Monday, January 4, 2016

The Hateful Eight

A line is spoken during Quentin Tarantino's newest film THE HATEFUL EIGHT as to the definition of "frontier justice".   Such justice is carried out minus the (guilty or otherwise) accused's benefit of a proper trial.  It can also describe the sort of brutal just desserts you can find during the finale of many Tarantino films - someone pays dearly for their sins against humanity at the hands of the film's "good guys", or at least protagonists.  The meting out of justice is usually just as ghastly as what the perpetrator him/herself did to find themselves in such an unfortunate spot.  Just like in all those trashy '70s features he so adores.   I cite mainly QT's more recent efforts, DEATH PROOF onward.

Frontier justice is also a brand, Quentin (and many others) would argue, used by the law enforcement in early 21st century America.  Baseless open fire on unarmed victims. Very open interpretation of probable cause.  Story after story these days.  You may have read about Quentin's dust up with the cops over some statements he made months back.  Police departments around the country threatened to boycott his new movie, whatever that meant.  An admirably unrepentant Tarantino refused to back down, explaining that his use of the word "murderers", while intended to describe some officers, wasn't intended as a generalization of all. 

If you watch THE HATEFUL EIGHT with the latter day parallel in mind, you'll see generous imagery to that effect: a defenseless woman repeatedly socked in the face and abused, racial profiling and denigration (QT does love the word "nigger", though this time even a white man, in flashback, finds himself on the wrong end of crushing humiliation of racial bullying), ambiguous behavior among those espousing the Law.   I didn't catch an obvious dig at 2nd Amendment clutching but I suppose that case could be made.
As with the writer/director's most recent films, a bit of revisionist history is on display in all of its blood splattered, foul mouthed glory.   Many of the themes explored in DJANGO UNCHAINED are continued in THE HATEFUL EIGHT.  The most obvious take away is that race and lawman and civilian relations are the same as they ever were.   I also always admire Quentin for his efforts with characterization, taking what are essentially cartoon characters and giving them complexity and verbosity.  It's little wonder that this project's beginning as a live reading became a success, enough to convince the writer to make the movie after all (he was understandably quite pissed when his script was leaked online).  In his new film, he may have reignited his success with deeper psychological study ala JACKIE BROWN that was sidelined by the spectacle films that followed.  You may recall that the 1997 film was quite restrained, a more mature bit of storytelling among the former video clerk's resume.  There was no over-the top eleventh hour carnage. 

Most of the action in HATEFUL EIGHT takes place in an outpost in Wyoming during a fierce blizzard, after the Civil War.   Several characters are assembled, all proving to be despicable, though some have redeeming qualities and exhibit moments that might be considered heroic.  For those of you in constant need of someone to root for, you'll be mightily frustrated.  I happen to find such characters far more engaging, and applaud Quentin for turning the entire good vs. evil notion on its (bloody) ear.

Kurt Russell and Sam Jackson play bounty hunters.  Jennifer Jason Leigh is Russell's prisoner, a loathsome criminal destined for the hangman's gallows.  RESERVOIR DOGS co-stars Tim Roth and Michael Madsen play the hangman and a mysterious cowboy.  Bruce Dern is a former Confederate General.  Walton Goggins is a sheriff who says he will be the one to pay the bounty on the prisoner's head.  There's another mysterious character, a Mexican (Demien Bichir) left in charge of the outpost after the owner takes a trip to visit her mother.  Channing Tatum is, well, you'll just have to see the movie.

Some of these folks are lying about their occupations.  Some are secretly working together.  There are lots of surprises in this serpentine tale, and anyone who says the movie is predictable is just as dishonest as the characters.  The movie, yes, has strong evocations of QT's RESERVOIR DOGS and the 1982 remake of THE THING (which starred Russell).  Some of composer Ennio Morricone's score for THE HATEFUL EIGHT even uses discarded cues for the old John Carpenter flick.  Quentin's movie has been called a "mystery Western" and a "stage play on film" and neither is inaccurate.  Some have complained of how talky it all is but that is a QT trademark.  The dialogue, by the way, is not as hip and knowing as in the past, but there are some golden moments for each actor.  Surprisingly, the use of music is not as astute this time out.  Is Quentin Tarantino trying something different?  Mining deeper subtext?  Further commenting about the present through devices of the past?

Ah, but the violence, when it arrives, will satisfy even the most carniverous among you. That has not changed (nor has the non-linear storytelling).   I thought it would be hard to outdo the squib busting climax of DJANGO but Quentin manages, with show stopping bloodletting that even gives many horror films competition. Shades of STAGECOACH will morph into THE WILD BUNCH and THE LONG RIDERS before the credits.  And kudos to Leigh for braving some, uh, CARRIE-like makeup effects, and her performance is damned admirable.  Fearless, even.

NOTE: I saw THE HATEFUL EIGHT during its "Roadshow" presentation, in spectacular 70mm, the first movie shot this way in fifty years.  This is really the way to see Robert Richardson's gasp worthy cinematography, even when most of the time we merely see the interior of a cabin.  The three hour plus showing included an overture, intermission, and nifty collectible program, just like in the old days.  If you can catch these special presentations I would highly recommend it.  God bless QT's devotion to celluloid and the preservation of the whole "movie experience".
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