Why do we insist on taking Quentin Tarantino seriously?
As a filmmaker, Quentin increasingly strikes me as a relatively talented, hyper-energetic, 12-year-old white boy. He is enraptured with power fantasies and the gross-out potential of violence. He is threatened by women, and almost primly uncomfortable with sexuality. He is shallowly obsessed with race, but it is a subject he can only view through the othering lenses of universal enmity and his own pathetic fears of emasculation. He adores tough-guy talk, and loves to provoke his listeners with all the bad words he knows, but his unconvincing verbal posturing only thinly masks a tremulous insecurity. He has an adolescent's certainty that he has something to contribute to every conversation, and an adolescent's total lack of self-awareness about his own ignorance and banality. The loudest, most desperately needy person in the room, he demands attention but has nothing to say.
But Quentin has talent—some genuine gifts with a camera, and some more moderate gifts with a pen—and so we forgive his pubescent peccadilloes and encourage him in his enthusiasms. Adolescence, after all, is a disease that contains its own cure, and surely Quentin will grow out of his if we just give him enough time? "Promising," we have said, again and again. "I can't wait to see what he does when he grows up."
But we've been waiting a long while now for Quentin to grow up, and it doesn't seem to be happening. In fact, Quentin does not seem to be maturing so much as regressing.
Personally, I blame his industry parents—the critics and fans—who have reinforced and rewarded all of Quentin's worst qualities, while ignoring or actively discouraging the better angels of his artistic nature. In his first three films Quentin demonstrated a healthily progressing interest in actual human beings, but no one patted him on the head for writing nuanced characters or demonstrating emotional restraint. (His best, most restrained, most character-driven film, Jackie Brown, is also his most overlooked.) Instead, we threw him treats for performing tricks, not for delivering substance: we gave him the attention he so desperately sought not for the faint glimmers of maturity, but for the bright flashes of gleefully immature provocation. Like every child—or trained seal—does, Quentin took his cues from the praise he was given, and adapted his act accordingly. Beginning around his fourth film, Kill Bill: Vol I, character and nuance began to disappear as Quentin began to understand what the people wanted. They wanted grotesquely stylized violence; they wanted paper-tiger offensiveness; and they wanted the sorts of cartoonishly stock characters whose very inhumanity made those things easier to digest and enjoy.
And Quentin—eager to please as always—delivered.
There are worse sins than arrested adolescence, and there are plenty of successful filmmakers whose immaturity rivals or surpasses Quentin's own. But the difference is that no one takes the others seriously. They do not have Quentin's talent, they do not have Quentin's potential, and so they do not get the attention Quentin gets. I would be inclined to ignore a new film by Quentin Tarantino—or even enjoy it as the outrageously gonzo guilty-pleasure it invariably is—if the industry as a whole did not seem so determined to heap greater and greater rewards on his progressively weaker works. Tarantino's last two movies, Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, were simultaneously the worst of his career and the most lauded: the former earned him his first Oscar nomination for directing since 1994's (much more deserving) Pulp Fiction, as well as a nomination for writing; the latter, bafflingly, finally scored him a trophy for Best Original Screenplay.
Awards, of course, do not really matter, any more than reviews do. But they send messages. They say, "We like what you're doing." They say, "You're on the right path." They say, "We want more like this." They say, with the combined voice of an industry that should aspire to so much more, "This is what we expect movies to be."
That is the problem with taking Quentin Tarantino seriously. That is why I feel obligated to write about a movie that I would not have chosen to even see, in other circumstances. Because I believe we should all expect more from movies than this.
Quentin's eighth movie, The Hateful Eight, is frankly neither good enough nor bad enough to get so worked up about. Like all of Quentin's work, it is structurally and stylistically inspired by—and imitative of—other works, from American and "Spaghetti" Westerns, to Agatha Christie mysteries, to even Tarantino's own earlier films. (Imagine the "Mexican Standoff" scene from Reservoir Dogs clad in Western trappings, stripped of wit and humanity, and drawn out to three hours in length, and you'll have a pretty good idea what you're in for here.)
In terms of substance and effect, however, the film The Hateful Eight most reminds me of is one I doubt Tarantino would list among his direct influences: Sam Raimi's 1981 cult classic The Evil Dead. A bunch of people are trapped in a remote cabin, where they each become murderously awful in turn, and eventually destroy each other in preposterously gory ways: it's a description that serves equally well for both films, though I enjoyed Evil Dead far more. (Evil Dead knew what it was—a bit of over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek horror schlock—and knew that's all it was. The Hateful Eight, on the other hand, has deeper and more dangerous illusions about itself.)
The plot, such as it is, in short: the titular eight individuals—and a couple of assorted others—take shelter from a blizzard in a remote Wyoming trading post, in the years after the end of the U.S. Civil War. One of them, bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell), is transporting a foul-mouthed and near feral prisoner, Daisy Donergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) for execution, and he becomes convinced that one or more of his fellow shelterees are conspiring to kill him and set Daisy free. A three-hour nightmare of paranoia, hostility, and murder ensues.
The eight gathered individuals are all played by very good actors—Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Dern, Walton Goggins, Demián Bechir, Tim Roth, and Michael Madsen—but it would be a stretch to call many of them, exactly, characters. They are types, and deliberately so: though they all have names—and some of them have more than one—they are mostly referred to (within the story, and in the marketing materials) by stock definitions: The Sheriff, The Prisoner, The Mexican, The Little Man, etc. Russell's character, Ruth, is called The Hangman, because he is known for bringing in his prisoners alive to meet official justice. Jackson's character, Warren, shares Ruth's profession, and is referred to in marketing materials as "The Bounty Hunter." But this is a bit of P.R. sleight-of-hand: within the narrative itself, he is mostly referred to—and defined—as "The Nigger." (Tarantino's fetish for that word has all but lost its ability to provoke anything other than a bored rolling of the eyes. The same is true of an absurd monologue Jackson's character gets, a Django-esque fantasy of black empowerment through white emasculation: too clumsy to be controversial, it plays—within the story, and within the film—as nothing more than a childishly transparent attempt at provocation.)
The characters being thinly defined tropes is indicative of Tarantino's failings as a filmmaker: there are no actual people in his movies, not anymore. (Three hours of a talky chamber-piece should be enough to bring at least one of these characters to believable life, but that is nowhere on Quentin's list of priorities.) At best, we can say that his characters are drawn with the broadest of strokes, in ways that would befit the broadest of slapstick comedies. And in fact comedy is the prevailing tone throughout, even if the subject matter is horrific: when Russell's character repeatedly punches Leigh's character in the face—bruising her eyes, breaking her nose, busting her teeth—we are meant to find this constant abuse as delightfully amusing as Leigh's near-demonic character finds it herself. (The comparisons to Evil Dead are clearest here: Leigh's is actually the strongest performance in a film of bloody pantomime, but her character resembles nothing so much as one of the wickedly possessed women in Raimi's horror-comedy.) When heads begin exploding—because heads, in a Tarantino movie, always explode like overripe melons—we are meant to laugh, even applaud. (And, I must say, the audience in my screening did find it hard to contain their mirth at these moments: when one character unexpectedly ends up with the brain matter of someone they love all over their face, for example, that character's horrified expression provoked only cringe-worthy guffaws of laughter.)
It's okay to laugh, you see, because none of it is remotely real: there is not a moment of authentic humanity on-screen, and so no amount of gore or violence is too much, no racial or sexist invective too extreme, no display of contempt for humanity too repulsive. It's all fun and games, up to and including the moments when someone loses an eye, or a head, or their balls, or their life.
But what is the point? Is it supposed to be purely a—literally and figuratively—visceral experience? Yes, Tarantino has talent: he can frame a shot beautifully, and he can ratchet up the pressure in a scene admirably until something (usually a head) has to explode. If we admire such skills—and there's no reason we can't—then let us call Tarantino a perversely skilled horror director and leave it at that. As an overlong exercise in raw tension and blatant revulsion—if you're into that sort of thing—The Hateful Eight works.
(There is an argument to be made, I suppose, that he has some point to make about movies themselves. There are certainly enough postmodern markers in The Hateful Eight to direct our attention that way: the film's 70mm format, its sporadically appearing narrator, its self-aware "roadshow" style roll-out, and even the stock character types could all suggest that The Hateful Eight is first and foremost a movie about movies. But what that point could be escapes me: is it that everyone we rooted for in the great American Westerns of old was actually awful? Thanks, Quentin: most of us came to that realization some time ago.)
But The Hateful Eight clearly wants us to believe it has more on its mind than that: there are feints at insight stuffed between the shoot-outs, rambling points about racism and justice and the U.S. Civil War that bloat this exercise in excess to its grotesque three-hour length. I anticipate being told that I completely missed the point of this film and what it has to say about the hatreds and prejudices that divide our nation. I suppose some might point to the running thread about Abraham Lincoln—Jackson's character carries a letter he claims was written by the President—and argue it symbolizes the America we dream of, in contrast to the America we have. I can even imagine there are those who will claim the ending—which I will not give away—demonstrates the healing, cooperative progress of the American spirit, and thus provides some semblance of dark closure, or even of tentative hope.
But I don't buy any of this. I mention these "themes" only because I want to make it clear that I did not miss them: I just deny that they have any substance or worth. (They are, more or less exactly, the sorts of observations that 12-year-old boy I mentioned earlier would make and think profound.)
I do not believe Quentin has anything to say, in this protracted blood- and hate-fest, about America. I do not believe he has anything, any longer, to say about human nature. I do not believe he has anything worthwhile to contribute to the necessary conversations we, as a nation, need to have about racism, or misogyny, or violence; in fact, I believe he only pretends he does as a smokescreen for what is ultimately an orgiastic reveling in racism, and misogyny, and violence. The relentless unpleasantness of his films no longer seems descriptive, or diagnostic, or even cathartic in purpose: it just seems celebratory.
And one need only observe the ecstatic reactions of his audience to begin to fear that this, perhaps, is why so many of them love Quentin so: because his considerable skills as a filmmaker grant them license to celebrate those things as well. He is not addressing the ugliest aspects of the American soul: he is indulging them, and fetishizing them, and encouraging us to do the same. It's okay to use the N-word, and to indulge in absurd fantasies of monstrous black rapists. It's okay to love guns, and to delight in their ability to reduce human bodies to hamburger. It's okay to beat women, because, let's face it, the evil bitches deserve it. You have never had a thought so evil that Quentin can't put it on-screen and make it entertainment. It's okay to enjoy it, because none of it is real enough to take seriously: we can just pretend it's cleverly provocative satire.
Tarantino may, in the end, be nothing more nor less than the Donald Trump of movie directors, riding high atop a populist wave by telling white America that all its worst, darkest impulses are universal. As with Trump, we marvel at the manipulative skill and savvy with which Quentin does this. As with Trump, we can pretend that the very shamelessness and nakedness of his hatred is somehow admirable, or even necessary.
But, as I do with Trump, I keep wondering when Quentin's skillful, shallow, fundamentally repulsive shtick will stop fooling millions of Americans into thinking that he has something to say. And I worry that we laugh at him—or even with him—at our peril.