Ever since “The Hateful Eight” first unspooled at industry guild screenings last month, whispers of misogyny set the film up for a possible backlash. Throughout Quentin Tarantino’s Western, the dastardly Daisy Domergue (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) finds herself on the receiving end of a lot of violence. And all of it — whether a gun-butt crack over the skull or a back elbow to the nose or a dousing of hot stew to the face — gets an audible reaction.
According to Tarantino, that’s by design. “When John Ruth [played by Kurt Russell] cracks her over the head that very first time, you feel this ripple going through the audience — because it almost does seem like one of the last taboos left,” the two-time Oscar winner told Variety in a recent interview. “You’re supposed to say, ‘Oh my God. John Ruth is a brutal bastard!’ That is what you’re supposed to say. I want your allegiances, to one degree or the other, to shift slightly as the movie goes on, and frankly, depending on where you’re coming from.”
With the film heading out into release this weekend, reviews are of course taking note of this element. But reaction seems intriguingly split, and not necessarily along expected gender lines.
“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,” Time critic Stephanie Zacharek wrote earlier this week in her review.
Retorted The New York Times’ A.O. Scott two days later, “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.”
Justified? Thoughtful? Superficial? Deep? Obviously — perhaps refreshingly — there is no definitive answer.
What hasn’t been too thoroughly considered, however, is that the relationship between Ruth and Domergue is played with a complex touch. Whether he’s carefully assisting her down from a coach or wiping food from her face with a fatherly touch, it’s all part of a film that keeps you on your toes and guessing. In one scene that has Domergue plucking a guitar while singing an old Australian folk tune, Ruth shifts on a dime from peacefully listening to splintering the guitar against a post with rage (admittedly riled by a casually antagonistic line in the song).
Leigh first addressed all of this herself in an interview with Variety earlier this month. In claiming she never once worried that the treatment of her character would be perceived as misogynistic, she said, “She’s a leader. 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.”
Indeed, ask “The Hateful Eight” backer Harvey Weinstein about such a perception and he’s quick to point out Tarantino’s track record.
“This guy is the most pro-woman ever,” Weinstein said in an interview. “[Look at] Uma Thurman [in “Kill Bill”], Pam Grier [in “Jackie Brown”], Melanie Laurent and Diane Kruger [in “Inglourious Basterds”]. If there are cries of misogyny, we will sit down and make them watch ‘Jackie Brown,’ and at the end of the ‘Jackie Brown’ seminar, they will have to say, ‘Hey, we’re just fishing for stupidity.'”
Adds Leigh, “Quentin writes the best parts for women out there. He really does. He writes very brave, bold, insane, fabulous women. Nobody writes women like he does.”
Ultimately — and with space of course allowed for interpretation — Zacharek’s reading of the film is closest at least to what Tarantino says he intended.
“Violence is hanging over every one of those characters like a cloak of night,” he said. “So I’m not going to go, ‘OK, that’s the case for seven of the characters, but because one is a woman, I have to treat her differently.’ I’m not going to do that.”