By: Daniel Reynolds
By now you’ve probably seen the first real trailer for Quentin Tarantino‘s new film, The Hateful Eight. The film, Tarantino’s eighth, is a western supposedly inspired by the TV shows of Tarantino’s youth. It stars a murderers row of fearsome talent including Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson, Tim Roth, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Bruce Dern to name just a few. Its plot involves–wait, what’s that? You haven’t seen the trailer yet? Come on, son, get with it.
Now then. As the trailer (and, um, plot description) reveal, The Hateful Eight concerns the fates of eight strangers stowed away in a cabin during a blizzard. One of them, John “The Hangman” Ruth (played with retro gusto by Russell) is bringing in a wanted lady, Daisy Domergue (QT newcomer Leigh), to be hanged. Another is not the person he says he is. The teaser asks: Will they survive? And we’re left to wonder.
You can wonder on, but I’m here to ask a more interesting question: What are Tarantino’s Oscar chances with The Hateful Eight?
If you’ve been keeping score at home, Tarantino has been nominated for five Oscars, winning two in his career. The tally stands as follows: one win for writing Pulp Fiction, one win for writing Django Unchained, two nominations for writing and directing Inglourious Basterds, and one nomination for directing Pulp Fiction. Outside of Tarantino’s individual wins, actor Christoph Waltz has won two Oscars for his roles in Inglourious Basterds (deserved) and Django Unchained (surprising). There have also been a smattering of nominations for others in the three films I’ve mentioned there, plus one lonely Best Supporting Actor nomination for Robert Forster in Jackie Brown (a beautifully underrated performance).
That means, this being his eighth film, we are hitting the official 50/50 split for Tarantino films and Oscar success. Half of QT’s movies have some gold to show for themselves, and the other half, pending The Hateful Eight, do not (yet). So let’s figure out his chances this time up through a series of penetrating QT questions.
Which genre is Tarantino working in?
Genre bias is a real thing in all media–Stephen King can’t get any respect, Star Wars will forever be for kids, and Tarantino’s work, on the surface, is sometimes easy to dismiss in this regard. When he was in the throes of his casual blaxploitation/kung-fu period (to say nothing of whatever the hell Deathproof was supposed to be), there was a very limited chance that Tarantino would win an Oscar.
Hateful Eight is clearly genre. It’s got the dusty, ramshackle feel of those classic western movies and TV shows of the 1960s. And its got a cadre of actors who would have been completely at home in then. (Not to mention Dern who actually was in westerns in the 1960s.) That’s all fine and dandy, but it still means Tarantino is throwing his lot in with a genre of film that has largely had its day.
The last western to win Best Picture was Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven in 1992. (Unless you want to count 2007’s No Country For Old Men, a far more modern tale.) A film like True Grit can pop in there and snag a few nominations, but it’s tough sledding. Any western, even one made by genre king Tarantino, is bound to be a tough sell for the Academy.
Does the film provide a fresh take on a significant time in history?
I know what you’re thinking. I just talked down genre films when Tarantino’s most award-laden films of the past twenty years have been a western and a war movie. Therein lies the wrinkle with Tarantino–he may be playing in a familiar setting, but he’s usually doing something totally new.
In the case of Inglourious Basterds, we’re dealt the most tired film period of all: World War II. A plot description of Basterds could be mistaken for the work of almost any non-descript filmmaker. And yet, it garnered eight Oscar nominations (and one win) and, in a way, ushered Tarantino back into the limelight. How’s that for a film based around Jewish soldiers, incendiary film reels and a friendly, albeit sociopathic, Nazi?
There doesn’t appear to be anything specifically new in The Hateful Eight‘s historical mise-en-scene. It’s the old timey West, everyone has a gun on hand, people are vicious. This feels familiar. (In fact, it feels like a throwback to Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs). Its resonance will have to come from somewhere else.
Can the story be used to comment on something contemporary?
Case in point: It’s not entirely accurate to say Django Unchained is just about slavery. It’s not a historical document and the events it portrays are heightened to excess. (I’m fairly positive blood doesn’t explode out of people like that when they get shot.) But it is, even indirectly, addressing matters of race and America. It is having a white man openly ask why “the blacks don’t rise up against the whites.” It vilifies the “Uncle Tom” character of Stephen. It openly cherishes the beauty of a romance between two slaves. The events of Django Unchained are not based on “real” events–like say, 12 Years a Slave–but they do ask questions that resonant today in a real way. Tarantino may have been playing with genre and history, but he also got us thinking about power, identity, and guilt.
This boils down to a point blank question: Does it look like The Hateful Eight will do any of that?
I would wager no. Even if it does find a fun way to use Russell and Leigh.
Does it feature familiar actors cast in a new light?
Tarantino is one of few directors working today whose casting choices generate legitimate buzz. We delight in Uma Thurman taking on Keith Carradine, and alternatively criticize Will Smith for turning down a role (later played brilliantly by Jamie Foxx). These things feel significant.
Tarantino’s true breakout film, Pulp Fiction, got an Oscar nomination for Samuel L. Jackson (the only one of his career so far), and it paved the way for a John Travolta comeback (for better or worse). Tarantino’s follow-up, the criminally underrated Jackie Brown, gave an elegantly moving role to Robert Forster (who?) only to watch him garner the aforementioned lone Oscar nomination of his career. And while Waltz was largely unknown to North American audiences at the time, he had been a long time actor in Europe before exploding with two Oscar-winning performances.
The Hateful Eight meanwhile is working with a lot of familiar Academy-ready faces. (Dern, Jackson, Roth and Demian Bichir have all been nominated.) But is there anything new there in this roles? All of the names mentioned–save for Leigh–feel incredibly familiar in their roles. It should be fun to see, but I’m not sure it’ll get the Oscar blood pumping.
But then again…
Is Samuel L. Jackson in it?
For those paying attention, I did already mention Jackson is in The Hateful Eight.
And what do Tarantino’s four Oscar nominated or awarded films have in common?
The presence of Samuel L. Jackson.
No further questions.
 Yes, OK, Jackson is only the narrator in Inglourious Basterds.