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A History of Violence

By (February 1, 2016) No Comment

The Hateful Eight
Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Hateful Eight

At no time during a Quentin Tarantino movie can you forget that you’re watching a Quentin Tarantino movie. He shows his brushstrokes; he fingerpaints, and his brushstrokes are his fingerprints. You know to expect unexpected shifts in narrative chronology; an anachronistic soundtrack; dialogue as sharp as it is inconsequential; Michael Madsen, grim; Samuel L. Jackson, portentous; racial slurs; a scene or two of unfathomable violence. All these things point to the director. Fortunately, while watching a Quentin Tarantino movie, you want to be doing little else than watching a Quentin Tarantino movie. (Unless you are not a fan of Quentin Tarantino movies, in which case, I imagine, you would rather be doing almost anything else.)

The formula by which a Quentin Tarantino movie operates, in whole since Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and in part since his first film, Reservoir Dogs, is simple and effective. An individual or a group—often female, Jewish, or black—is wronged, and spends the film’s length exacting a creatively violent revenge. At first, it’s pleasing to watch justice being served. But soon justice is over-served: a finger or an ear is severed; shotgun shells explode kneecaps and genitals; scalps are removed from corpses with large hunting knives. There is no reason for the violence, and you begin to feel discomfort—a discomfort that is the essence of a Tarantino movie’s appeal.

The Hateful Eight, Tarantino’s latest, most viscerally violent, and most entertaining film, is no exception. The setting is a Wyoming mountainside, shortly after the Civil War. The bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) has captured the outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). He is escorting her to the town of Red Rock, where he will see that she is hanged. (“I want to hear her neck snap with my own two ears!”) A snowstorm impedes their journey. After picking up two stranded travelers, the party stops to wait out the storm in a local hostelry. Four other men are already there. An unknown number of them are, thinks John Ruth, Daisy’s co-conspirators. “One of these fellas is not what he says he is,” he says, expositorily. “One of them, maybe even two of them, is here to see Domergue goes free. And to accomplish that goal, they’ll kill everybody in here.” Pointing his gun at them, he relieves the other men of their guns. (In a Tarantino movie, it is assumed that every man is armed, and this assumption is usually correct.) But more and more guns appear throughout the movie; everyone has two or three; pistols proliferate like loaves of bread in Galilee. The chances of there being a Horatio leftover are clearly slim.

In sum there are two bounty hunters (Russell and Samuel L. Jackson), Red Rock’s newly appointed sheriff (Walton Groggins), the area hangman (Tim Roth), a cowpoke (Michael Madsen), a former Confederate general (Bruce Dern), an outlaw (Leigh), and the hostelry’s caretaker (Demián Bichir). Improbably—impossibly—many of the characters recognize each other. An inordinate percentage of the screenplay is given over to this recognition: “Well I’ll be dogged. You a black fellow I know. Colonel Something Warren, right?” “I know you, too. You John Ruth the Hangman!” “I’ll be a goddamn dog in the manger. That you, Chris Mannix?” “My lord, is that really the real head of Major Marquis looking at me now?” “Well cut my legs off and call me shorty—is that General Sandy Smithers I see?” Eventually it becomes apparent the characters don’t recognize each other, after all; it is the actors themselves that recognize each other, from earlier Tarantino films they’ve been in. They are at a Tarantino-themed theme party. (We recognize them, too; we’ve been invited; we’re in on the joke.)

KILLBILLNight and snow begin to fall. They do so quickly. The boarders share a chicken stew. Strings of hot stew drip steaming from their spoons and mouths as the men eat. The outlaw Daisy Domergue mocks the bounty hunter John Ruth and laughs and laughs. (Her laugh is a witch’s cackle, because she is a witch.) John Ruth throws his stew in her face. “Unless you want to eat this bowl, that better be the last time you laugh at me!” he says. Daisy frowns—which is a smile—and wipes the stew from her cheeks with her fur hat. Wrist to wrist she and John Ruth are bound by handcuffs; John Ruth is afraid of losing her. Their relationship is intimate and slapstick; they are a two-person Three Stooges, forever bumping into each other. Early in the film, at the beginning of their courtship, John Ruth gives Daisy a black eye; later he knocks out her two front teeth. Daisy continues to tease him, and he continues to beat her. Oh, that crazy Daisy, we begin to think, what will she say next? The prospect of when her next beating will occur becomes a source of tense anticipation. It is undeniable that Daisy Domergue and John Ruth are in love.

The snow continues to fall. The party continues to eat. The Confederate general, a bald and cranky old man, continues to sit in his armchair. In the entire film, he never leaves his armchair. A blood-red carpet: the general’s reputation precedes him. He is renowned, we learn, for having killed black soldiers during the war instead of taking them prisoner. There were hundreds of prisoners he didn’t take. With pride he exclaims, “We shot them where they stood!” (Samuel L. Jackson, whose character fought for the Union, snorts knowingly.) The Confederate general notes that his son died in Wyoming a few years prior, under uncertain circumstances; now he’s bought his son a symbolic graveyard plot, and has traveled here to advise the stonecutter on how to engrave the tombstone.

By coincidence, not by coincidence at all, it was Samuel L. Jackson who killed the general’s son. It is so unlikely that it’s inevitable. He killed the general’s son, it will soon be revealed, in an especially cruel manner, involving torture and sexual humiliation. Of course, the general doesn’t know this. Only Samuel L. Jackson knows this. During dinner, he brings the general a bowl of stew. He loves the general. He loves the general for giving him the opportunity to kill his son, and now for the opportunity to tell him about it. With extreme politeness, Samuel L. Jackson asks if he might sit across from the general, and the general accedes.

Samuel L. Jackson settles into an adjacent armchair, calmly. “How’s life been since the war?” he asks.

“Got both my legs,” the general says, wiggling his legs from under a blanket. “Got both my arms. Can’t complain.”

After another moment of chatter, Jackson reveals that he knew the general’s son.

“You knew my boy?”
“Did I know him? Yeah. Yeah I knew him.”
“You did not know my boy.”
“Suit yourself.”
[Jackson stands from his chair and begins to walk away. The general grabs his sleeve.]
“Did you know my boy?”
“I know the day he died. Do you?”
“Do you want to know what day that was?”
“It was the day that he met me!”

ReservoirDogsSamuel L. Jackson’s character is named Major Marquis Warren, but you do not for a single second forget that you are watching Samuel L. Jackson. It’s impossible to confuse him for a character. When he appears in a Tarantino film, Samuel L. Jackson always plays the same role: Samuel L. Jackson in a Tarantino film. When the camera’s on him, you think only, That’s Samuel L. Jackson up there. His very presence is self-referential. It is the role he was born to play.

His character is loud and wise and holy, a deliverer of justice. He has good reasons to commit the murders he does, and is certain to make those reasons known. When he speaks, every phoneme gets its fifteen minutes of fame. Boy and Day develop second syllables. The words taste so good he goes back for more: “I know the day he died. Do you?…Do you want to know what day it was?…It was the day that he met me.” The repetition’s effect is to heighten the importance of the speech while also informing the viewer that the speech is important, to render it significant and call attention to its significance. The viewer leans a little closer to the screen.

Now Samuel L. Jackson rises from his armchair. He pulls out a pistol, and sets it on a side table within the Confederate general’s reach. He says the general’s son had been searching for him, to collect a bounty that had been placed his head. (“He came up here to do a little nigger headhunting.”) But Jackson disarmed the young man, held him at gunpoint, and the young man begged for his life. “Begging for his life, your boy told me his whole life story,” Jackson says, “and you was in that story, General. And when I knew I had the boy of the bloody nigger-killer of Baton Rouge, I knew I was going to have some fun.”

He goes on:

“It was a cold day the day I killed your son…On that cold day, with your boy at the business end of my gun barrel, I made him strip right down to his bare ass. Then I told him to start walking” [The camera cuts to a scene of snow; Jackson and another man appear, the other man wearing nothing but snowshoes.] “I walked his naked ass for two hours before the cold collapsed him.”

“You never knew my boy.”

“Then he started in begging again. But this time he wasn’t begging to go home—he knew he’d never see his home again. He wasn’t begging for his life, neither… He was just begging for a blanket. Now don’t judge your boy too harshly. You ain’t never been as cold as your boy was that day. You’d be surprised what a man that cold will do for a blanket. Want to know what your boy did?”

[At the word blanket, the general covers himself with the blanket in his own lap.]

“I pulled my big black pecker out of my pants. And I made him crawl in the snow on all fours over to it. Then I grabbed a handful of that black hair on the back of his head and I stuck my big black johnson right down his goddamn throat. And that johnson was full of blood. And it was warm. And he sucked on that warm black dingus for as long as he could.

“You starting to see images aren’t you? Your boy. Black dude’s dingus in his mouth. Him shivering. Him crying. Me laughing.” [Jackson laughs; as Saul Bellow once wrote of a character, he laughs like a Picasso horse, rearing back.] “Him not understanding. But you understand, don’t you?
“I never did give your boy that blanket. Even after all he did, and he did everything I asked. No blanket. That blanket was just a heart-breakin’ liar’s promise.

“So what you gonna do, old man? You going to spend the next two, three days ignoring the nigger who killed your boy? Ignoring how I made him lick all over my Johnson? The dumbest thing your boy ever did was to let me know he was your boy.”

The general stands, dropping his blanket, and points the pistol Jackson has given him at Jackson. Jackson unholsters another pistol—pistols beget pistols—and shoots the general dead.

The viewer’s affinities during the scene see-saw. We are on Jackson’s side and then we aren’t. Certainly Jackson was justified in killing the young man, who, in the first place, had intended to kill Jackson. And maybe Jackson’s actions could be justified—or at least they were acceptable—when he marched the young man through the snow; we understand that Jackson is exacting revenge not only upon the young man, but on his father, too (“Him not understanding. But you understand, don’t you?”). But when he sexually assaults the young man—no, that’s too much. We have crossed some line in ourselves. When we turn back to check for it, the line is still there. Yes, to have marched the young man through the snow before killing him is cruel, but tolerable; to have sexually humiliated him is too much. Jackson has overstepped the bounds of retribution, has committed his own new offense which itself invites retribution.

The temptation is to see in this scene some message, some meaning. It is so extraneous to the film’s plot—it has nothing to do with discovering Daisy Domergue’s co-conspirators—and so unsettling, that the mind works to justify its inclusion in the film. We consider the facts: Samuel L. Jackson is black, and his character has suffered as a result of the color of his skin, and the Confederate general is white, and killed black men, and took great pleasure from doing so, and we’re in post-bellum America, and it’s 2016. And it begins to seem Tarantino must be making some point about race relations—race and power, maybe, or race and the right to retribution, reparation.

InglBut there is no point about race. The only point of Samuel L. Jackson’s story is its telling. The scene’s meaning and its value, like the movie’s as a whole, is found only in its ability to hold the viewer’s attention. This is Tarantino’s chief concern, and he will leverage racial and religious tensions to achieve such a hold. This particular scene is the same exact scene that Tarantino has written into nearly all of his films. It appeared as far back as Reservoir Dogs, when Michael Madsen (in his first role as Michael Madsen) removes a kidnapped police officer’s ear with a razor. “I’m not going to bullshit you,” Madsen says, giving voice to Tarantino’s mission statement. “I don’t really give a good fuck what you know or don’t know. But I’m going to torture you anyway…. It’s amusing to me, to torture.”

To us, too.

A story, says Randall Jarrell, “tells a truth or a lie—is a wish, or a truth, or a wish modified by the truth.” A tautology: the better a story is able to satisfy our desires for its unfolding, the more satisfying—the more entertaining—it will be. Tarantino, with each film he’s released, has become better and better at anticipating our wishes and fulfilling them. Nowhere is this more evident than in his previous two movies, Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained. In the first, Hitler meets his death at the hands of Jews. (In fact, he is the victim of two independent plots against him. Hitler dies twice—once by machine gun in a movie theater, and then again when that movie theater is burned down. And oh, how wonderful it is to watch him die.) In the second, a liberated black man helps to kill the slave-owner who possesses his wife, and then dynamites the slave-owner’s plantation. These are ultimate examples of narrative wish-fulfillment. They are fairy tales, and the conclusions of few cinematic productions have been more satisfying.

Still, it’s uncomfortable to be satisfied or entertained by these movies. The subjects—slavery, the Holocaust—are so sensitive that we feel we ought only to consider them with the utmost solemnity, and this ought to preclude popcorn. And so we repel Tarantino’s implicit thesis, the premise of his career: that moviegoers enter movie theaters with the sole desire of being entertained, and that any subject can be converted into entertainment. By entertaining us, Tarantino makes us feel ambivalent—about him and his films, and also about ourselves, for letting our guard down and being entertained by what shouldn’t entertain us. But it seems to me that Inglorious Basterds differs from, say, Schindler’s List only in the degree of the satisfaction it gives, not in kind. Schindler’s List treats the Holocaust according to how we feel the Holocaust should be treated—sacredly, soberly, in black and white. But it revealed nothing essentially new about the Holocaust. The film only superimposed a different narrative over the Holocaust, fulfilled a different wish from Basterds—namely, our wish to believe that good men existed in Germany, despite everything; our wish to be able to think about the Holocaust and in some way feel hopeful about it.

Not long after Samuel L. Jackson has had his revenge—our revenge—upon the Confederate general, he is shot. We feel no sadness; actually, we’re amused and satisfied, because we understand that Samuel L. Jackson overstepped the bounds of retribution and now deserves comeuppance himself. Everyone else is shot, too. After the general is shot, Daisy’s collaborators are revealed, and everyone is shot. The movie proceeds like so many marbles cascading down a chute. We gave Tarantino the marbles in the first place; we did so when we bought the tickets to see his film. At some point he held all the marbles. Then he released them back to us.

Max Ross‘s reviews have appeared in The Boston Globe, The Star Tribune, The Harvard Review, and The Rumpus. He is a contributing editor at Open Letters Monthly.