Heads get frequently blown up into bloody exploding balls in Quentin Tarantino’s subversive Western The Hateful Eight.
Remember those long-running tales of the Wild West that we grew up watching on television? The Lone Ranger, Maverick, The Big Valley… Quentin Tarantino takes all the fun out of the Wild West. The shoot-outs are done with sadistic leisureliness. The killings are sudden, brutal and meant to be unnerving. But to be brutally frank, the gore is just a bore.
I came away from the film shaken, not so much because of the inherently violent theme and visuals, but the subtext that suggests an on-running continuous association between history and territorial brutality.
Let’s cut to the chase. Tarantino’s violent cinema is not cool. He strips the slayings of all sexiness, which could be good thing if the violence was not so gratuitous. Tarantino struts the sadism in high-heeled arrogance.
There is a long tediously grisly sequence where a bunch of warm and friendly women are gunned down with that abrupt enthusiasm that Tarantino’s fans love to death. Not one of them are treated as a sex object. They are gunned down without mercy points for their gender. And therefore, for racial conscientiousness and gender equality Tarantino must get bonus points.
In fact, the only main female character, played by the very accomplished Jennifer Jason Leigh, is a scummy scruffy unwashed prisoner being led to her execution by a hangman John Ruth (Kurt Russell) who frequently stuns her (and us) by thrashing her to a bloodied mess. Leigh plays the condemned woman with such contemptuous insidiousness that you feel not a shred of sympathy for her. That, I guess, is the aim.
Cleverly, Tarantino transposes the Wild West from the rocky, barren, sandy terrain to a blizzard -infested snowy landscape where the wind whistles to Ennio Morricone’s moody musical motifs. Morricone’s score is as bewildered as we are meant to be. The musical pieces don’t quite know whether to treat the venomous violence as spoof or opera.
Like Morricone’s music, our responses are constantly trapped in places where questions of morality are swept away in blood-dimmed tides.
Samuel L Jackson, playing Warren, a bounty hunter who is frequently referred to by the ‘N’ word for African-Americans, says at one point, "when you are freezing naked in the cold a blanket matters more than anything in the world". That heightened level of desperation is the state of disembodied emotionalism where Tarantino’s scummy characters live. We are not allowed to empathize or pity them.
This director abhors nobility in his characters. Any semblance of subtlety is slyly laid to rest. The plot is a bloodied mass of vendetta brought on in slow-motion splendour for enhanced effect. Watching one exploding head after another I wondered what kind of a mind Tarantino possesses. Does he live in a perpetually violent world ? Is brutality his most precious religion?
The director’s earlier films have been paeans to sado-masochism. His other Western Django Unchained has frequent episodes of prolonged torture. There too racial discrimination played a huge part. But in a more focused historic perspective, with the complex relationship between White plantation owners and their Black ‘slaves’ forming the core of cataclysm.
In The Hateful Eight, the racial slur and the violence are all over the place. They ooze out with the ugly persistence of a skin disease that spreads virulently and unpredictably. The plot is largely restricted to a log cabin where the eight characters, played by actors who embrace Tarantino’s religion with unconditional fervor, play out a kind of Agatha Christie whodunit, without room for Ms Christie’s cerebral ruminations.
With a 3-hour playing time, the characters are given ample room to converse. They sound like they are saying things that matter to them. To us listening in, it is all tediously impenetrable. The actors all look like they could do with a nice hot bath and a home-cooked meal served up in a cosy bed as they watch re-runs of old John Wayne westerns where shootouts were fun.
Tarantino’s Western is coldblooded, too calculated to actually be considered chilling. In Tarantino’s territory the violence is perpetuated with flippancy. His characters don’t care about human life. And frankly, we can’t bring ourselves to care whether these characters live or die.