Tarantino’s Tension

In my opinion, Tarantino’s greatest gift as a screenwriter is his ability to generate tension by crafting genuinely open-ended set pieces. For me, the locus classicus is the scene in True Romance where James Gandalfini is interrogating and torturing Patricia Arquette. Even though Patricia Arquette is one of the primary characters, the viewer gets the sense that she really could die — not only in the moment, but in the context of the film as a whole. The outcome is not preordained, and that contributes to the triumph when she finally does overcome him.

There are countless setpieces like that in the films Tarantino actually directed. In fact, it’s fair to say that Tarantino is fundamentally a creator of setpieces rather than a builder of large-scale narratives. This is clearest in his most successful film, Pulp Fiction, where the different segments take place in the same narrative world without necessarily cohering into a single plot. The structure of Inglourious Basterds is very similar — everyone winds up in the same place in the end, but that represents the convergence of two separate plots to kill Hitler rather than the culmination of a unified narrative. When he needs to create an overarching plot, Tarantino tends to rely on genre conventions to do that work for him, as in Django Unchained.

And this brings me to my disappointment with Hateful Eight: there’s not enough of that Tarantino tension. The only classical setpiece is the face-off between Samuel L. Jackson’s character and the Confederate general. That scene, it seems to me, could have gone either way. Everything else is too preordained. You know everyone is going to die, and you don’t have enough investment in most of the characters to be genuinely curious as to how. Worst of all in this regard is the flashback that reveals the initial setup — it’s the opposite of a Tarantino scene, because you know precisely what will happen.

I’m willing to be convinced that Tarantino is doing all of this on purpose in the service of some greater aesthetic goal. Indeed, I hope that someone has a theory in that regard, because it would help to “save” the film for me by making it interesting — but I’m just not sure anything could make it seem as intuitively entertaining and enjoyable as Tarantino’s best.

8 thoughts on “Tarantino’s Tension

  1. For me the tension you’re talking about worked most effectively in the basement bar set-piece in Inglorious Basterds; and indeed Hateful Eight struck me as an inflation of that one scene into a whole movie. But the Basterds scene worked (that is, was tense) mostly because it was part of a larger narrative; whereas his new movie just seemed … off to me. The pacing wasn’t right; too long overall, too slack in the wrong places. Another Tarantino device (an unsympathetic critic might uncharatably call it a Tarantino gimmick) is the sudden left-field swerve into kink: Christopher Walken’s colonel in Pulp Fiction with the watch up his arse and so on. Here that moment was Samuel L Jackson receiving a blow-job in an icy field from a white Confederate racist, and where this should have been gonzo and weird and memorable, it was just … odd. Other than that, a dreary seen-this-before sense pretty much overshadowed the whole film for me: there are people hiding under the floorboards; the woman gets abused and beaten up, just because; the n-word flies about; lots of people get shot and stabbed. On the upside, I liked the Lincoln Letter idea, and Tim Roth’s posh-hangman speech about the different kinds of justice was pretty good.

  2. “Here that moment was Samuel L Jackson receiving a blow-job in an icy field from a white Confederate racist, and where this should have been gonzo and weird and memorable, it was just … odd. ”

    That scene was super disturbing.

  3. Perhaps the general feel of inevitability throughout many of Hateful’s sequences is part of the intentional contrast between it and Tarantino’s previous two films. Inglourious and Django (to different degrees) provide cathartic alternative histories, where evil racist scum are destroyed in spectacular acts of violence. Hateful by contrast subverts the audiences’ desire for that kind of catharsis by showing history not as it could have been but history as it is. It’s somewhat brilliant how Tarantino manages to get much of the audience to cheer for disgusting brutality (Jackson’s monologue, the ending sequence), as people mistakenly receive it as being intended in the same way as the just violence in Tarantino’s other films. This is Tarantino at his most bleak and nihilistic (displaying racism as America’s original sin, as aptly put by Devin Faraci – http://birthmoviesdeath.com/2015/12/27/the-hateful-eight-review-americas-original-sin-as-the-thing). I wonder if part of Tarantino’s purposeful differentiation from some of his previous work is in bringing a deeper sense of determinism in those sequences, replacing the tension of alternative history with the bleak preordination of our reality. In a world without the basterds and without Django, the inevitability of continued senseless brutality (without indeterminacy and without catharsis) may be all we have.

  4. Now I’m wondering if the shifting story about the fire Samuel L. Jackson’s character sets refers back to the fire at the end of Django? The fantasy and “realistic” version?

  5. I hope that someone has a theory in that regard, because it would help to “save” the film for me by making it interesting

    Let me try. I saw Hateful Eight as self-critique of Tarantino’s previous pair of movies, which were both alternative history by way of violent fantasies, the twinned Hitler-killings (and accompanying brutalization of Nazis) of IG and the plantation carnage of DU.

    The establishment of civilization requires that a man be hanged by the law instead of lynched by the mob. This is axiomatic to the Western (not to mention the Orestia). It’s the first scene of Deadwood, and it’s posed by “Oswaldo Mowbray” at Minnie’s.

    Meeting after the Civil War on “neutral” ground, the characters are animated by fantasies and experiences that mirror the what-ifs of IG and DU. Marquis’s swath of fiery vengeance and $30,000 “head” makes him a close cousin of Django. And Tarantino doesn’t need to indulge in relativistic both-sides-do-it to show that Mannix sees his daddy’s raids as motivated by violent redemption for history’s losers as well.

    The most critical violent fantasy, though, is the one that concludes the first half (coming before intermission in the Roadshow presentation). Marquis traps General Smithers in an inescapable, sexualized, racialized revenge fantasy. He stays on the right side of the law, or at least of custom, by getting the old man to raise his weapon first. But it’s a paper-thin justice.

    This is mirrored in the “justice” of Marquis’s and Mannix’s final act — hanging Domergue under color of law rather than shooting her in the heat of revenge. For Domergue, there’s very little difference, and her hanging leaves the floor only slightly less wet with brains, but under the terms set out by John Ruth and explained by Mowbray, it makes all the difference. It’s achieved in the most bald of metaphors for postbellum peace: freedman and raider united to execute justice that, if not blind, is at least not motivated by any of the passions that drove the Civil War.

    In the most simultaneously cynical and earnest gesture (up there with Liberty Valance‘s “Print the legend”), Tarantino lets his coalition expire while reading, admiring, and truly basking in Marquis’s fake Lincoln letter. It’s another kind of fantasy altogether: benevolent, paternal, intimate, and audaciously, inspiringly false.

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