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January 02, 2016

The Hateful Eight

Going to be spoiling this one too,a bit, as I will in most of my film writing this year; mostly I'm looking at the beginning. I won't necessarily feel the need to disclose this all the time, when I talk about older movies, but in new films I think I will.

The film-making is fantastic. The landscapes of the opening scenes are beautiful, and that beauty extends to the interior where much of the film takes place. The choices of camera placement and shot are wonderful. It makes me long for more opportunities to see more films in the 70mm format (as did The Master before it).

The acting is terrific, from Kurt Russell's channeling of John Wayne to Samuel L. Jackson's balding bounty hunter to Tim Roth's foppish hangman to Jennifer Jason Leigh's unrepentant criminal to Bruce Dern's old Southern general, sitting bitterly by the fire. Nearly every performance completely crackles just as that fireplace does.

The script is clever and taut and tense and replete with both the casual racial and gendered slurs we expect from Tarantino and also the falsely elevated almost Shakespearean speech of something like True Grit that makes a certain breed of Western stand apart. The cadences, the puffery, the storytelling that'll just bring you to the edge of your seat. The script has all of this.

And in the end, it's all in service of what feels like the most artful "fuck you" to an audience from a writer-director I've ever seen. I couldn't like this movie, even though I've managed to quite enjoy his last couple (and loved his earliest work), which have further extended the violence that has always been his hallmark.

This is really a shame for me. I can see what Tarantino is doing from the very opening moments. In a series of opening shots, we see a stagecoach tearing across a snow-covered landscape. It's all slopes, criss-crossing the wide frame and each other. For minutes, there isn't a single straight line: there's the bowed outward wood of the stagecoach doors, the curves of the horses' backs, the drooping reins, hell, even the fences through the woods are crooked, zigzagging as they poke through the piled snow. We come prepared for everything being false. In the literal opening shot, Tarantino even gives us a close-up of a Crucifix -- invoking Fellini both by having that be the first image we see after reading "The 8th Film from Quentin Tarantino" simultaneously calling bits of the opening to both La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2.

I'm a film nerd and boy howdy do I love this stuff. The image of a snowed over Christ carved out of an unvarnished and aging wood, suffering on a stone cross, amongst all of these images out of true point us directly in the direction of just how little traditional senses of morality or ethics are going to figure in this film. It's everywhere in these early scenes: in the wave of Russell's mustaches to the curved hem of Jackson's cape.

If only the story and the interactions between these characters weren't so ugly.

I mean, I realize, this is sort of the point. There's something of a corrective at work here, both in how ugly the West really was and not the mythological frontier of Western movies two generations ago, of just how deep a scar our nation's founding sin of slavery has left in us, and how powerfully it and the Civil War to attempt to end that sin drove us all apart. In a time where nationalism again is center-stage in America, with an election coming up, it's probably a good idea to shine some bright light in the corners of our national identity. Sadly, it sometimes feels like we haven't learned anything.

He establishes these as the themes; Jackson's Marquis Warren is able to enter the stagecoach with Kurt Russell's John Ruth in part on the strength of a letter from President Lincoln that Warren carries in his pocket. It's a totem, and it carries the power of a totem, and so naturally soon thereafter Leigh's character spits on it. No symbol is safe. The war is over, but it'll be a long time before the wounds are healed. If ever.

Leigh's Daisy Demorgue is the fulcrum on which the drama rests -- John Ruth is bringing her in for the bounty on her head, and it is a quirk of his that he prefers to bring in his bounties alive. Russell's old and weary John Wayne impersonation is spot-on; his populist motivation is that he likes to keep everyone employed, even the executioner. But having Demorgue chained to him for days is like putting a wolverine on a leash and constantly poking it with a stick. She bites back as often as she can, and he does what little he can to tame her, elbowing her in the face or throwing hot stew all over her.

They pick up another straggler and make their way for shelter, Minnie's Haberdashery, a sort of inn and store and home all in one, and with the blizzard hard on them they put away the horses and run a line out to the barn and the outhouse, before settling in for good to wait it out. And here they meet four more who will make up the rest of the Hateful Eight, and the drama and mystery will ratchet up considerably.

Although there's a bit of violence in the stagecoach, accompanied with both verbal and slapstick comedy, Tarantino really starts to unwind once he gathers all his characters together. Ruth knows right off that something isn't right, and he enlists Warren's help in keeping guns trained on the large single-room cabin's occupants. There have been enough doubts sowed along the way -- the missing Minnie and Sweet Dave, the normal proprietors, and the Mexican who is watching the place in the meantime. The mystery and tension are palpable -- just how is all this going to shake out?

What follows is where Tarantino loses me, tonally, and he never gets me back. Having deprived the occupants of their weapons, Warren puts one of his own close at hand to Bruce Dern's General Smithers, late of the Confederate Army, come out to Wyoming to try and find out what happened to his son. Warren hypnotically weaves a tale of that son's death, which I won't repeat, but whether it's even true isn't the point -- it's to goad Smithers into reaching for that gun so that Warren will be justified in shooting him.

The Intermission comes up right then and following it there are more revelations than one can count and a level of gore that wouldn't be out of place in an Evil Dead movie. Everyone is made out to be a snarling beast, and if it weren't clear how much Tarantino was relishing this I might have had a different reaction. In Inglourious Basterds, I could kind of get behind it, because the animating spirit seemed to be that Melanie Laurent figure in the smoke of her theater, getting her revenge on the evil men who had taken her family and the life that should have been hers. Art and film with its beautiful lies triumph there. In Django Unchained, I similarly could give way to the underlying animating force -- Django's love for his wife driving him to track her down and rescue her. Love conquers even the worst of what our country has had to offer.

Here? Here there's nothing but a sneering, laughing, mocking nihilism. Nothing: not law, not religion, not family, not even that greatest of Presidents, but nothing counters the beasts inside these characters. If Tarantino could have shown a little less glee while gazing into that abyss, I might have found more to like here amongst the beauty of its craft. It's the most wonderfully made movie I've ever hated. I guess that means it does what it says on the tin.

Posted by Brett Douville at January 2, 2016 02:08 PM