Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Ambivalent Eight: A Tarantino Fan's Attempt to Anticipate "The Hateful Eight"

Earlier this month, the cast of Quentin Tarantino's upcoming Western The Hateful Eight was announced. As is to be expected, it is the kind of eclectic mix of underused performers, unsurprising frequent collaborators, and unexpected stars that have become the norm for Tarantino's films. It's a cast that includes:

- Bruce Dern as Confederate General Sanford Smithers
- Michael Madsen as "cowpuncher" Joe Gage
- Tim Roth as Oswaldo Mobray, "the hangman of Red Rock"
- Samuel L. Jackson as Major Marquis Warren, a former Union soldier-turned-bounty hunter
- Kurt Russell as John "The Hangman" Ruth, a bounty hunter
- Walton Goggins as Chris Mannix, the self-proclaimed new sheriff of Red Rock
- Demian Birchir as Bob, a shopkeeper
- Jennifer Jason Leigh as Daisy Domergue, a fugitive escorted by Ruth
- Channing Tatum as an unknown character, possibly a villain

I am a fan of Quentin Tarantino's films. I own all of them on DVD. I have rewatched most of them more times than I care to admit. The argument that he steals deliberately from the films he loves, and that's why he's not really that great as a director, never made sense to me. Of course he steals from those films; it's the pastiche of influences that he makes in each film that makes them feel so singular. If you want to see how singular and special Tarantino's talent is, just look at any number of Pulp Fiction knockoffs that came out in the wake of that film, then observe how none of them come close to approaching Tarantino's accomplishment. It's easy to copy, it's much harder to make the copy feel so vibrantly original.

So here's my confession: I find myself struggling to be excited about The Hateful Eight. I lay a large portion of the blame here on Django Unchained, but there's more to it than that.

More after the jump.

First, some context on blaming Django Unchained. Tarantino's 2012 film, in which freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx) teams with German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) to free his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), was a film that I very much wanted to like. I even listed it at #3 on my 2012 year-end top-ten list, writing:
"I've been debating the placement of Tarantino's latest on this list. The film is hugely problematic, though at least it has America discussing race and slavery. It's perhaps half-an-hour too long, somewhat unfocused, and oddly airless in some places (I strongly believe that the absence of editor Sally Menke - who passed away in 2010 - is partly to blame here). And, bizarrely for a Tarantino film, Kerry Washington is wasted as Django's still-enslaved wife (Tarantino's films almost always have terrific roles for actresses). In the ranks of Tarantino's filmography, it's my second-least-favorite film. Yet Tarantino's worst films are often better than many filmmakers' best, and Django Unchained is an exciting twist on spaghetti westerns and continues Tarantino's march through history with revisionist zeal. Jamie Foxx does his best Man-with-No-Name as the title character, a reticent badass out to rescue his wife Broomhilda, and Christoph Waltz's chatty bounty hunter is clearly a more-enlightened distant cousin of Inglourious Basterds' Colonel Hans Landa. Then there's the supporting cast, including Samuel L. Jackson giving his best performance in years. I'll probably debate this placement for a while, but for now, it deserves this spot."
I still agree with a lot of this. The film does include one of Jackson's all-time greatest performances, one that doesn't call attention to itself (a remarkable feat for him) and gives the film a sense of very real menace. Foxx really does do the best with what he's given too, and makes a case for himself as an unlikely Western hero. But I also agree that this film is hugely problematic in a lot of ways. For starters, there's the race-related humor, which too often crosses a line into being outright racist instead of tweaking racist humor. Then there's the fact that, despite being the title character, Django has little to no agency for the majority of the film. The whole thing belongs to Waltz and his Dr. Schultz, and Django doesn't get a chance to step up to the spotlight until after Schultz is out of the picture (spoiler alert, I guess). Finally, it is way too bloated, meandering through a number of sequences that could have been excised without losing any of the film's momentum. It's no longer my second-least favorite Tarantino film, either; last place belongs solely to Django Unchained.

Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained

(This still isn't to say that the film doesn't have inspired moments. They're just few and far between this time.)

So, let's say that The Hateful Eight is an opportunity for a second chance at the Western genre for Tarantino. Here, he won't be engaging directly with slavery and racism (presumably), and instead he'll have a classic team-up structure to work with. Surely this time around, Tarantino can fare better by telling a ripping yarn without all the uncomfortable politics, right?

Here's the problem: according to film's synopsis, this is a revenge thriller, with the titular eight seeking shelter during a blizzard and finding themselves involved in "betrayal and deception." Django Unchained was also a revenge thriller. So were Inglourious Basterds (2009), Death Proof (2007), and Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003) and Vol. 2 (2004). That's six films in a row, and whether you count The Hateful Eight as his eighth or ninth film (depending on whether you consider the Kill Bill films as two parts of one film, as Tarantino does, or two separate films, as I do), you end up with the majority of his filmography being revenge thrillers.

That's a shame, because Tarantino is capable of so much more. Think about his two heist films, Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Jackie Brown (1997), and how they took a similar motivation in different directions. The same is really true of Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds: the motivation is the same, but the means and styles are different. Tarantino takes the same basic story principle and applies it to his slurry of genres, and the results are often hugely entertaining and engaging.

But in the case of The Hateful Eight, it just feels like, for the first time in his career, Tarantino is copying himself: another revenge-minded Western with a few slight tweaks. It doesn't necessarily feel inspired, no matter how many "teaser trailers" (made months before film has even begun) try to sell it as an event. It feels almost like Tarantino is stuck in a creative rut, as if he's tossed up his hands and said, "the last one worked, so I'll just do that again."

Similarly, and this is going to sound really hipster-ish, but Tarantino has gone mainstream. I don't mean that in that he's making conventional films, but rather that he's accrued a much larger fanbase thanks to the success of Inglourious Basterds and cable re-runs of his earlier films, particularly Kill Bill. The explosion of the Internet has also fostered his fandom, which is why any time he casually mentions anything related to a possible project, a million articles and blog posts are written (just like the one you're reading now!). The cacophony of hype for a film that's still, at best, over a year away from release can be deafening and defeating.

Yet, there are things to look forward to in The Hateful Eight, particularly in that cast. Jackson is, of course, a Tarantino regular, having worked in some capacity in almost all of his films to date. Both Roth and Madsen played crucial roles in Reservoir Dogs, and Russell took on the villainous role of Stuntman Mike in Death Proof. Dern had a small part in Django Unchained, as did Goggins, so it should be interesting to see what they can do with bigger roles in a Tarantino film. Both Birchir and Tatum are working with Tarantino for the first time, and considering the impressive trajectories of both of their careers right now, this seems like the perfect time to do so.

Jennifer Jason Leigh

The most intriguing actor in the cast, however, is Leigh. Leigh has long been one of the most underutilized working actresses today, after being one of the most in-demand indie actresses of the 1990s. She's a remarkable talent that doesn't get too many opportunities to flex those skills these days, so the fact that Tarantino is giving her a plumb role among the titular eight inspires hope that she can finally reclaim the attention and offers she deserves. Plus, I have a lot of hope that the character of Daisy will join the ranks of Tarantino's best, standing proudly alongside The Bride (Uma Thurman), Jackie Brown (Pam Grier), O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), Shoshanna Dreyfus (Melainie Laurent), and Mia Wallace (Thurman). Leigh is certainly capable of this feat.

The only question is, will she be given the chance? Will anyone else? Will The Hateful Eight restore my faith in Tarantino as a filmmaker, proving Django Unchained to be an anomaly in an otherwise-sturdy filmography? Or will it confirm that Tarantino is losing his touch, and that those talks of retirement may actually be for the best? Either way, it will be a while before we get a chance to find out. Here's hoping for the best.

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