Saturday, 9 January 2016

The Hateful Eight (2015, Quentin Tarantino)

With Quentin Tarantino's 8th feature, his third December holiday US release following Jackie Brown and Django Unchained, a bunch of strangers linked by a murky past are forced to spend the night together as they are snowed into a remote cabin. They must get along to survive the night but of course that surely isn't possible. It's starting to look a lot like Christmas, you could say.

Set an unconfirmed number of years after The American Civil War, a stagecoach carrying a lawman with a deadly bounty by his side travels dangerously through a Wyoming blizzard. John "The Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell) is desperately trying to deliver his bounty alive to the town of Red Rock; his reputable nature stems from his belief that a dead or alive bounty should be tried in court and hung so that's exactly what he wants for serial killer Daisy Domergue (a ferociously feral Jennifer Jason Leigh). The stagecoach has to stop on two occasions for two stranded men who seek solace from the storm: Ruth is a cynical and paranoid man in his situation but trusts fellow bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) as they have met once before during the war, and he is reluctantly forced to trust ex-Confederate gang-leader Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) due to his claims that he is also on his way to Red Rock as the town's new Sheriff. To make matters worse for Ruth, who was already expecting an attempt on his life to free Domergue, they are forced to make an overnight stop at a remote cabin that harbours four more strangers whose reasons for being there are dubious at best.

The set-up 'sounds' simple enough and many have already made the points of comparison to Tarantino's debut Reservoir Dogs, which is a superficial and uninformed comparison. This is the director simply doing what he does best and has done multiple times, on this occasion arguably never better. Tarantino's films have always worked best when his vibrant characters are forced to confront each other, revealing each others' true selves using digressively verbose exchanges that contain hidden meanings and motives, and here this is pushed to the utmost extremes.

So why is this any different from what has already been achieved already? For a start The Hateful Eight is drenched in a historic subtext that is so racially charged and angry the story feels weaponised even before the stakes have been set or a single bullet fired. With allegiances being forged inside the cabin based on dividing north and south politics, the refuge spot becomes a chessboard of racially charged tension that shows how the outcome of The Civil War hasn't brought the country very far and from a spectator's POV 150 years on, still not far enough. The ex-confederate soldier of Mannix stands in arms next to the elderly Confederate General (Bruce Dern) who spouts vitriol towards "Nigger" Major Warren as they had fought battles from opposing sides when the now bounty hunter was once a Union Soldier. Trust bonds John Ruth to fellow lawman Major Warren, while the other three strangers - a slimy Englishman (Tim Roth) claiming to be the new hangman of Red Rock, a Mexican named Bob (Demián Bichir) who claims he's looking after the cabin while its owner is visiting her mother, and a cowboy (Michael Madsen) who claims to be passing through to also visit his mother. Like us, John Ruth trusts none of these stories and as the tension mounts like a gun being slowly cocked, the war ground becomes policially divided.

The direction utilised by Tarantino shows a new level of command; the way he frames and blocks his shots showing details in the foreground and background managing to fit copious amounts of details into his 2.76:1 frame, often in long unbroken takes. The sense of space and texture of the cabin is rich and immersive thanks to the 70mm photography. I was lucky enough to see the extended roadshow version of the film which was projected on 70mm and it felt like the snow flakes dancing in the air were coming off of the screen at times. Ennio Morricone who has not managed to shed his link with the western genre despite an expansive and eclectic career delivers an original score that taps into the horror elements and produces music more akin to his work with Italian giallo directors of the 1970s. This is hardly surprising due to the Giallo movement largely involving brutal renderings of Agatha Christie-like mysteries to which The Hateful Eight bares more than a few similarities to. 

In a career that boasts some of the most iconic partnering with Tarantino, Samuel L Jackson is so memorable here, even in a room of such eccentrics and within a film of such beautiful imagery. It's the devilish grin and the piercing look in Major Warren's eyes that stays with you. He's the most cerebral characters in the film and he outsmarts various others using tall tales to get the reactions he needs, one in particular is told in such shocking vividity I've still not come to terms with how I feel about it. 

There are problems and contradictions in The Hateful Eight as there are in all of Tarantino's films and I desperately need to see this film again to fully digest it. Often with his films, initial dislikes to transpire as the same reasons why I like them in the long run and this one will surely be the greatest challenge. Despite the already much noted brutality of the film by the media, there is a note of hope amidst the cynicism; this hope is contained in the film's final moments as the power for change in the human heart emerges and creates the strongest end to any of Tarantino's films in over a decade. It is a moment of warm humanity and though Tarantino is always attacked for using homage, caricature, and cartoon-like violence in his films over the use of realism to address subjects, that severe moments of humanity in his work are easily overlooked; whether that be a trickle of blood that comes down Daisy Demergue's forehead as she looks up in tight close-up little wounded and vulnerable. Or the linchpin to The Hateful Eight - a much celebrated letter that Major Warren carries with him, a personal letter from Abraham Lincoln acknowledging his war efforts. At two points in the film another character reads said letter and at both times this letter produces, if only for a second, an ethereal bubble over the threat of violence sustained throughout. It's in moments like this that the film soars. 

The Hateful Eight is as subversive and uncompromising as Tarantino has ever been and certainly his most technically impressive. It's equally confounding as it is inspired and may well be his least enjoyable feature thus far; this isn't meant as a negative but rather suitably twisted praise for such a twisted film that doesn't at any point wants you to feel good about its slowly unfolding events and tests you every step of the way. Two viewings may be required to fully digest this monstrously severe western that has more blood lineage with the horror genre. 

With a story boldly (others may argue tactlessly) addressing the hypocrisy, lies, and delusions used to cover up a country's past crimes that are still very much alive today as parallels to current political events are all too noticable. The story and the characters in The Hateful Eight are metophorically and literally built on a lie.