The shouts and murmurs began the first time we saw Kurt Russell smack Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hateful Eight. The movie is misogynist, as is its maker, Quentin Tarantino. Hateful toward women. Brutal, even by Tarantino's blood opera standards.
It's easy to take the long view and consider the source. "It is brutal, but it's a Tarantino movie," says Demian Bichir, who plays one of the eight, a Mexican outlaw simply named Bob. He has a point. Blood spurts and racial epithets fly in the Tarantino universe. It's not so much that he courts controversy as it's wired into his circuits. Shock value fuels his fire. It gets people talking, and writing columns.
Where the outrage usually swirls around race, particularly Tarantino's liberal use of the N-word, this time the arguments fall along gender lines. Leigh plays Daisy Domergue, a notorious outlaw captured by Russell's bounty hunter, John Ruth, who is bent on seeing her hung. In the course of the film Ruth hits her with his pistol, elbows her in the nose and throws a cup of hot stew in her face. She responds with a series of angry scowls, demonic smiles and a steely confidence that suggests she'll have the last laugh.
Many critics have taken exception. Here's A.O. Scott, writing in The New York Times: "At a certain point, the n-word gives way to the b-word as the dominant hateful epithet, and The Hateful Eight mutates from an exploration of racial animus into an orgy of elaborately justified misogyny." For the defense, here's Stephanie Zacharek in Time: "The more [Domergue] gets hit, the more she grins and cackles, as if she were drawing banshee strength from the abuse - a notion that may seem like misogyny but is in fact its triumphant opposite."
Leigh, not surprisingly, agrees with the latter assessment. "She's a leader," she told Variety. "And she's tough. And she's hateful and a survivor and scrappy. I thought it was funny, but I didn't think it was misogynistic for a second. [Tarantino] doesn't have an ounce of misogyny in him. It's not in his writing. It's not in his being."
I have several thoughts on the debate. First and foremost, I'm always wary of issuing moral judgment on fictional characters. John Ruth is a bad man who also shows signs of tenderness throughout the movie. He's also not real. Like the rest of the Hateful Eight characters he's there to advance a story, not to represent his creator's beliefs.
Did you hear the one about the scheming, power-mad letch who conspires to have his nephews brutally murdered? That's Shakespeare's Richard III. What about the guy who kills two women, including his own girlfriend, and feels a subsequent sense of self-actualization? That's Bigger Thomas, the antihero of Richard Wright's Native Son.
Bad men. Great stories. Great characters. Great artists.
But I also realize there's something about the historical irreverence and sensory impact of Tarantino movies that provokes extreme moral reactions. I had no idea what to think after my first viewing of Django Unchained, Tarantino's over-the-top slavery revenge fantasy. Is it really OK to be so cavalier about America's original sin? My wishy-washy review of the film reflected my ambivalence, which turned into an appreciative, maniacal glee upon a second viewing. (You can watch Robert Wilonsky and I enact out own Hateful civil war right here on Reel Genius).
Tarantino is one of the few major filmmakers still capable of shocking and stunning and pushing buttons, and that prodding can often obscure his virtuosic command of the film medium. The sense of disbelief - can he really get away with that? - is part of the package.
"If you feel bad for Daisy, or any other character in a Tarantino film..." Bichir begins before trailing off and resuming. "You should be shocked or spooked, but you don't feel bad for any character in any Tarantino film. You just enjoy the ride."
By now, the reactions have become part of that ride. That's another reason I appreciate Tarantino. At a time when so many of us critics heap praise on so many of the same movies, Tarantino is still capable of stirring the pot. He prompts perfectly reasonable and well-conceived responses from proponents and detractors alike. He makes us argue. He makes us think. He shocks us to life.