Critic's Notebook: Even When They're 'Hateful,' Tarantino Loves His Female Characters

Jennifer Jason Leigh - H 2015
Courtesy of Lionsgate

The brutal treatment of Jennifer Jason Leigh's character in 'The Hateful Eight' may ignite the blogosphere with charges of misogyny, but a survey of Tarantino's work suggests the filmmaker's deep love for his female characters.

They’re hateful, all right: an octet of human gargoyles, one more odious than the next. When it comes to ugliness, Quentin Tarantino’s Wild West chamber piece The Hateful Eight pulls no punches. And when it comes to the prisoner he’s transporting in shackles — who happens to be a woman — neither does John Ruth, the bounty hunter played by Kurt Russell.

It’s only minutes into the film’s opening sequence when Ruth delivers the first of many wallops to his prized bounty, a snarling fugitive named Daisy Domergue, fearlessly played with an ungainly feral intensity by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Like most of the violence in Tarantino movies, Ruth’s clobbering of Domergue has a cartoonish boldness. But his shocking, unceremonious brutality is also particularly discomforting to the viewer — no doubt as the filmmaker intended. It’s not played for laughs or pity, instead occupying the queasy in-between.

Part of that is because of the female factor.

While critics might rush to praise the way The Hateful Eight twists and tweaks the age-old “characters trapped in a room” configuration, the relentless violence against Daisy is likely to ignite the blogosphere with charges of misogyny. But that would be an oversimplified, if not knee-jerk, reading of the material. (There’s also a bit of backstory — involving Bruce Dern's Confederate general, a second bounty hunter, played by Samuel L. Jackson, and an act of fellatio — that's sure to be debated.)

The attacks that Leigh's character endures at the hands of Russell’s character reveal a misogynistic impulse in Ruth, but not in the filmmaker. Bloodied and nearly toothless by the film’s final chapter, Daisy Domergue is no mere victim; she’s scarily unfazed and spouting racist vitriol until the bitter end. In Tarantino’s celluloid world of hyped-up violence and treachery, her abuse feels, more than anything, egalitarian. Russell's performance suggests that female-bashing might give Ruth an extra twinge of offhand satisfaction, but it leaves little doubt that a male prisoner in his charge would be subject to the same pummeling.

There’s more than a touch of chauvinism in the labeling of The Hateful Eight as misogynistic. The implication is that female characters need to be protected or coddled and can’t occupy the same moral void as the males. For good or bad — and really, this dark comedy is all about the bad — Daisy Domergue is on the same playing field as the guys.

In a recent conversation with THR, Leigh called Tarantino “about the most un-misogynistic person I’ve ever met. He loves women,” she said, adding that “he writes the best parts for women around, really.”

That’s probably not the first quality the filmmaker's name brings to mind. But a survey of the writer-director’s body of work indeed shows that his love for his female characters is as undeniable as it is lacking in condescension. His movies have never used women as va-va-voom decoration. If the women in Tarantino’s films are bruised and battered, they’re not required to suffer sexily — a notable departure from big-screen convention.

The results may be mixed, but in films from Pulp Fiction to Kill Bill, from the deeply felt valentine Jackie Brown to the spoofy Death Proof, Tarantino has more than occasionally struck gold while exploring such archetypes as the femme fatale, the gun moll, the woman in peril and the avenging angel. As with his revisionist takes on the male criminal, the lawman and the bounty hunter, he embraces cinematic tropes and stereotypes to turn them inside out. And to get us thinking about them.

Stripping away a lot of the everyday stuff (romance, marriage, motherhood) that too often encumbers or lazily defines female screen characters, Tarantino and the actresses in his features give us something fresh. Even in the strictly XY affair Reservoir Dogs, nods to female self-knowledge and sexual power course through the male ensemble’s trash talk, beginning with the opening-scene analysis of the lyrics to a Madonna song.

With Pulp Fiction, the filmmaker upped the ante. There’s not a predictable touch or trait in the elaborately plotted crime saga’s female characters, from the unhinged petty criminal Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) to the über-pierced doper Jody (Rosanna Arquette) to the sensualist gamine Fabienne (Marie de Medeiros) and, of course, Uma Thurman's Mia: would-be actress, gangster trophy wife and barefoot twist-contest hopeful.

It was during the making of that film that Thurman and Tarantino brainstormed the central character of Kill BillBeatrix “Black Mamba” Kiddo, aka the Bride. Tellingly, though that two-film extravaganza, with its over-the-top mashup of chopsocky, spaghetti Western and blaxploitation, makes female power its very subject, it’s the least effective and, in many ways, the most conventional of the director’s outings. The Bride’s maternal instinct, the supposed engine of her globe-hopping rampage, is unconvincing. And despite promising jabs at mainstream cinema’s penchant for waving the parenthood flag, the film lands in decidedly sentimental territory. Thurman’s kickass performance notwithstanding, this tale of primal revenge feels, finally, like one for the fanboys. Mining the catalog strenuously and always winking, Tarantino never really makes the Bride’s story matter.

In striking contrast, a movie that might have been nothing more than a meta-cinema wink-a-thon proves invigorating in its female-centricity. Death Proof, Tarantino’s contribution to the Grindhouse double bill, reimagines cheapo slasher fare in a way that lovingly imitates the cheesy surface while imbuing it with new, femme-forward life. It's not just the breathtaking maneuvers of stuntwoman Zoe Bell; it's every full-blooded characterization in the flick. The performances by Rosario Dawson, Sydney Tamiia Poitier and Tracie Thoms transcend (or undermine) the project's self-consciousness, unbind chick-victim paradigms from cliche, and do it all while having a blast.

At a recent press conference for Eight, Tarantino said that he likes “masking whatever I want to say in the guise of genre.” For years it was easy to wonder whether this master pasticheur did indeed have something to say. But seen today, eight features in, his work is exciting and mostly worth revisiting not because of the way he continually references old movies, but because of the way he recasts them, increasingly with a sense of historical inquiry, button-pushing tactics and all. His recent revenge fantasies set out to redress horrendous systemic injustice in ways that only movies can pretend to do. They're the ultimate wish fulfillment for many of us, whether Tarantino is tackling the legacy of American slavery in Django Unchained or presenting “the face of Jewish vengeance” in the World War II story Inglourious Basterds — in which a coup de cinema is engineered by a woman.

Going too far is as much a signature of his work as the blood ballets that are often his characters’ fate. Every moviegoer defines “too far” differently. For me the troubling element of Pulp Fiction was not the heroin fiasco or the ha-ha cleanup of spattered gray matter but the attempt to use rape as a comic plot point. For Tarantino as for any filmmaker, there’s a crucial, tricky line between sadism as subject and sadism as entertainment. It’s understandable that some viewers of Hateful Eight won’t be able to get past the battering of Daisy Domergue (or the aforementioned sexual backstory that Jackson's character narrates with gusto).

I’ll take Jackie Brown over Eight any day, but it's not that I think the latter is anti-woman. Tarantino’s love for Pam Grier and Robert Forster gives us one of the most affecting, schmaltz-free screen kisses in recent memory — no easy feat. Yet however I prefer the rhythms and gorgeously weathered faces of the earlier film, Tarantino’s ambition is evident in his determination to break molds for male and female characters alike. Daisy and Jackie are at opposite ends of the elegance spectrum, but they’re both ferociously determined to survive, each on her own terms.