Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Hateful Eight

The Hateful Eight, although set in Wyoming a half-decade after the Civil War, is a long and complex work of filmed theater, more like A Long Days Journey into Night than 3:10 to Yuma or Ride the High Country. And, to be precise, Quentin Tarantino's script plays more like Tennessee Williams than Eugene O'Neil:  all of the characters have complicated backstories concealing various sorts of traumas and crimes -- all of this hidden material is slowly, and methodically, dredged-up, exploited for maximum emotional effect, and, then, resolved in catharsis that consists of high-caliber bullets blowing heads into pieces.  The film is relentless, appalling, as well as remorselessly brutal and mean-spirited.  Bad guys aren't merely turned into explosive fountains of blood -- first, they have to be taunted, tortured, in some cases sexually humiliated, and abased.  This is a movie in which the happy ending, such as it is, consists of two men, bleeding to death on a bed that is soaked in gore like the floor of an abattoir, strangling an equally blood-stained woman by slowly hanging her above them:  the two heroes laugh merrily as she kicks and writhes.  It would be easy to dismiss The Hateful Eight as merely vicious, but, of course, Tarantino writes effective dialogue, creates larger-than-life characters with interesting quirks, and devises an intricate plot that is, more or less, gripping throughout the film's great length -- it is three-hours long.  Furthermore, it is impossible to write a summary of the film without giving away various surprises and plot twists that Tarantino has engineered -- and it must be admitted that these twists and turns are, always clever, elaborately contrived, and, sometimes, very surprising indeed.  It's sufficient for me to observe that the movie involves, at the outset, two competing bounty hunters -- a white man called the "hangman" because he always brings in his victims alive so that they can be executed (Jack Ruth played by Kurt Russell) and a black man who we see in the film's first act dressed in jaunty gunfighter clothing, wearing a red tie, and sitting on a stack of frozen corpses -- this, of course, is Samuel L. Jackson.  (It is worth noting that Tarantino uses Jackson as his surrogate in his films -- Jackson is to Tarantino what Erland Josefson and Max von Sydow were to Ingmar Bergman or what Marcello Mastrioanni was to Fellini; clearly Jackson's persona, a hyper-articulate, trash-talking and signifying wise-guy, is how Tarantino views himself.)  Kurt Russell seems out of his depth in the film, a figure from another kind of movie, and, at times, he seems to be imitating John Wayne.  Russell's bounty hunter has captured a feral woman played with intense ferocity by Jennifer Jason Leigh -- she has a huge black eye when we first encounter her and Russell disciplines his prisoner by elbowing her repeatedly in the face so that her jaws glisten with blood.  He is transporting her to a town called Red Rock where she will be hanged -- along the way, other travelers are encountered, picked-up by the stagecoach, and, remarkably enough, everyone knows everyone else. The travelers, occupying the stage crossing snowy mountains, are trapped by a blizzard in a large cabin that seems to be a combination general store, restaurant, and saloon -- it's called Minnie's Haberdashery.  The proprietors are mysteriously absent but the Haberdashery is occupied by various bad hombres holed-up there while the blizzard rages outside.  Almost all of the film is shot on the set of the Haberdashery, a single location that is used theatrically -- it's like the bar in A Long Days Journey into Night, a kind of inferno where hell is other people, indeed, that is, flamboyantly volatile other people with pistols with comically long muzzles.  The film can't be readily dismissed because it is disturbing on many levels, deeply unpleasant, and, yet, fascinating, although certainly gratuitously long.  Tarantino uses racial slurs and bigotry the way other Hollywood directors use car-chases and explosions -- racial invective gives the movie its nasty, cruel charge.  And, it must also be conceded, that the movie's subject is race-relations in the United States, a contested subject that Tarantino conceives as a nightmare of quid-pro-quo hatred and invective:  in Tarantino's world, everyone despises everyone else, the only resolution to racial tension is murder and torture, and no one is exempt from the accusation of vicious prejudice -- in Tarantino films, particularly this picture, racism isn't even an accusation, it's just an accepted principle of reality, a sort of bedrock to the narrative.  (Indeed, without racial prejudice of a particularly violent and virulent sort, The Hateful Eight would really have almost no plot at all.)  At one point, Tarantino shows us a racially diverse group of women, all of them interacting in a cheerful and happy way -- of course, we know that this idyll will end with a slaughter and, indeed, a massacre that specifically involves the killers racially taunting their victims as they butcher them.  But Tarantino's misanthropy is great that one of the crucial plot points earlier developed in the film is the fact that one of the bad men is disclosed because he is a "Messikan" and the cheerful, racially diverse women had a sign posted over their bar reading:  No Dogs and No Mexicans allowed in the Saloon.  (A sentiment that a character tells us was amended when the sign was taken down so dogs could enter the tavern.)  Tarantino's world-view seems to be that those guilty of racial discrimination should be killed or tortured to death -- but he also has a weird sense of equity:  those who do the killing and torturing are, in fact, killed and tortured themselves later in a film in which, after all, no one, without exception. will be allowed to survive, a point highlighted by an eerie Roy Orbison song that ends the picture -- "There won't be many coming home alive".  As an example of Tarantino's perverse sense of justice, a character who commits a sexual assault on another person as a form of racial humiliation ends up with his own testicles shot off, a mortal injury that as in various classical operas, doesn't preclude the dying character from baroque arias of discourse and, further, racial invective.  I am suspicious of this film, think it trivializes racial discourse, and, indeed, feel the movie is nasty and, even, wicked.  But I can't deny the picture's power and Tarantino's effective (if longwinded) craft.  Some elements of the film are unreservedly excellent -- the snowy landscapes are beautiful and the scenes involving planting stakes so that people can get to the outhouse and stable are very exciting and unusual (although this is "a red herring" -- it leads to nothing); the dialogue is continuously interesting and some (although not all) of the acting is impressive.  The female gangster is particularly frightening -- she is generally as covered in blood as Brian DePalma's Carrie.  The movie has an excellent symphonic score by Ennio Morricone, a composer who has not lost his cunning -- it's unfortunate that the movie, which has as much dialogue as Hamlet, doesn't allow much time for the music.  Curiously, the film reveals that Tarantino, despite his labyrinthine plotting and his devious ordering of events (like Godard his movies have a beginning, a middle, and an end -- just not in that order) is really not so much a filmmaker as a man of the theater.  You walk away shaken from this movie, an exercise that is really only filmed work of intense and claustrophobic theater.