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A few nights ago I went to see Quentin Tarantino's new film "The Hateful Eight" at Riverdale 10, on Cantrell. The theater had recently replaced its seats with leather recliners, and everyone in the room took advantage of this new luxury. We leaned back and propped up our feet, prepared for a night of physical comfort, if nothing else. But the film stubbornly resisted our plans. Heads were shot off, teeth shattered, blood spat out of dying men's mouths. The theater quivered sub-audibly at the racist vitriol and cruelty. We were uncomfortable! You know that species of laugh that isn't really a laugh? That's more like an attempt to fill space with a sound, just to show that you're still paying attention and not taking things too seriously? There were a lot of those laughs!
My girlfriend, leaving the theater, seemed genuinely furious at Tarantino for what he had shown us. Not the presence of violence or bigotry so much as the mode of its presentation — the wallowing in it, the glee in the face of it. Which raises the question: Is there an intelligent or productive reason for this film to be so unpleasant, and so proud of its own unpleasantness? I'm not sure, but I think the answer is probably yes. As the fiction writer Diane Williams recently put it: "A work of art that can deliver Hell has a purifying effect."
Before I went to see the film, a friend pointed out its similarities to "The Thing." A 1982 John Carpenter movie (adapted from a 1951 Howard Hawks movie), "The Thing" is about an isolated Antarctic research station terrorized by an extraterrestrial that can take the form of any living creature it touches. Naturally the men begin to suspect each other and to give in to paranoia as it picks them off one by one. Who is the alien? There's no telling. "The Hateful Eight" relies on a comparable tight-knit tension — a sense of not having enough information — its characters all snowed in, anxious, dishonest, convinced there is a killer among them. The film is very successful at creating and subverting this specific type of nervousness.
The film's weaknesses, though, become immediately apparent. Tarantino has always received more awards and plaudits for screenwriting than for directing. Wrongly, I tend to think. Certain pieces of his dialogue — Steve Buscemi's speech on why he doesn't tip; Samuel L. Jackson's ominous recitation of Ezekiel 25:17 — have become detached from their original contexts and float freely as cultural touchstones. It's clear, in "The Hateful Eight," that the effect of this cult regard on Tarantino's writing has been almost entirely negative. His characters now deliver lines as though they were destined for a list of "Classic Tarantino Quotes." Most of the interactions in the film are given a gravitas that they do not merit. The jokes and syntax just aren't as sparkling or vital as he appears to think.
But here is the critic E.M. Cioran, writing about an opponent of the French Revolution: "What attracts us is his pride, his marvelous insolence, his lack of equity, of proportion, and occasionally of decency. If he did not constantly irritate us, would we still have the patience to read him?" If Tarantino did not constantly irritate us, would we still have the patience to watch him?
Irritating or not, the film has — I think — deeply interesting and even sophisticated things to say about the primacy of racism and plunder in American history. There is a letter from Abraham Lincoln offering a utopian vision of racial harmony — notice the way the letter is used in the film, and what becomes of it. A black Union veteran meets an old, decrepit Confederate general by a fire, over a chess set. What do they talk about, and how does their conversation end? There is a law enforcement official who may or may not carry the legitimacy of the state, an urbane hangman who passes out business cards, an innkeeper whose policies regarding racial discrimination become an important matter for debate. The film wades deeply and dangerously into the muck of the Reconstruction Era, filled with echoes of the present. It stages a kind of bloody fable about Americans with conflicting missions and priorities, conflicting beliefs, conflicting interpretations of the truth, all of them thrust together under a single roof in a snowstorm and forced to sit with their differences. Of course, their priorities and beliefs — their versions of the truth — are finally irreconcilable. It ends with blood and cruelty, because how else could it end?