more aggravating to watch what transpires in the last hour. It is akin to watching someone create the most complicated, most precariously balanced, most perfectly scaled sand castle. And then to see them kick that sand castle to the ground. Or worse, watch them piss over it. I say this not to be dramatic; I say it because it is the closest analogy I can come up with to describing my actual filmgoing experience with THE HATEFUL EIGHT. 

So here are eight reasons why THE HATEFUL EIGHT will not be invoked in the first breath of future filmgoers enumerating Tarantino's best work.  A word of note that everything that follows divulges major plot turns, so consider this your fair and final SPOILER WARNING.  
  1. Daisy Domerghue is a punching-bag. Yes I get it, they are all despicable characters; it is right there in the title of the film. They are, hateful all. So why should the woman be treated any differently than the men, I get that. But even then, when the only principal female character in the film, Daisy Domerghue, boils down to a receptacle for repeated violence and she isn't allowed the slightest measure of retribution, you have to question Tarantino's position that this is just how women were treated then. In some fleeting way I can comprehend his intent to place this character in front of the screen as is, as a representation of the only way for a strong female to exist in frontier-era America; in some twisted way Tarantino might even think of this as a feminist stance. But is it, really? I am all for moral fluidity in cinema, but I got tired of watching Daisy Domerghue being beaten again and again, often horrifyingly to comic effect (intended, or otherwise). And let's not even get into what happens to her in the last hour of the film. This, from the director who brought us kick-ass, take no prisoners, female characters in KILL BILL, JACKIE BROWN and INGLORIOUS BASTERDS? 
  2. The N-word. To treat a racial epithet as untouchable is to give it even more power, defenders of the N-word in films have long argued; I can see that. I can see that it is the responsibility of cinema to recreate the past as it was, so we make sure it doesn't repeat again. I can see the purity of the commitment to have characters speak exactly as people did then, with all the abjectly racist potency of that language. And Tarantino has bravely stood by that stance through most of his filmography, starting with his very first film, RESERVOIR DOGS. But even then, even then, even then, when you hear the N-word being uttered for the twenty-seventh time in THE HATEFUL EIGHT (there are actually more than 60 utterances), you cannot shake off the feeling that you are hearing a ten year old say "fuck" loudly and repeatedly for the first time in his life just for the thrill of it. I do not know at what point the persistent use of the N-word stops being an act of political protest or light-shining on the past, and tips over into the disturbingly obsessive. I do not know where that line is, but both DJANGO and THE HATEFUL EIGHT crossed it. At least for me. 
  3. The use of 70mm for a film primarily set in one closed location. Who can dare question Tarantino's unshakable love for film history, his deep affection for the genres and under-appreciated films from a certain time: primarily the 60s and 70s. Which other current headlining filmmaker marches to his own drum with plain disregard of commercial imperatives? Tarantino has negotiated carte blanche with the Weinstein brothers to make films exactly as he wants to. And so he makes a 70 mm film in THE
    HATEFUL EIGHT that in its preferred version has an overture at the start, and a proper intermission in the middle. I envy the thrill of a teenager who hasn't previously experienced an intermission in the theater. But that 70mm. Yes, there is the glorious panning out shot of a snow-covered cross that opens the film, and makes a giddily beautiful case for the 70mm scale. But outside of that, why shoot a film in 70mm when more than three-quarters of the film plays out within the closed confined space of the interiors of a small, snowed-in saloon. It seems akin to driving your Lamborghini to the grocery story down the street. One can say: well, why not? Sure, why not? But it does bear to question a misplaced sense of application. 
  4. The worst thing that can happen to a man. Allow me to explain what according to Quentin Tarantino is the absolutely worst thing than can happen to a red-blooded male. It is being forced into a sexual act with another male. We saw this in PULP FICTION, we saw this in DJANGO UNCHAINED, and here it is, as sure as day, in THE HATEFUL EIGHT. I do not make light of rape, no matter the gender of those involved. But in Tarantino's universe, a man can die a terrible death, can be mentally diminished, can have the goriest physical violence thrust upon him, but the loftiest form of indignity is reserved for those male characters that are sexually forced upon by another male. I do not know of the demons that plague Tarantino's mind any more than I know of any other person's mind. But it is more than eye-raising now to see him circle around this same premise in film after film. Since no one else will say it, I will: this reeks of homophobia. Whatever needs to be exorcised from your brain, Mr. Tarantino please do it. It is regressive to see this pop up in your films. 
  5. How to end this film?  Tarantino creates layered, contradictory, conflicted, all too human characters in THE HATEFUL EIGHT. He watches them combust against each other verbally, and what a show that is! And then what? Of all the writing options he has to bring a
    conclusion to this tale. Of all the ways to see these characters through. Of all the opportunities to make statements, about the state of these characters swimming in moral ambiguity, and the world they inhabit, and the hopelessness of trying to rein in destiny. Of all those options. What do we get instead? A whiplash turn to shlock. Tarantino is master of the genre mash-up, but even then, here it comes across as wildly discordant. I believe the difference between those who love THE HATEFUL EIGHT and those who do not comes down to this singular issue: whether they were able to accept this whiplash turn to shlock in the last act of the film. Yes, these are characters Tarantino has brought to life and so he is free to do as he pleases with them, I understand that. But as a viewer, I have to note that it is crushingly disappointing to watch the script treat these breathing, beautifully alive characters with such disrespect at the end.  
  6. Wasn't the last half-hour of DJANGO UNCHAINED nearly identical? Tarantino's previous film, DJANGO, also ended in a blood-bath, with the red stuff practically trickling down the walls in the last reel. There is a place for mexican shootouts, and Tarantino has a particular knack for them, as evidenced by a beautifully staged, breathless one that sits in the middle of INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, Tarantino's last great film in my opinion. But when the best you can do is to have almost all of your characters kill each other in an unrealistic late-night Cinemax horror film trope, that comes off as lazy. Especially when it happens two films in a row. 
  7. Can your characters be happy, for once, please? It is not a sign of weakness as a scriptwriter to allow your characters to walk away happy at the end of a film. No one will argue that the couple walking into the sunset hand in hand at the end of a film is the most dreaded of movie tropes; and no self-respecting writer will have a part of it. But I think it takes more courage to let your characters walk away with the smallest measure of hard-earned self-determination at the end. Remember Jackie Brown? Or The Bride in KILL BILL? It seems that in the new millennium, Tarantino is too scared to let his characters walk away happy. As if that were some concession to the mawkish, the overly sentimental. It is not. The achingly realized characters you write, Mr Tarantino, deserve a little bit of it. 
  8. And now for something completely different. Tarantino has gone on record to say that he would love to direct a Bond film sometime. And he would be brilliant at it. Or I would love to see him do a contemporary morality tale, something like THE BIG SHORT.  Or do a snarky, vinegar-breathed, romantic film even. Listen, Ang Lee has two directing Oscars, and I think it is because people respect his versatility; no two films of his have been alike. Heck, even Scorsese doesn't make Mafia films anymore. Just this year, Spielberg made his first anti-Spielberg film, in the gracefully understated BRIDGE OF SPIES, a film that is all about the small gestures, instead of Spielberg's usual large scale flourishes, and it is a refreshing course-correction in his career. I hope Tarantino does the same soon. 

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