Saturday, January 09, 2016
The Hateful Eight
If you are old enough to have started thinking critically about movies in the early 1990’s, then there’s a decent chance that you found Quentin Tarantino’s sheer enthusiasm about the medium to be intoxicating. Interviews where Tarantino talked about Godard films - most of which I still haven’t seen - and reading Pauline Kael anthologies made Tarantino sound like the guy you’d want sitting next to you at a matinee, even though the actual experience would probably wind up being more like this. I’ve long forgotten the reason that Pulp Fiction is told in three distinct chapters, but at the time I knew it was important. There may even have been a moment I imagined I was the first person to get the Badlands references in the Tarantino-penned True Romance, but that was a long time ago.
My post-Pulp Fiction relationship with Tarantino has been more complicated. Jackie Brown demonstrated Tarantino could make something personal out of another writer’s work, but to me Kill Bill seemed like an empty exercise that marked a turn towards stylized violence. Inglorious Basterds is the Tarantino film I most need to watch again; it’s humor and subversion of WWII movie tropes were a great surprise and I at the time I thought Tarantino had made a great film about the difference between the ugly reality of war and the way that we tell stories about it. Then there is Django Unchained (review here), which attempts to view the institution of slavery through the lens of a genre revenge movie and in my view does not succeed. That brings us to The Hateful Eight, which the opening titles remind us is Tarantino’s eighth film. Has any other director ever had their output measured in a title sequence? Imagine John Ford getting the same treatment. Here again Tarantino is working with our history, and your feelings about the results will depend in large part on how you feel about the director’s desire to be taken seriously.
We are in Wyoming some years after the Civil War. The opening shots of wintry emptiness locate The Hateful Eight as much as any title card ever could. (Wyoming wouldn’t become a state until 1890.) We are in a rough, unsettled place that is only nominally in America. A stagecoach travels through the snow, just ahead of a ferocious blizzard. The stagecoach carries bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his prey, a criminal named Daisy Doumergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) whose head is worth $10,000. Along the way they’ll be joined by former Union Cavalry officer turned bounty hunter Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), who’s transporting (deceased) cargo of his own. There is also Chris Mannix (a movie-stealing Walton Goggins), an ex-Confederate who claims to be the new Sheriff of the town they’re all headed to, the place where Daisy is scheduled to be hanged. The scenes between these four characters in the stagecoach are where The Hateful Eight begins to reveal itself. While Warren and Mannix are years removed from active duty they both still live in their stories, and their talk suggests what I think Tarantino is really after: the intractability of the American racial divide both then and now, 150 years later. Ruth shows no particular favorite in the North vs. South question, but his travel to bring Daisy to the noose is another timeless strain of the American experience. Forget race, Ruth just wants to make a dollar.
The bulk of The Hateful Eight takes place in “Minnie’s Haberdashery”, a restaurant/stables where the stagecoach stops for the night. There the travelers meet a hired hand (Demian Bichir), a hangman (Tim Roth), a cowboy (Michael Madsen), and most unexpectedly a former Confederate General (Bruce Dern). Here the talk continues, as old connections are discovered and Roth’s character delivers a lecture on justice versus the justice of the frontier. The question of why John Ruth (known as “The Hangman”) insists on bringing in Daisy alive when she’d be worth the same dead is never explicitly answered, but as the film unfolds events seem to suggest that Ruth’s belief in real justice is misplaced and that nature demands a rougher but more honest solution. Then, someone poisons the coffee.
Somewhere inside The Hateful Eight there is an idea for a pointed satirical Western. Take a sharp-tongued black man and a woman looking to please only herself, stick them in a room with a group of white men, and see what happens. Tarantino could have made that movie but instead he made this one, and what undoes The Hateful Eight is the fact that he has to explain everything. Who are these people, really? Is any of them working with Daisy? Why are they here? The Hateful Eight is almost three hours long, and a great deal of time and violence is devoted to answering these questions. The broader issues are forgotten in lieu of settling the story, and none of it matters very much. This is the first Tarantino film where I’ve really thought about how violence pitched so high sucks out all the meaning from the acts depicted, and I think the idea resonates here because Tarantino can’t find a tone. Jackson, Goggins, and Leigh are in one movie while Russell and Madsen are in quite another with the rest somewhere between. The close-quarters gunplay, over in a flash, isn’t interesting because Tarantino has written himself into a corner in terms of staging, and we’re not invested enough in anyone to care if they get out alive.
The final scene of The Hateful Eight includes the reading of a letter purportedly from Abraham Lincoln, the President who saved the Union. The moment is laced with irony, because by then we know the letter’s true origin. Tarantino calls attention to the emptiness of the letter because it’s the punctuation on what he’s trying to say in his bleakest film. The most memorable image in The Hateful Eight is Jennifer Jason Leigh’s face covered in a mask of blood. All the talk and all the years don’t matter in Tarantino’s vision. We are all covered in blood. We are nowhere.