Sunday, January 3, 2016

"The Hateful Eight": Sadistic Cinema

Now In Theaters
I tend to view criticism of film as the act of answering two specific questions.  First, does the film serve as suitable entertainment for its audience?  Second, does the director adequately convey their intent and make the best film possible to realize that intent?  In other words, I try to act as a consumer reporter as well as an art critic.  Normally the two roles work in conjunction and overlap tremendously, but The Hateful Eight makes it very hard to assume both those roles, as director Quentin Tarantino’s entire goal with this film seems to be rooted in a hostile manipulation of his audience, almost as if to say “If you derived any enjoyment from this film, you missed the goddamn point.”

Tarantino is a master of his craft, so when his new project seemed to be a conceptual successor to the Resevoir Dogs conceit of bottling criminals in one room and watching the tension build to fireworks, yet made with the attention to detail and more mature sensibilities of late-career Tarantino, I was excited to see what he could come up with.  And to the film’s immense credit, it is a surprisingly gorgeous film, shot on panoramic film so that all the vital background details spring to life without necessarily detracting focus from the cast.  And all eight of the main cast of criminals trapped in the snowdrifted lodge are very well-performed, most notably Samuel L. Jackson as a former Union soldier turned bounty hunter and Jennifer Jason Leigh as a prisoner to another bounty hunter set to hang in the next town.

But these performances serve a nefarious purpose, as Tarantino lurks behind the camera to offer an experience that is openly hostile to its audience, even if the audience doesn’t always realize it.  Tarantino is a master at emotional exploitation, an appropriate skill considering his stylistic influences are primarily from the exploitation genre of the 1970s.  However, where he usually puts those talents to use by having his audience cheer on a group of Jews blowing off Hitler’s face or watching a former slave raze a plantation to the ground, here there is always a sense of dramatic irony to any moment that feels anywhere close to cathartic.  For example, there were people laughing and cheering in my theater at a mid-film scene that is purposely gratuitous and extremely disgusting, but Tarantino framed the moment in such a way as to trigger the audience’s conditioned response to moments of cinematic revenge and the doling of just vengeance.

This is a very clever trick on Tarantino’s part, and one that was clearly intentional based on the in-text criticisms of passionate, vengeful violence.  But where does that leave the audience?  Well, as I said before, if you are watching this film under any conception that there is a hero to root for and walk away as if that expectation is met, you missed the point.  This is a film that purposely wants you to hate it, and the only satisfaction you’re supposed to derive is the knowledge that Tarantino didn’t trick you like the average sap who paid for their ticket.  If that was indeed Tarantino’s goal, he certainly succeeded, but I don’t feel like that’s a terribly laudable goal, particularly if you don’t like to have your ego stroked over your supposed superiority for identifying manipulative film tropes.

There’s a running theme in the film of characters expositing their backgrounds, but never revealing the whole or any of the truth as they weave their self-serving narratives.  Tarantino is doing much the same thing by sharing this story with his loyal fans, testing the waters to see if enough of them can see the truth behind the film’s supposedly cathartic anti-heroism, that this story has no hero no matter how many of your fellow movie-goers may cheer them on.  This isn’t a film that is meant to be enjoyed, but for making a film that so successfully masquerades as one, Tarantino deserves a lot of credit.  But the joke’s still on us, and that makes the film hard to recommend to anyone other than Tarantino’s most diehard cinephiles, and even they may walk away with Tarantino’s intended dissatisfaction.  After all, that’s the goddamn point.