Tuesday, January 12, 2016

'The Hateful Eight' (2015) directed by Quentin Tarantino

The Hateful Eight is a stubborn, difficult and unwieldy beast. It's three hours long. It mostly takes place in a single room. It's composed of wilfully long conversations between unlikeable men. Scenes are studded with uncomfortably casual violence against women. The word "nigger" peppers most scenes. Even the 70mm celluloid itself sounds like a pain in the arse - weighing in at a hefty 250lb and a couple of kilometers long.

But, make no bones about it, this movie is fucking grrrrrrreat.

The setup is so straightforward that it could be ripped from any cheapo thriller. Bounty hunter John "the Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell) is bringing in murderer Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Her trip to the gallows is delayed by a blizzard, stranding the characters in an isolated roadhouse, Minnie's Haberdashery.

The single room building traps a genuinely hateful crew of scum, liars and and sadists in close proximity. Each comes stacked with ulterior motives, dark secrets and murderous intent - and each is armed to the teeth. By the time the credits roll the wooden planks of Minnie's will run red with blood, brain matter, liquefied internal organs and puke.

This is easily Tarantino's most nihilistic work to date; a forensic investigation into American history and folklore that concludes with a diagnosis of incurable systematic rot. With its skeletal narrative and broad archetypes, the film begs us to view it as parable. with Minnie's Haberdashery a miniature United States of America. Now, this isn't a remotely subtle metaphor - Tarantino goes so far as to have his characters divide the room I Love Lucy-style between Union North and Confederate South: "The fireplace will be Georgia and the bar is Philadelphia."

Within this snowglobe are men that who've stepped straight out of the American subconscious. Swaddled in thick animal skins and glaring out from under impressive facial hair, they jockey each other for dominance as they playact a warped ideal of justice. 

The omnipresent threat of violence acts as a catalyst for the most volatile fractures in the American psyche: endemic racism, capital punishment, fear and hatred of women, historical divisions and gun control. Tarantino rubs salt into these wounds, laying out his portrait of an society with its foundations sunk deep in blood.

That Tarantino would eventually go full political isn't such a big surprise. Both Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained explored the idea of liberation through revolutionary violence, the films a fantasy of granting victimised minorities ultimate power over those that tormented them. His support of the Black Lives Matter movement and subsequent public feud with the police union (who ominously promise a nasty "surprise" for Tarantino) underlines his recent commitment to overt political statements.

Yet where Django and Basterds find catharsis through violence, The Hateful Eight finds only ugliness. Perhaps the noblest man in the room is Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a Union war hero turned bounty hunter. Tarantino's dialogue is a perfect match for Jackson's precise cadence, so every line from his mouth is a joy to hear. Yet, his big triumphant moment is a sadistically delivered, extremely graphic description of him raping a man, and much of his desire later in the film is to "kill that bitch".

It creates an awkward disconnect between expectations and reality. We want Major Warren to fill out the shoes of the hero, to be a shining light in this mire of bigotry and racism. Yet he quickly proves almost as despicable as everyone else; for example, he doesn't so much as push back against racism as divert it for his own ends.

By the final scenes we're witnessing a calculated and ritualistic murder. The female victim looks like some totemic death goddess: framed to give her demonic wings, entirely covered in blood, gnashing jagged teeth and festooned with the limbs of her enemies. The black freedom fighter and virulent racist cop are pressed together in an homoerotic lynching, their faces contorted in orgasmic bliss. It's one hell of a weird image: decades of racial hatred forgotten in the name of unity against women.

Just as we think we've plumbed the depths, we're presented with an unexpected ray of light. Major Warren has been carrying around a letter from Abraham Lincoln, used as a prop to disarm white Unionists he encounters. As they bleed out, the men reverently recite it, finding consolation in his sage words. Complicating this is that both men know the letter is fake. As we close out to a Roy Orbison track, Tarantino leaves us to ponder whether a comforting lie is preferable to the truth: just because you know something doesn't exist doesn't mean you can't find inspiration in it. In this, perhaps, we see what he's trying to accomplish with his films.

The Hateful Eight is a complex and mature piece of writing - a riposte to those who accuse Tarantino of being all style and no substance. It almost goes without saying that it's downright beautiful too, from the wide landscapes (beautiful in 70mm) to the careful editing, outstanding Ennio Morricone score and lovingly curated gore effects.

That Tarantino has carte blanche to do whatever the hell he wants proves that this is not the worst of all possible worlds. A stunning achievement.


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