I’m a little late to the wake on this one, but felt I had to pay my respects. What a fantastic name and presence this dude had with a long running collaboration with the similarly robust Walter Hill, and he was also terrific in such cult favourites as Red Dawn, Deadwood and Sin City. I have a soft spot for Vietnam allegory Southern Comfort however, a important and frequently rewatched movie n my youth;
Well heck mister, I do declare we mecay have gone and cracked this here varmint, and broken this trail of mediocre movie musings – or should that be mediocre musings on movies? I’d heard vague rumblings on the social media trail that this new Texas set thriller was a terrific little steal, with another imperious performance from the almost always brilliant Jeff Bridges. As is my mojo these days I didn’t even see the trailer beforehand, simply assuming from the poster and a general aura that this was going to be another rural western-noir hybrid in the vein of Bad Day At Black Rock, High Sierra, U-Turn or No Country For Old Men, the nervous, furtive action supplanted to the prairies of the Lonestar state, leagues and latitudes away from the urban metropoli of East and West coast America. A couple of brothers, Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and recently paroled felon Tanner (Ben Foster) have embarked on a small scale robbery spree, following their mothers recent passing from a punishing bout of resource starving cancer. Although one wouldn’t exactly cite them as hardened, violent criminals there does seem to be a method to their madness, only hitting the smallest and quietest branches of major financial entities, in the tiny, tumbleweed towns that the 21st century seems to have forgot. Carefully the duo only sequester low denomination bills as to avoid the wrath of the federal authorities who only become activated when significant bounties are yielded, offering courtesy and compassion for their victims during the commencement of the crime, but also not afraid to give any uppity citizen a pistol-whupping should he threaten their desperate plight. More curiously the string of robberies is hinted as part of a wider strategy to secure some immediately urgent investment funds, with the promise of more permanent revenue streams being unlocked for persons and placements unknown, driven by a lurking thematic undercurrent which is where Hell Or High Water finds its present-day purchase.
On their trail is the hulking persona of Ranger Marcus Hamilton, Bridges on his best form since 2009’s Oscar winning Crazy Heart. He’s career lawman mere weeks from retirement, engaged in constant banter with his half Cherokee / half Mexican partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) who absorbs his colleagues gentle barbs with a resigned indifference, returning ethnic slurs with volleys of his comrades imminent retirement and subsequent premature death. The ethnicity becomes more important as the landscape and its denizens slowly become more animated through the films sinuous script. chequering the Mid-West’s suppressed history which swings from the near genocide of the indigenous people to the criminal conquering of the Mexican state in the 19th century, both blood-soaked events casting long shadows that still loom large on America’s modern, shared history. My expectations that this was going to a single note, brooding noirish tale was swiftly struck down by the films occasionally flippant and lightly comedic tone, in fact much of its charm and enjoyment arises from the camaraderie and banter that flows between the two groups of similarly inclined units – the older lawmen and their racial jousting, the younger brothers and their familial affection. That tone is not afraid to carefully switch to the serious when the plot demands it however, as this is a film which takes its violence and its consequences as seriously as it deserves, and if there is a brooding undercurrent it is one driven of despair and futile discontent, as the wider economic forces cause desperate men to resort to desperate measures. I think this is the first film I’ve seen Pine in other than the vaguely entertaining but hardly memorable Star Trek pictures which is even remotely good, he is quite the revelation as a driven but exhausted man who despite his matrimonial separation still burns with that male prerogative of providing for his family, boxed into a criminal corner with no other option than to violate the law. If you like, you could phrase the entire film as being written by Cormac McCarthy the morning after he got laid, with all those familiar locales, masochistic fascinations and generational barbed-wire bonds spun with a humorous and almost frothy sense of humor, gnawing away at the existentialist dread of the vast and uncaring unknown.
Performance wise however this is of course Bridge’s film, director David MacKenzie citing both Thunderbolt & Lightfoot and The Last Picture Show as key films he digested for inspiration, providing Jeff with another canvas on which to project his second secret weapon – it’s sense of place and environment. For me it’s a little like Fat City or Wise Blood, they are two admired films which I’ve never quite warmed to in terms of plot or story, but I can appreciate for their tone which is generated in the locales and ancient canyons and ravines, the wide, lonely badlands of Middle America still slithering with near biblical beasts and righteous wrath. Alongside these performances then the films final ace in the hole is the potent is the economic malaise underpinning the entire endeavor, and who these three conflating forces come together in such a assured mixture of character, place and purpose. Hell Or High Water is a tale of reasonably decent men being pushed by the economic maelstrom, where sheer survival begats any respect for the law when the major crooks – the corporations who are crushing the lives of the disaffected and disenfranchised – remain utterly aloof and impervious to prosecution. At one point Parker soliloquies a lovely speech on how his land and birthrights was stolen a trio of generations ago by the grandparents of the folks who now in turn are having their birthrights stolen by the corporations, in a seemingly endless cycle of suffering, greed and theft. Aside from the thematic thrusts MacKenzie keeps his cross-hairs trained on the genre pyrotechnics, the scattering of robberies aren’t synchronized to some pulsing score or nerve shredding editing techniques, instead they play out with all their own compact and , constrained drama, leading to the inevitable heightened stakes and tragic incidents that usually conflate when you mix frightened people, unforeseen circumstances and lethal firearms. I didn’t find Nick Cave and Warren Ellis honky-tonk influenced score as atmospheric as most which surprised me as a major fan of their work, like the film it was more jaunty than you’d expect from their previous aural efforts, but that didn’t distract from this assured diamond rattlesnake of a movie, a serpentine beast with a lethal, poisonous bite.
MacKenzie and his screenwriter Taylor Sheridan have layered the film with a scattering of subtle touches, which may explain why the film has lingered on the so called black-list for so long. Despite the masculine banter around ethnicity, around professional efficiency cloaking any feminine expression of affection you can see Parker’s face occasionally contort in exasperation as his patience is tested to the limits, when yet another racist epithet is almost carelessly cast. It’s an interesting take on various ethnicities and faiths working in not exactly harmonious but lightly suspicious unity, as the film refreshingly doesn’t go anywhere near any queries over immigration which has so paralyzed the modern body politic on both sides of the Atlantic. Even the side characters add colour and pathos to the illegal endeavor, from a sympathetic waitress who resists the lawmen’s appeal to her better nature after Toby leaves her a lucrative, mortgage supporting tip, to a memorable scene stealing elderly waitress who re-defines the concept of the customer always being right, in perhaps the best customer retail exchange since Jack ordered off the menu in Five Easy Pieces. The final confrontation is a rarity, pivoting on character rather than conflict, charting the assured final steps of a near perfectly paced movie. I’m looking forward to a small screen revisit to tease out some of the finer details buried in its sparse, directorial style which is reminiscent of a Don Siegel, a Robert Aldritch or Raoul Walsh, letting the place and characters tell the story, rather than clinging to intrusive camerawork or aesthetic antics which could deviate away from the films quietly powerful internal engine. Hell Or High Water isn’t a film that is going to change the world, it isn’t destined to perch atop any of the all time great lists, but what it does achieve is sorely remiss from this years American film – the commitment in taking an adult audience through a compelling story, crafting memorable and empathetic characters, varnished with contemporaneous layers and musings which linger long after its fruitful and thoughtful finale;
This year is just getting better and better isn’t it? It wasn’t enough for Robin Hardy, director of the ultimate cult horror The Wicker Man to pass away over the weekend, but I’ve also just heard that Michael Cimino has also left us. No doubt all the obituaries will raise the spectre of Heavens Gate and the death knell of 1970’s cinema, I’m in the firm failed masterpiece gang;
‘You got a smoke?‘ – As we approach our tenth birthday I knew it was time to finally broach a very serious milestone for the Menagerie, covering a sacred text that I have referenced and revered throughout our long and winding journey. This is becoming something of the year of the Carpenter with not one, not two but three JC events which demand my attention, and when I saw the screening schedule of this stimulating season knew I had to finally turn my attention to one of the unimpeachable foundations of my movie-love, a key text which had quite an influence on my evolving obsession with all things celluloid. Given my age of course I’d been beguiled by the likes of Indiana Jones, E.T. and Star Wars in my infantile appreciation, just like all the other members of my generation, but at some point those mainstream movies mutated into a love of John Carpenter movies, just as the idea of films having directors or some form of creative agent behind them was starting to coalesce in my perambulating mind. This was the golden age of the VHS format and I soon started to acquire a collection of those big bundles of tape and plastic, and I distinctly recall buying The Fog and Escape From New York for the princely sum of £5.99 each, a king’s ransom when your paper round income barely kept me in comic books and Michael Moorcock paperback’s from our local purveyor of all things geektastic. Somehow Assault On Precinct 13 had already infiltrated my mind as I can’t recall a period when it wasn’t in my all-time top five, it must have started with some late-night TV viewing, where that melee of exotic L.A. street gangs, a prowling electronica score and badass anti-heroes combined to show me what other genre birthed treasures lay beyond the mainstream Hollywood blockbuster template. I have been keeping an eye out for a London screening for the past fifteen years so when I learnt of its inclusion on the Prince Charles hosted season you can imagine my reaction, and although this screening was over a month ago I’ve kept this on the backburner as I wanted to synchronise such a milestone as the first piece written from my new home – just a little marker that heralds a new chapter of this quiet corner of the internet. So let’s begin at the beginning which is usually a logical choice, the lights dim, the curtains part and we’re back to 1976;
It’s an oft quoted observation but I love how films of this era took their time with their titles, they eased you into the picture through a slow environmental acclimatisation while discreetly signalling some of the semiotics of the experience to come through colour, font and graphic design choices, and of course that pulverising score which sets the seething tempo of the entire picture. In terms of plot the story is as finessed and sleek as the films compact run-time – 1970’s LA, and the cops have launched a violent crack-down on the various deadly street gangs that are boiling in a multi-racial cauldron of social malaise. When a particularly virulent capo guns down a young girl in cold blood – a scene which still causes the jaw to drop today – her bereaved father takes lethal vengeance, invoking the wrath of the street gangs as he flees to the supposed sanctuary of an adjacent police precinct. Staffed with a skeleton crew of officers headed by newly promoted First Lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) Precinct 13 is scheduled to decant to new premises, hence the isolated communications and resources the lawmen have at their disposal. Coincidently, a group of bus-bound convicts are diverted to the station when one of their group is taken ill, a rather unfortunate development as their arrival coincides with the gangs initial efforts to circle the chain of revenge in a natives versus civilisation scenario that’s not a million miles away from the template of a John Ford or Howard Hawks picture….
I’ll confess I was a little anxious about this screening, slightly concerned that a film I haven’t revisited for a few years wouldn’t stack up as so many films deteriorate with the changing times, shattering the foundations of Menagerie’s mecca like a drone strike on an orphanage. Does Assault highlight and ameliorate the great implacable mysteries of the human condition? No, not really. Does it speak to common truths across borders and ages, caressing the very contours of the soul through its aesthetic brilliance ? Probably not. It is however a tautly crafted, immensely entertaining genre picture with a motley crew of engaging and amusing characters, armed with a devastatingly influential electronica score which unlocked new realms of cinematic and aural obsession and appreciation. For me it is one of these guilty pleasures that will never fade in affection, an artefact, a text indelibly etched on the soul like that book your Dad recommend you read which subsequently inspired your career choices, like that album that formed the soundtrack of your wooing, romance and subsequent break-up of your first true love, a documents that you will carry with you until the day you die, a relic which embroiders the fabric of your life. In terms of context it is one of the key cult films of the 1970’s for a certain generation, appealing to the same breed of street smart urban horror fans who also gravitated to The Warriors, The Wanderers and Dawn Of The Dead, speared by the vicious vision of this strange, violent and colourful concept of America that seemed a million miles away in that pre-globalised adolescent era. I can’t make any claim or argue for its position beyond more than a finely honed urban thriller with calibrated through a genuine genre affection, but for me it still holds that indescribable quality, a sense of pungent nostalgia which I’ll admit can occasionally obscure a film’s latent shortcomings and weaknesses. Its about tribes and tribal affiliations so I’d offer a meta-reading, as when the likes of Laurent Garnier used to drop the soundtrack into his techno sets or the likes of Gasper Noe aligns a pornographically provocative scene in his recent film Love to that same slithering score you know you’re in an exclusive little gang, hostile to outsiders and committed to the bloody and change strewn end.
‘I got me a plan, it’s called save-ass, and here’s how it works – I jump out of the window, and I run like a bastard’ – In terms of the screening itself I assumed a digital experience, a prediction which was vindicated and to be expected. The anamorphic widescreen looked pixel-poised terrific and although I would have preferred an analogue 35mm screening I doubt there is a single 35mm print in the country or indeed Europe, although the French quite wisely always liked Carpenter and recognised his influences and inspirations as being sourced from a rich tradition of American genre gentrification. The Prince Charles always puts on a comfortable screening environment and ameliorates an appreciative crowd, it’s strange that I don’t make more of an effort to go to screenings there considering the competitive ticket price and amusing panoply of programming. My lore and knowledge wasn’t as wide as it now is when I first became enamoured with the film, but now it is blatantly obvious how Carpenter transplanted the Hawksian western to a ghetto glued Los Angeles for Assault, forming a rag-tag bunch of desperados, lawmen and support functionaries into a self-sustaining group whom have to bond, respect and trust each other to overcome their outsider alien foe, with just a suggestion of an equally footed romance between the main players to lace the danger with lightning strike of empathic energy. Carpenter’s use of space is his masterful metier, composing movement and threat in the frame and cutting action scenes to an expert choreography of information and trembling tempo, a claustrophobic master of the isolated siege movie – think Prince Of Darkness, The Thing, and Ghosts Of Mars – Ah, yes, OK, maybe don’t dwell on the last one too much. For the aficionado it’s also fun to link through the directors stock repertoire of supporting players, with Charles Cyphers, Nancy Loomis and Frank Doubleday going on to feature in other Carpenter crafts, that’s just one of those activities we geeks like to indulge in as some sort of pointless celluloid cerebral masturbation. Although Darwin Joston is my favourite – and more on him below – kudos also goes to Laurie Zimmer as the resourceful Leah, a pioneer Hawksian woman who gives as good as she gets, steadfastly fighting alongside the men instead of shrieking in terror when the carnage begins. She didn’t have much of a career and Stoker was best known for one of the latter Planet Of The Apes movies, this however being the age of ephemera guess what? Someone in 2003 only went and made a whole fucking documentary on Zimmer although I can’t find trace of it to buy or rent, and if you really want useless trivia then the little girl who gets clipped is apparently now one of ‘star’ members of the Housewife’s Of Beverley Hills ‘reality‘ show.
‘Life Just Seems To Pass Us By’ – The film seems to be pulled in the slipstream of so called facist works like Dirty Harry which took a similar black or white (if you’ll excuse the racial overtones) posture to the dregs of the criminal scum, the street gang members are projected as faceless cannon-fodder injuns, with no positioning of their social or economic realities to indicate why they might band together against the persecution of the authoritarian police state. In my view nor should there be as this isn’t that kind of picture, it’s a pure character driven action film which offers no political diatribe or satire that the libertarian streak of his later films would so confidently communicate – They Live and Escape From New York being the prime examples. We’re in no doubt that these silhouettes are mindless, almost insect herded murderers, with no quarter given nor asked for, a notion of a formless existential evil beyond our comprehension which is a nebulous world view that runs through the remainder of Carpenters horror pictures like the stygian river Styx flows through Hades. I love the frustrated character of Wells whom eagle-eyed viewers will recognise as Rocky’s sparring partner or perhaps as the Snowcat engineer in the longer domestic cut of The Shining. If you think that’s particularly cinephile obsessive then I’ll go one better, which brings us to the lamented figure of Austin Stoker. He delivers a pitch-perfect performance as the mysterious Napoleon Wilson, a turn I worried wouldn’t age as well as the rest of the picture, treading a fine line between stoic, enigmatic coolness and exploitation efficiency – he knows he’s in a fun little genre picture but treats the material with an appropriate modicum of respect. It’s a real shame that his early death guillotined a potential inclusion in the ‘oh that guy’ portfolio of interesting character actors, like John Cazale he seemed to have a potentially promising career cut woefully short. He appeared in two other films – a blink and you’ll miss it doctor in The Fog, and most cultishly he also made an incongruous appearance in Eraserhead– and that’s how you link early Lynch to latter Kubrick back to early Carpenter my learned friends, the master is now in session…..
‘I have my moments’ – Two years later Carpenter built on his modest film festival success by leveraging a few hundred thousand bucks out of international producers Irwin Yablans and Moustapha Akkad to finance his and his then girlfriend Debra Hill’s suburban horror tale about a babysitter terrorised by a indestructible bogeyman, and ushered in a whole new horror genre in the process. Halloween and The Thing are probably Carpenters masterpieces, the absolute apotheosis of their respective genres that have never been bettered within the structure of their symbols and semiotics, but for me it will always be that pulsing score, the silenced bark of the M16 armalite’s and the weary wise-cracking of Napoleon Wilson that occupies the apotheosis of this favoured auteur, as much as I love his entire 1974 – 1988 body of work. Naturally I’ve seen the remake and unsurprisingly dismissed it, it wasn’t a bad film as these projects go it was just kinda pointless really, it didn’t have the confidence or skill to do anything interesting or contemporary with the characters or setting as an update for 2005. So that’s that, another crucial foundation of the Menagerie finally gets its dues, and already the new releases I want to cover are stacking up in a holding position like some frenzied air-traffic control official’s work programme, let alone the launch of a major new season which begins in glorious 4K at the BFI. But we’re not done with Mr. Carpenter yet as we have another crucial centrepiece of the oeuvre to cross off with an extraordinarily exciting 70mm print of a 1980’s cult classic, so never forget that it’s all in the reflexes;
I gave this ravenous little genre Western short thrift last year following it’s initial LFF rodeo, so now that it has miraculously secured a theatrical release in the UK I feel obliged to craft some deeper thoughts of support. Bone Tomahawk follows the grisly, exhausted trail of a number of Westerns that have unexpectedly clustered together over the past twenty-four months, and apart from the obvious high-profile expeditions The Reverent and The Hateful Eight can I once again strongly recommend Slow West and specifically The Homesman as a heart-breaking modern addition to the historical paddock? This movie however is an altogether different beast, more Andre De Toth or Robert Aldritch than John Ford given its leather weathered tautology, the frontier as an unforgiving nest of lethal flora and fauna where the ungodly savage walks abroad. When his fiancé is kidnapped by a mysterious faction of brutal indigenous troglodytes the inconveniently disabled Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) whips up a posse to retrieve her from a fate worse than death, with noble Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) and his slightly eccentric deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins) in tow. Arthur has broken his leg which slows the pursuit in frantic frustration, even with the dogged determinism of the sharply dressed but deadly John Brooder (Matthew Fox) who harbours a deep homicidal hatred for this particular tribe of natives. We’ll draw a line in the sand here synopsis wise as the film cantors into deeply ghoulish territory, more Deadwood than Drums Across The Mohawk in terms of its grisly authenticity of the era, a contemporarily shocking disregard for mercy or clemency from either the indigenous imps or interloping Europeans.
When will these ignorant, haughty Christian white devils finally learn that one does not disrespect with nor fuck with ancient Indian burial grounds eh? Bone Tomahawk has been shot as a movie, cast as a movie, written as movie and directed as a movie, so it’s such a shame that according to the distributor gods it wasn’t judged to be projected as a movie, as apart from a handful of nominal festival screenings the film went straight to the streaming and VOD ghetto in North America. It is quite a wonder then that its got a modest theatrical release here, but it certainly deserves the format as a immensely entertaining remorseless slice of frontier horror. It’s a men on a mission picture where a rag-tag group of well defined characters group together to conquer the wilderness and battle hidden elemental foes, the savages seeming to rise from the primordial ooze as agents of grotesque fury. There is plenty of banter and period specific dialogue which reminds one of the best of a Hawksian camaraderie or even John Carpenter genre classical contraptions, but it doesn’t labour the context and drives forward on a clear narrative arrow which has thrills and gut slashed spills in equal measure. Rather than offer some lyrical or elegiac genre statement the pace is more compact and brutal, Bone Tomahawk is a hard bitten genre piece more attuned to a tobacco stained dime-store periodical than a Cormac McCarthy epic, although it share his relentless gaze on the grotesque and cruel, almost alien wilderness.
It is also a prime example of the ever widening gulf between the micro budgeted films and the franchise behemoths, as nervous industry distributors and exhibitors are increasingly unwilling to book precious theatre time and take a minor gamble on a picture with a few named stars. Sure Russell, Jenkins and Fox are not exactly A list pedigree but they are still recognizable talents, and although the genre isn’t normally seen as moneyspinner you’d think they could have some salute Kurt whom’s agreement to the project for scale essentially unlocked the sluice gates to the rest of the funding and the talent trailing acting posse. Sure you could hack twenty, maybe thirty minutes out of the films middle section without any recognizable deterioration which is not uncommon for a slightly hesitant debut, but the film retains an assured voice with one sequence in particular that immediately goes down in the annals of genre history as shudderingly severe. Of the well oiled cast Kurt slips into the 19th century with the dour ease that he always musters, Fox is surprisingly memorable as the merciless pistolsmith, but it is Richard Jenkins who once again steals the show, murmuring all the best lines with ease with a haggard self deprecation that got numerous laughs when I saw it last year. Genre fans should look out for exploitation totem Sid Haig in a small but pivotal opening role as seen above, and a frankly unrecognisable Sean Young which suggests she will not be awarded a cameo in the soon to be lensing Blade Runner sequel. The news is a few months old but I’m sure some of you will share in the glee that despite all the omens HBO have finally sanctioned a two-hour revisit to Deadwood which is just fantastic news, and I have to wonder if this small yet not insignificant spike in horse operas hasn’t loosened those tightly wound purse strings?
The Western is dead – long live the Western. If you’re a perceptive brave then you’ve possibly seen a recent cyclical bend to America’s pioneer history on the silver screen, as a defunct genre, long exiled to Boot Hill mutters a faint pulse of resurrection. You might have fallen for the blitzkrieg marketing for The Hateful Eight which framed it as an adult antidote to a certain space opera that still dominates multiplexes, a plea for clemency which follows in the trail of last year’s critical darlings Slow West and Bone Tomahawk. Are three films enough to warrant a mini-renaissance of the horse opera? Probably not, but if you inspect the fly-ridden corpse for further signs of life then you might be surprised that there are fresh drag marks into the wilderness, including The Salvation, The Homesman and Meek’s Cutoff over the past few seasons, with Jane Got A Gun, Far From Men, The Keeping Room and Broken Horse still yearning to find their homes among the prairies of the European exhibition market. All these have been eclipsed by foreign tycoon Alejandro González Iñárritu new film The Reverent which has recently been bathed in award nomination glory, a sinewy behemoth that has levered a $150 million budget from Iñárritu’s post Birdman Academy award success, with a litany of hellish production obstacles to add to the myth of great art arising from great difficulties. In the Missouri delta a frostbitten troop of fur trappers are ambushed by a grim Arikara war party, Hugh Glass (Leonardo De Caprio) and his mixed race son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) fleeing the massacre with a tawdry group of terrified survivors. The group is led by the purpose driven but overwhelmed Captain Hendry (Domahall Gleeson) whose unstable leadership just manages to keep one step ahead of their pursuers in the frigid wilderness, until Glass has a rather unfortunate dalliance with a maternally mauling grizzly bear and is mortally wounded in the films petrifying, vicious pinnacle. Hendry makes the grievous decision to abandon Glass with his son and two companions as protectors while they rush to civilization for reinforcements, with the grizzled John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) agitating for a merciful end to Glass’s suffering growing more urgent as the shrieking Arikara war-party closes in for the final kill…..
Iñárritu has long held a fascination for stories concerning fathers and sons, a hereditary interjection he has inserted into this American fable which the real Glass suffered alone back in the early 19th century as part of General Ashley’s expedition. This amendment to the historical record is not the first of missteps along this tortured, inhospitable and uncannily sublime odyssey. Like the courageous doomed defense of the Alamo or George Washington’s inability to emit falsehoods Glass’s survival odyssey has ballooned to mythic proportions in American culture, an ineffable allegory for the endurance of the pioneer spirit pitted against a frigid yet beautiful virgin land ready for the rape of free enterprise’s tearing talons. In Iñárritu’s hands that nationalist fervor is drowned in the raging waters of pure remorseless survival, wielding the landscape and its flora like a furious cudgel to beat his themes into our cranium, the impervious nature of man to avenge his kindred, the reservoir of grief that cannot be drained by any measure of blood sodden revenge. Survival and vengeance have always been keen drivers of the Western genre which this film harnesses as mount and saddle on the narrative trail, but these preoccupations get lost among Glass’s stumble through the vast wilderness, through icy rapids and frozen valleys, pure hatred propelling him to wreck his biblical retribution. The Reverent stumbles in its snowstorm of titanic influences, even from afar the film is hobbled from comparisons to Herzog’s enduring masculinity and Malick’s rueful celebrations of the divine, but there are also pious hymns to Robert Bresson through a seraphic sense of the spiritual, the immaculate sacrifice wisping throughout the frozen tundra, although Iñárritu’s philosophical stretch exceeds his formal and theological grasp. The first half an hour is staggering filmmaking on a pure visceral and visual level, the first nation attack explodes with all the remorseless carnage of the landing sequence in Saving Private Ryan, indiscriminate chaos and lacerating death erupting at every corner of the screen, in a long unbroken sequence that picks up the fortunes of both sides of the melee as it passes from one combatant to the next. Suitably stunned the rest of the film can’t hope to achieve such dizzying heights, as the rest of the film follows in a semi-paralysis of bruised skies and rushing, crystal cold water.
I’m loathe to again bow in pious supplication to the visual dimensions of a movie but you simply cannot sermonize on The Revenant and not revere it’s absolutely stunning photography, and even after a single screening I’ll assert that this is one of the most staggeringly beautiful films of the past few years. From the intimacy of the shivering fire shrouded interiors to the vast and glorious landscape exteriors, Chivo is the front-runner for his third Oscar in a row after Gravity and Birdman which will justifiably achieve Academy Award history. Apart from Lubeski’s visuals tribute must also be paid to the sound, a fantastic flotsam of animal cries and weather effects shrieking around the auditorium, punctuated with Ryuichi Sakamoto‘s percussion heavy minimalist score. It is odd then that despite these primordial ingredients that the film is so emotionally numb, there is no real connection to Glass nor his frantic scrabble for survival, while even quick asides to harness some moments of shared humanity seems irrelevant and forced. At one point Glass and a Pawnee guide take respite on their journey, and wonder at the beauty of snowflakes settling upon their tongues. In another Glass’s dream montages give us some backstory on his wife spiritual importance and her cruel, violent fate. Both hang distant and uncomfortable in the picture as interludes rescued from Malick’s cutting room floor, rather than a celestial beckoning to the fathomless mysteries of nature or a bereaved beauty which it seems is what Iñárritu intended.
Tom Hardy’s Oscar nomination makes a little more sense now that I’ve seen the film, wrapped in those icicle etched furs he is a guttural, trollish trapper who seems to be have been belched forth from Hades itself. He is no cypher however, his motives and actions arise from an uncomfortable selfish realism that mark him as a believable bastard not just a moustache twirling villain, but again after Bane and Max he is practically unintelligible in certain sequences, letting his hefty stature and furtive, darting eyes do all the talking. Similarly Leo utters maybe a dozen lines in the entire odyssey in an immensely impressive, physically draining performance, but for me he just didn’t sell the righteous rage he’s meant to be suffering, the internalized fury that keeps his black-heart beating just didn’t stretch from the screen and frankly I just didn’t care if he failed to fulfil his quest or not. Both performances are captured through precision sharp close-ups netted by the crews Arri Alexa 65 digital camera, their agonised faces looming over the pain and suffering like tableau in some stained glass window, an unconscious riposte to Tarantino’s recent analogue insistence. Unlike his chamber piece however this narrative reads like a condensed survivalist manual, a compacted Bear Grylls season boiled down to a 150 minute expedition, with desperate measures such as the grim Tautaun homage causing me to actually burst out laughing and immediately break any transformative spell.
The presentation of first nation people thankfully doesn’t cleave to the noble savage cliché which usually affects the Hollywood system, their indiscriminate cruelty and vengeance just as elemental and natural as the Europeans greed and indifference, although Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o) hunt of his kidnapped squaw daughter was a little garbled in narrative turns as the main driver of his people’s relentless pursuit of retribution. If you want to put hairs on your chest then here is Michael Mann interviewing Iñárritu on stage, an event I’m sure which influenced the Y chromosome constitution of the audience just by the testosterone churning through the auditoriums air. Memes are already rampant on the already infamous bear attack sequence, quite simply it is staggering achievement, not just for the physical intimidation and gruesome realism but also for its painfully protracted nature. It doesn’t quite 100% convince with the matted CGI hair follicles but it’s pretty damn close, and the craftsmen have all been sworn to secrecy as to how they blended the digital with the on-set physical. Any fans of Cormac McCarthy who are following the long gestating adaption of Blood Meridian may have finally identified its dream director and team should that project ever come to fruition, as you must applaud The Revernant’s physical immediacy which approaches the lunatic vision of Aguirre Wrath of God or Apocalypse Now – at one majestic point an avalanche is detonated in the deep background, hundreds of miles away as Glass makes a key emotional breakthrough in the foreground. Although this hyperborean hegira is sure to leave you with images and memories of the remorseless beauty and danger lurking at the edges of the world the effect feels transient, an emotional void and lack of purpose that all the Academy Awards that the film is sure to win come February just can’t and won’t vanquish;
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;
I’m not the world’s biggest Tarantino acolyte, but I’ll admit this sounds like a genuine ‘event’, cinematically speaking. I’m guessing this will be projected at the Odeon Leicester Square here in the UK, one of the few sites that has the technical capacity. Let’s hope the movie matches the ambitions of the format eh?
Well that was quite a weekend, mohitos in a skybar over St. Pauls, a friends birthday celebration pub-crawl through Soho, and three solid movies. I’ll try to find some time next week to expand on my comments but suffice to say we had good appreciative crowds, a few special guests, so there is plenty to keep me occupied next week. First of all back to Friday and the (for me) eagerly awaited Son Of Saul;
Suffice to say this was incredible, an exceptionally harrowing and tough watch, and one of those films that while admired I don’t think I ever want to see again. I mean that in a praiseworthy way, the technique was befitting the grim subject matter, and I think we have a major new talent on our hands. Next up we moved into documentary waters;
Far too short at 80 minutes as I could have easily watched another hour, especially with the likes of David Fincher, Wes Anderson, Oliver Assayas, James Gray, Paul Schrader and of course Marty educating on us why Hitch still matters. They lavished attention on Psycho and Vertigo in particular, in probably the best film theory related documentary of the year. Then we scuttled back to British waters;
One of the most eagerly anticipated films of the festival, and I was fortunate enough to get a ticket for the second public screening. Wheatley did a Q&A which was quite funny, and while I still think Kill List is his best film to date this is essential viewing. A special guest arrived in the form of Loki himself who got a massive roar from the crowd, and he read a brilliantly prescient quote from a 1978 interview with Ballard which predicted reality TV, selfies, and pretty much the entire modern narcissistic & interconnected world. Several million kudos points for Wheatley selecting this as the final track as the credits rolled;
And finally the best horror Western of recent years – they warned us this was going to be exceptionally violent and they were not wrong. Alas no sign of Kurt as a special guest (seeing Macready in the flesh would probably put me in hospital anyway) but the producers were on hand for an insight into the films long gestation. Some of my reviews have dropped here, here here and here, more to come next week…..
A new addition to my LFF schedule finally gets a trailer, and early word from North American screenings is deliciously good. Always fun to see Kurt back in the saddle eh?