dir: Quentin Tarantino
I haven’t always loved his movies, but I’d be lying if I implied that I was anything less than excited whenever a new one of his movies comes out. Genuinely excited.
Remember what that was like: looking forward to a Tarantino movie? For some people that anticipation stopped just after Pulp Fiction, but me, well, I’ve liked most of the stuff he’s ever done. I know it sounds uncritical and fanboyish, but I generally do enjoy watching his movies. His movies about movies are just so movie-ish that a lot of the time I can’t help but love them as I’m watching them.
It doesn’t always pay off. It rarely pays off to have high expectations in life, I’m increasingly finding, especially when it comes to the films of Quentin Horatio Tarantino.
I generally feel sadness when I hear of people passing away. It’s a normal human thing. Even with people I don’t know. I was saddened to hear when Sally Menke died back in 2010.
Who’s Sally Menke, you may rightfully ask? She used to be the editor who painstakingly worked with Tarantino on his movies, up until Inglourious Basterds. That’s one of the reasons why the enjoyment in watching his flicks has ticked down somewhat for me since then.
There are tremendous scenes in a lot of his movies, and in many if not all of those best moments, it comes down to not just to how they are set up, acted, shot, scored etc, but how they are edited. Put together. Realised. The reason for this is time. Our sense of time in film is intimately linked to the editing of a scene. Increasing tension, maintaining the tension of a scene involves those multitudes of factors, but the length of a shot can do more to ratchet things beyond a million pop culture or 70s film references can.
That’s not to take away from Tarantino’s singular skills as a director – but, actually, yeah, I am detracting a lot from his instincts and giving additional credit to Menke as a truly skilled editor (at least, as an editor that enhanced Tarantino’s style and tried to minimise his shortcomings).
But Sally’s gone. And gone is gone. Django Unchained was still an okay flick, but by now, by the time The Hateful Eight rocks around, that editorial precision is gone too.
There are a lot of elements to like, to love, even, in The Hateful Eight. It’s another Western by QT, but it’s set in the deep winter of Wyoming. It has the first new score Ennio Morricone has worked on in decades, but it sounds nothing like his scores of yore, sounding more like the score to a horror flick (which is remarkably pertinent). It has a host of actors, many of them great actors, whom QT has worked with before (with positives and negatives abounding). It’s filmed in 70mm (though it’s usually confined to interiors rather than the massive exteriors 70mm cries out for).
It’s a film that brings together a whole panoply of elements: racial, cultural, personal, even sexual, and resolves them the way QT resolves all of his ‘complex’ themes and concepts – everyone shoots everyone.
It is, in short, a mess. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable. I would like to imagine, for some reason that I can’t really put my finger on, because it’s not like I knew Sally Menke at all, that had she still been around and worked on Hateful Eight, she would have scolded / slapped QT into making it substantially tighter and less bloated.
In some ways this is QT overindulging himself in ways that make him seem almost Peter Jacksonesque in his willingness to film everything he thinks of and his commitment to retaining it in final cut no matter how unnecessary, sloppy or crappy it might be. There are a number of scenes where I just downright felt like the QT of old (with Sally Menke’s stern eye guiding him) would have cut without hesitation. And it’s not the scenes where people are jawboning that don’t work. We all know how much he loves scenes where people are just shooting the shit (as opposed to shooting the shit out of each other). It’s a big part of his appeal (to those who consider themselves fans). But as the flick goes on, many of those scenes start to feel a bit flabby.
There really isn’t, however, any reason why this flick needed to be nearly three hours long. There’s not enough there to justify it, as far as I’m concerned. And as for building tension, or building to some kind of explosive climax / resolution, well, he makes some strange choices that end up being, for me, somewhat self-defeating.
That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy watching it. Throughout, like with most of his flicks, I can just sit there grinning at some of the conversations, and the sly ways people have of inhabiting his characters. It’s (generally, almost always) a pleasure to watch / hear actors like Samuel L. Jackson, the great Kurt Russell and his great Kurt Russell moustache (a moustache so great it deserved its own credit; a moustache so great the great Sam Eliot would envy it), and Jennifer Jason Leigh doing and saying anything.
In a performance so great, perplexing and terrible (before it becomes great again), Walton Goggins is tremendous in this as well, combining a bizarre Southern Dandy accent with a free-forming casual racism that makes him sound both like a gentleman and the Grand Cyclops of the KKK (in other words, like the average Trump supporter). And he’s naturally a southerner anyway, having grown up in Alabama, and yet he still makes his accent sound artificial. Goggins is someone who’s been a shitkicker in movies and tv for ages, but has propelled himself to (somewhat) stardom with key roles in shows like The Shield, and especially Justified.
Here he almost manages to steal the film from more accomplished but no less able actors, and that ain’t no easy feat in a Tarantino movie.
As the film opens, for what felt like six hours, we are looking at a snow covered crucifix with a tormented looking Christ on top of it, as Morricone’s unsettling score booms across the landscape, complete with tortured strings. A stagecoach crosses the snowy vista, and we can assume that someone or something of importance is in the coach.
Of more importance, perhaps, is the person in the coach’s path hoping to catch a ride. Retired Major Marquis Warren fought in the Civil War, for the North, naturally, and even knows the chap travelling with an unwilling companion in the coach. Thus begins a long struggle for survival for all concerned.
The chap in the coach, the very paranoid chap in the coach is, like Warren, a bounty hunter. And he has a tremendous, architecturally-designed moustache. The moustache is so massive that I wish every scene with Kurt Russell, who’s character is called John ‘The Hangman’ Ruth, was in 3D, just so we could see that moustache in all its dimensional glory. Two dimensions is nowhere near enough for that wonder of the modern world. It maybe requires 5 in order to fully appreciate it in space-time and on a quantum level.
John Ruth is immensely paranoid. Even though he knows Warren, he does not trust him, because a) it doesn’t seem that he trusts anyone, and b) he is handcuffed to a bounty worth $10,000.
That bounty has a name, you sexist pig. Her name is Daisy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and she is as sweet as the day is long. No, wait, she’s already got bruises, and she spends the next three hours being progressively more brutalised, mostly at the hands of John Ruth.
Oh, and she’s like totally mean, and she did something really bad, so she (I guess?) probably deserves it. After being elbowed in the face to the point where it looks like her nose is broken, she flirts with Warren through all the blood pouring down her face.
If you’re looking about any deep and meaningful statements from QT about gender etc, please, you’re wasting your time. It’s uncomfortable watching Jason-Leigh get smacked around, and having to clean worse and worse things out of her hair, and I really have no idea where her character is coming from (except when she is just desperately trying to survive at any cost) at any time, but her performance is feral and therefore great, and she deserved the Oscar nomination despite how repugnantly she’s treated onscreen.
So, gender issues don’t really sit comfortably in Tarantino’s wheelhouse, but race relations (post-Reconstruction) clearly do. He delights in having another flick where characters can refer to a character as a nigger all the live long day and to be able to get away with it because History. Bullshit, Quentin, you just love hearing the word.
The immense complexity of the US and its attitude towards African-Americans gets so much play here that you almost feel as if QT is trying to solve a problem, or give a definitive answer to a question no-one wanted to ask. Yes, obviously, there are strange attitudes and even stranger policies towards African-Americans today as there always will be. However, instead of answering anything, more questions are raised.
Along comes another chap needing a ride, who just happens to be the son of someone famous from the Confederacy, famous for not surrendering when the rest of the South did, and his attitude towards Warren is just as nasty as Daisy’s. Chris Mannix (Goggins, doing his best Foghorn Leghorn impression) is delightful and hilarious and terrible and hypnotic. When we start getting comfortable with Warren’s place in this world, along come unreconstructed racists in order to never let anything get too complacent.
Much is made of a letter, the so-called Lincoln Letter; a letter sent by Lincoln, to Warren, with whom he enjoyed some form of friendly correspondence.
That letter, despite playing a tremendous level of false Macguffin-like importance, is crucial in understanding the flick. As far as I know. I mean, it probably does. It’s referred to so many times that you’d think it was a letter where Lincoln says “just kidding” about abolishing slavery and the like. On a deeper level, though, it points to the lie (that no-one really believes, but a lot of people pretend is true) that once the atrocity of slavery was ended, everything for African-Americans was instantly and forever better, because Magic.
Ruth keeps beating on Daisy, and becoming increasingly more distrustful, during the journey, and especially once they get to Minnie’s Haberdashery – a place of renown they have to reach to survive a blizzard that seems to be chasing them.
Since there are more people at the inn, Ruth’s paranoia skyrockets. He is convinced that someone, especially one of the new set of strangers, is somehow in league with Daisy.
In these people we have various embodiments and themes, perhaps, but all they really represent is an array of greater threats. There is a British hangman (Tim Roth, at his oiliest), a Mexican dude dressed like a bear (Damian Bechir), some other guy (Michael Madsen) and an old Southern general (Bruce Dern, looking very confused).
At this point, we’re only a goddamn hour in. It’s safe to say that the first hour passes speedily, grinding to a halt once they reach the Haberdashery, and then gets covered in concrete and dropped in the ocean in terms of sluggishness.
Sure, once they’re seemingly trapped in the inn, there are tensions rising and threats boiling over, but there are a lot of scenes, so many scenes, that diffuse and deflate what’s going on. Especially an ill-advised flashback explaining how those in league with Daisy came to be at the inn.
Sure there are surprises, but they’re unpleasant ones, and for all the time spent explaining their presence, QT comically, or at least comically for him, ends up rendering his set up pointless by wiping the players off the board just for a ‘shock’ laugh.
At this point the characters no longer make that much sense, and the plan, especially of Daisy’s people, makes absolutely no sense at all. But we’re meant to be happy because Samuel L. is yelling at people and shooting them when he gets to the end of his ‘investigations’, which really amount to just thinking out loud and then shooting people when he reaches a conclusion.
The possibly worst bit of the flick, I would argue, other than the set up scene, where we find out what happened to the previous residents of the Haberdashery, is a bizarre one where Warren tries to goad the old Confederate general into drawing a gun on him. To say the least, the crap Warren spouts in order to enrage the old dude seems… anachronistic. I understand how horrible it would be for a man to hear such things about the son he lost many years ago, but the idea that Warren could / would say such things in such an era seems quite profoundly odd. So odd that I couldn’t have been more surprised if Samuel L. had started screaming about getting these motherfuckin’ snakes off of his motherfuckin’ stagecoach.
Look, it’s all well done, no doubt, but it would have been improved immensely with judicious editing. That last hour is hard going, and not just because QT keeps unloading stuff in a very disturbed manner into Jennifer Jason-Leigh’s face and hair (make of that what you will).
The racial themes and such are complicated, and not easily dismissed. It isn’t just a matter of black people = good, racist whites = bad. Warren’s character has a lot of ugliness in his backstory, and does some horrible stuff on screen, and is certainly no hero. Goggins’ character of Chris Mannix says some of the most racist stuff I’ve heard on screen, but he’s the one forced to be the bigger man and side with Truth, Justice against the Racist Way, and even if I didn’t believe his transition one bit, it does represent at least some moment of hope. Hope? Yeah, hope.
The ending, harsh as it is, is consistent both with the nasty worldview QT has been pushing forever and a day, the lie of racial equality in the States, and with the idea that men of different beliefs can come together in solidarity in order to kill a woman they really hate, regardless of the colour of their skins.
Now that’s progress!
7 one black life matters slightly more than a woman’s, an Englishman’s, a Mexican’s and a Channing Tatum’s according to this flick out of 10
“The man who pulls the lever that breaks your neck, will be a dispassionate man. And that dispassion is the very essence of justice. For justice delivered without dispassion, is always in danger, of not being justice.” – wise, confusing words from a man who may or may not be a hangman – The Hateful Eight