Tarantino Falls Into a Rut, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In an earlier note, I shared a few macro thoughts on what The Hateful Eight tells us about Quentin Tarantino’s career. (Short version: nothing good.) This time, I wanted to go micro and delve a little more deeply into what’s probably the most memorable scene—not in a good way—in Tarantino’s new film, the confrontation between Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern). Be forewarned that spoilers follow.

Smithers is a former Confederate general and avowed racist who executed scores of black Union soldiers during the Civil War. Warren, a former Union major and (obviously) a black man, would like very much to have an excuse to kill Smithers. So he places a pistol beside the old man and tells him a story—it’s uncertain whether or not it’s true, although the presumption is that it is—about how he tortured and killed Smithers’s son when the latter came looking for him.

The details, I fear, are graphic and repulsive. After capturing the son, Warren stripped him naked in the Wyoming winter and made him march through the snow until he collapsed from exhaustion and exposure. When the son begged for a blanket, Warren—there is no delicate way to put this—instead opened his own trousers, removed his penis, and told the son that if he wanted warmth he should take Warren into his mouth. Warren goes on to relate the anatomical details of this encounter to Smithers at exorbitant length, until finally the old man can bear it no more. He reaches for the pistol, enabling the much-quicker Warren to shoot him in self-defense.

What’s notable about the scene—apart from its sheer grossness and the fact that Warren is nonetheless meant to be the film’s most sympathetic character—is how closely it echoes an iconic scene from the Tarantino-written (though not directed) True Romance. I’ve seen a few people mention this in passing, but I haven’t noticed anyone unpacking it.

The scene, of course, is the classic sitdown between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken. The former plays Clifford Worley, the father of the movie’s protagonist; the latter plays Don Vincenzo Coccotti, a Mafia enforcer who is about to torture Worley for information about the son’s whereabouts. Instead, Worley tells Coccotti, who is Sicilian, a story about how the Moors conquered Sicily, explaining, “They did so much fucking with Sicilian women that they changed the whole bloodline forever.” Coccotti, infuriated at the idea that he has black ancestors, foregoes his intended torture and shoots Hopper dead.

It’s all there: A white man is humiliated by the prospect of black male sexuality, and specifically the idea of a black man having sexual relations with one of his blood relatives: a son in Smithers’s case, a “great, great, great, great grandmother” in Coccotti’s. His only conceivable recourse is to raise a gun.

Yes, the ultimate circumstances are reversed: Coccotti kills, whereas Smithers is killed. But in both cases it is the storyteller who is asserting his power to achieve his desired outcome: in Worley’s case, a swift death; in Warren’s, an excuse to commit murder. Both stories even revolve around fathers dying for their sons: in one case, in order to keep his own silence and thus save his son; in the other, in a failed attempt at vengeance for a son beyond saving.

There is, of course, one crucial difference. The scene in True Romance is among the best Tarantino has ever written. The scene in The Hateful Eight is among the worst.