I am not a fan of cinematic bloodbaths, but I went to see The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino’s latest film and a bloodbath if ever there was one, because its plot and characters are tied up with the bloodiest conflict in American history – the Civil War.
Tarantino’s last film, Django Unchained, was about a freed slave taking revenge on slave-owners in the Deep South just before the war. This one is set in the newly settled West some years afterwards. Is Tarantino, who defended the extreme violence of Django Unchained on the reasonable basis that the reality of slavery was worse, and described the film as a deliberate assault on whitewashings of the Southern slavocracy, working up to make a film about the Civil War itself? That would be interesting.
In The Hateful Eight, Samuel L Jackson plays former slave and Civil War veteran Major Marquis Warren, now a bounty hunter, who ends up snowed in in a rural cabin with various other hard-bitten and violent men, all of them white, most of them racist and two of them Confederate veterans. The violence that ensues is not directly about race, but race plays a part in how it unfolds.
Jackson brings malevolent but impressive swagger to the proceedings, underpinned by his background. There is no painting up his character or record – he is as nasty as the rest of them, probably guilty of war crimes, and definitely guilty of genocide against Native Americans – but I sympathised with him nonetheless.
I enjoyed the extensive Civil War references and other aspects of the film, including some sharp Tarantino dialogue and high-tension set-piece confrontations. But in the end it is sloppy. Copious use of “nigger”, and copious sexism against the only female main character, are no doubt realistic, but there is way too much – in addition to what you might say about this politically, it is sort of lazy as well as a bit sad. At over three hours, the thing is far too long. In the end, the plot unravels and is substituted by ridiculous over the top violence.
I know Tarantino’s fans like this sort of thing, but I wasn’t impressed. I discussed this with a comrade and she suggested a contrast with the film Drive, which is mostly very calm but features some shocking violence – but that’s the point, it’s shocking. Here the cartoonish bloodletting just desensitises you. It compares unfavourably with Tarantino’s own Pulp Fiction, in which bouts of violence punctuate a carefully constructed plot structure, or Jackie Brown. I haven’t seen some of Tarantino’s more recent films and I can’t really remember Reservoir Dogs, which I think is similar to The Hateful Eight, but less ridiculous.
Nothing much the characters do in this film is admirable. Still, a black lead who is only where he is because of the transformation brought by the US Civil War – that’s good.