The Hateful Eight (2016)
Say what you will about the movie but the logistics alone are astounding, the dedication to as unique a projected experience as is likely to happen in our 21st digital century – but does the widescreen ambition match the movies muscular enthusiasm? On an immediate level Quentin Tarantino’s eighth movie in his quarter century career is the perfect encapsulation of his crimes so far, stuffed with his stock players, monologuing dialogue exchanges, blood-splattered with film references and homages which climax in a deadly Mexican stand-off. Over the weekend I immersed myself in the Tarantino universe, alongside both earlier and later phase films and this primer I initially went back to the debut Reservoir Dogs for the first time in many years, and although it remains a blistering debut it has also been historically hung by its own petard even if you disentangle it from the entire 1990’s sub-genre it ignited. The ravenous ouroboros instinct is complete with his latest release which mirrors a single, fraught location, suspicious and duplicitous characters brandishing firearms at each other whilst barking horrendous racial epithets with careless abandon, a gut-shot masquerade writhing in pain as the entrails ooze slowly across the floor of meta-movie musings. From these symmetries you could conclude that over 25 years and eight films we haven’t really come very far in terms of an auteurs growth and evolution, but after a weekend of reflection I don’t think this is entirely fair, as I have mentally grappled with The Hateful Eight which at the very least deserves another viewing and further digestion. My appreciation of the man has waxed and waned over the years, I love Jackie Brown which remains the high-point of the first decade as much as I disliked the Kill Bill movies in his second, concluding that he was firmly back on track with Inglorious Basterds as we approached his current phase of historical genre hatchet jobs, slyly political pictures that bear a strong undercurrent commentary on some dense cinematic concerns – representations of race and cultures, realism versus on-screen history, complicity and celebrations of catalytic screen violence. I’ve said it before but the conclusion remains sound, that regardless of personal opinions a new Tarantino film remains an event and I openly confess that I was hugely looking forward to this as an ‘event’ both technical and cultural, a three-hour wallow in cinephiliac glee with the likes of Menagerie favourites Kurt Russell and Jennifer Jason Leigh, in for my money one of Quentin’s most self-indulgent and incendiary films.
As the title suggests the film is an octet of spitting vipers stuffed in a gingham bag, a frosty parade of homicidal bastards driven by a cruel blizzard to take shelter on the remote Wyoming trail, washing up at the colloquially known Minnie’s Haberdashery on the fringes of the wilderness. We first meet the sulphur eyed Marquis Warren (Samuel Jackson) on the road when bewhiskered bounty hunter John Ruth’s (Kurt Russell) stagecoach is stopped by a grotesque obstacle, the first of the hateful perched atop three frozen corpses destined for a blood soaked reward in the nearby town of Red Rock. With his black-eyed and bruised prize Daisy Domergue, a defiantly feral Jennifer Jason Leigh in tow Ruth agrees to an uneasy allegiance with Warren, both assisting each other in the delivery of their human cargo with Domergue destined for the hangman noose for crimes that slowly come to comprehension. Next up stumbles Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) through the swirling frosty fog, a militiaman who fought on the confederate side of the still raw civil war, now the new sheriff of Red Rock with blood-streaked hints of a less than salubrious past. When the quartet and their driver arrive at the Haberdashery the film shifts from the snowy exteriors to a claustrophobic interior, a chamber piece with further villains entering stage left including Englishman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), the stoically mysterious horse wrangler Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), Mexican Bob (Demian Bichir) and the grizzled General Smithers (Bruce Dern), a Confederate veteran whose deadly friction with Warren soon cleaves along political and racial lines. The scene is set for Tarantino, the jester of the American cultural battlefield handling exceptionally volatile material such as race, misogyny, screen violence and the Union’s genocidal history with the quiet consideration of a hand grenade hurled upon the cabin’s blazing woodfire.
It was Fritz Lang who asserted that the widescreen format is ‘only good for shooting snakes and funerals’, and in this film everyone’s a poisonous snake hurtling towards their well-deserved funerals. With its expansive framing and extravagant run-time The Hateful Eight is initially laconic in pacing, Tarantino easing the audience into the spectacle with his bordering chapter title cards structure and key theatrical staging, slowly coaxing the undercurrents to the surface in one abattoir choked final convulsion. I don’t think it’s possible to see Kurt Russell trapped in a claustrophobic, isolated frigid location surrounded by potentially hostile denizens and not be reminded of one of his most iconic roles, a reference which QT bludgeons by a direct soundtrack lift, and let me clear about this as a total, absolutely shameless assimilation of this (3:45) music cue from Carpenter classic which seems quite ugly in its brazen butchery. He’s on the record as stating that The Thing was a major inspiration but the key point there was that the characters knew each other in that film and had worked together for presumably months if not years, whereas in the The Hateful Eight they’re all immediately suspicious which defuses some of the pulsing paranoia that the 1982 masterpiece nervously quivers upon. I’ve always loved Jennifer Jason Leigh, she’s always been in my top all time dozen or so actresses so I welcome this project placing her back on the casting directors crossfire, even if her defiant glint and clandestine conjuring doesn’t quite muster the final act pay-off it devilishly deserves. The first act is clearly destined as some microcosm of the frontier that has been corralled from Ford’s influential Stagecoach,introducing us to the main players background, social conditioning and the wider political and historical environment, hoisted upon that heightened movie-world perch where realism is beaten to a bloody pulp by language of sensation. As for the visual experience you can’t deny that it’s a feast of the eyes, the anamorphic 2.67 frame a tombstone fatally angled on its side, the Odeon Leicester Square was never my favourite cinema by a long stretch but this sold out crowd did generate a warm and appreciative shared experience. Like Leone, like Aldritch and Ford QT understands that the vast hyperborean exteriors are just as expressive and mythic as the close-ups of the characters etched and snarling faces, as the overtures and undertows are shotgun blasted in the narrative with long speeches and soliloquies that some observers have understandably found fraught and exasperating.
Isn’t that what they always say, good artists create while great artists steal? The references and inspirations fall through the film like a flurry of scintillating celluloid snowflakes, although I’m yet to find a finely crafted menu of inspirations which usually greet a new film from the magpie maestro. Alongside The Thing and Stagecoach the first picture which springs to mind is Corbucci’s The Great Silence with its frosty and remorseless setting, an unusual choice for a Western which usually cantor through their dust parched desert and cacti littered landscapes. Those foundations should be the bulwark to spring into contemporary commentary and conclusions, after all the Western has always been a potent genre vehicle for America in particular examining its role in Vietnam, the balance of its racial harmony, or just a sad reflection on the empires genocidal, annihilating genesis. Tarantino is renowned for his shocking, brutal and unvarnished violence and this is potentially his most disturbing film yet on a purely visceral front, with one particularly sadistic moment set to punctuate the film before the breath exhale of the intermission seems overly degenerate, even as it toys with notions of myth and legend, falsehood and reputation which emerge as one of the films more successful spearpoints.
The defrost of the legendary Ennio Morricone for the project has paid dividends, although QT’s usual trick of contemporary music synthesised against an initially incongruous historical setting sees both The White Stripes and a credit closing Roy Orbison ballad failing to demolish their respective character theme targets. With his usual cinematographer collaborator Robert Richardson on board the visuals are teeth chatteringly wonderful, haloing the snow bound slaying with his unique vertical vectors, an achievement enough to guarantee a Blu-Ray purchase for the technical aspects alone. But the film feels like a greatest hits thrum of powerchords rather than an experimental new sound, the same functions and chords are all repeated and rehashed from earlier albums, from the speeches and shoot-outs, the hyper-real and the histrionics. Still, broadly speaking I’d be lying to say I didn’t enjoy the film, all three hours of it which builds to a final massacre that is guiltily entertaining, and maybe subsequent viewings might yield some musings on some of the submerged slitherings – that thin crust of civilisation barely keeping our violent natures in check, brutal state sanctioned murder versus isolated survival, our ancestors shared scrambling through the mud and viscera to build the hypocrisies and illusions of the modern world. There are certainly some interesting pointers on myth and storytelling, of how the West was built on reputation and status which Eastwood’s Unforgiven also gazed upon. All the characters in The Hateful Eight have previous lives, they clasp shield cloaked identities and names to build an aura around themselves, with tales of their crimes and atrocities bleeding into the snow. One major narrative thread is shown to be polluted with deceit and a tool to seduce the gullible, a survival pattern which should be interesting to examine on subsequent rewatches. Also deceptive are some of the directorial flourishes, QT deploys frequent use of the forced focus composite or split diopeter technique in the film, a tool beloved by one of his idols Brian De Palma. It fools the eyes into accepting two planar fields in conjunction which in fact have been separately photographed, a deep focus impersonation that crafts the spatial relations and thematic links between characters, threats and firearms. Normally these sort of instructions would be conjured by green screen technology or digital manipulation, but Richardson and Tarantino seem to have achieved this in camera the old school analogue way, which also adds to the films rich historical trappings.
Dividing the picture into chapters has been a Tarantino technique since Pulp Fiction which highlights to me the disjointed nature of his writing, a formalism, an announcement of intent which I’ve always found distancing, as I’ve said before he can certainly craft terrific individual scenes but they always seem to exist in isolation to each other, apart from one film which he co-wrote with another accomplice that we will be covering later this week. Breaking into the film as narrator to impart critical story information which occurs in The Hateful Eight is just…well…it’s just lazy, his defenders may claim that he is toying with screen conventions and mechanics which aligns with some of his other affectations, just like Godard had his characters shatter the fourth wall and speak to camera within his texts. Here I just don’t buy it, reminding the audience of the space, of the characters and the relations between them all could easily have been mastered in a show don’t tell which Hitchcock for example trusted his audience to absorb, while in this film it just throws you out of the movie just as its starting to gain momentum after the punctuating intermission. Structurally a second leap in narrative crucially teases a delay of gratification, snapping back to impart earlier story points which further stilts the trajectory to the inevitable, charnel-house climax. Frankly it is frustrating and you can’t help but consider 30, maybe 45 minutes clipped out of the film without any significant loss, a treaty more in tune with the opening sequence of Inglorious Basterds or perhaps more accurately the basement sequence, while instead we endure a truncated and stuttering narrative although when alighted upon the final chapter does have enough black-hearted laughs and queasy bloodshed to keep the acolytes humming. Maybe he has matured into a trenchant social commentator in his middle age as the film has generated a flurry of furious think-pieces, so I’d agree that there is an evolution beyond a mere self masturbatory, pop-cultural bubble gum purveyor of post-modern bricolage, and I can’t fault the assaults on liberal hypocritical sensibilities which he delights to squirm within – why should that word be completely banned from artistic discourse? Why shouldn’t we see horrible violence against women which is period accurate, when viewing the same against men is the norm? He’s been talking about a horror film next so maybe genre fans will actually get that giallo they’ve always waited for, it’s either that or some Eurocrime policier or out of the exploitation avenues he hasn’t yet walked. Taken at face value, with indulgent and self-reflective turns The Hateful Eight is nevertheless a powerful experience, a pastiche with purpose lurking beneath the blood-stained genre furs;