Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Hateful Eight

I have not wanted to write about The Hateful Eight.  Like, really, I'm pulling myself through this in a kicking and screaming way.  Like, it feels as though actually drafting something about the film feels like a homework assignment that will ultimately fail because what needs to be said is a project involving multiple viewings, careful dissection, and a traced politics of the Tarantino filmography. The Hateful Eight isn't a film that should be reviewed so much as analyzed.  It's both a kind of cinematic triumph and a total disappointment; immaculately made, but nihilistic and pointed in a way most Tarantino films are not.

Nihilism is not a stand-in term for violence, here.  Tarantino's films are always violent, and often gleefully so.  This is part of what so many of us love about what he does: he's a director who knows how to transform gore into a kind of pure pop art, a master of the glib death and the artful blood spurt.  He's a playful cinephile, an archivist who actively uses the histories he collects in a way that shows us the value of so-called lesser genres.  Tarantino slices up old films and makes brand new ones, and it's clear -- in the editing, in the writing -- that he loves doing so.  The joy of a Quentin Tarantino movie is that even when the narrative itself is the most harrowing, there's a kind of smile behind it. You know it was crafted with something like love or excitement, and that translates to the audience.

With The Hateful Eight, that feeling is fleeting.  The film itself is a kind of Western epic bottled in the confines of a drawing-room mystery and infused with the ferocity an exploitation picture.  We meet a gaggle of untrustworthy rogues and obvious criminals as we follow Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a notorious ex-Union soldier turned bounty hunter who saddles up with a John Ruth (Kurt Russell), a second bounty hunter with a carefully outlined set of rules and a deep distrust of folks he meets along the way.  Ruth is chained to Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a feral-seeming, violent gang member with a price on her head.  Because Ruth's "moral" code demands he leave the hanging to the hangmen, Daisy is kept alive and - as such - in demand.  The travelers hunker down in a haberdashery during a blizzard, and this is where much of the action unfolds. There are strangers there, many with obvious vendettas and agendas.  So we are trapped with them, following Marquis Warren and John Ruth as they run a kind of conversational interrogation from one man to the next.

Considering the film is an epic trapped in one room, the film is a virtuoso exercise in navigating space and drawing the viewer into its visual continuity.  Though it would play equally well (perhaps better) on the stage, Tarantino obviously knows how to dress it up into a cinematic - medium specific- event. Considering, too, that what we are watching is largely rooted in superficial interactions and obvious lies, the dialogue sparkles.  We don't trust a damn soul in this movie. Everyone is always suspect, most are unlikable.  The rogues gallery is loaded with brutish racists, violent criminals, and slippery characters -- a fact that could make the possibilities delightful, but here becomes a bit maddening.  The more Tarantino succeeds in convincing us that these folks are -in every sense of the word - hateful, the more the film becomes frustrating.  We spend three hours watching a bunch of assholes play a game of verbal chess that slowly escalates to murder, and the atmosphere is toxic, poisoned by the histories and lies so willingly disseminated within the walls of the haberdashery.  Where the film succeeds formally, it fails as a piece of entertainment. Because everyone is suspect, because everyone is wrong, we find we are looking at a too-even playing field in which acts of violence may be inevitable and deserved, yes, but also become kind of boring exercises in pitch escalation. It starts to feel less like we're watching actions driven by the internal mechanics of the film and more like the director is playing a game: how long can these people live in a torture chamber and what can we use to off them?
While that could be fun - and often is in the world of the horror film - The Hateful Eight can't quite make it work.  Its mood swings are too wild, it can't decide if it wants to be an old-school epic for modern times or a cheap bloodletting.  It can't decide, too, if it harbors a secret sympathy for some of its characters or wants them all to be punished equally.  And, most problematically of all?  It isn't quite sure whether it's a response to the racial discussions triggered by Tarantino's last revenge fantasy, Django Unchained, and what it wants to say about those claims.  What's most frustrating about The Hateful Eight is that it feels weighed down by some external argument.  There's something peeking through the character politics that comes across as driven by a need to write-in a reason.  Gone are the playful tangents, the character backstories, the musical cues that allow his films to adopt a swaggering, cooler-than-thou rhythm.  Here instead is a cranky politicized conversation about the place of the cinema, the terrible things people do to each other, the futility of escaping them.

We're not having fun. Instead, we're being confronted with what racism, misogyny, and intolerance look like in their worst, most hateful forms.  By the film's explosive conclusion, it is very clear that Tarantino wants this movie to say something.  What is not clear is what it is it manages to speak. While my suspicion is that we are supposed to find much of this world distasteful and to understand we are looking at a microcosm of something like our own landscape, not everything plays as it should.  This becomes especially clear in the repeated abuse of Daisy. She's a criminal, yes (and Leigh makes it clear she is vile, loves to be so), but she is smacked down again and again by men in a way that often feels uncomfortably cartoonish, accidentally played for laughs.  For a male director who has previously brought rather wonderful female characters to the screen, Daisy - symbol though she may be - feels all wrong.  There are similar problems with the conversations on race, bigger questions on who the actual survivors are - and why.  The film is on a desperate search for meaning, and in the process becomes an exhausting, often unclear exercise instead of an entertaining film experience.  For Tarantino, it feels only partially like a labor of love, more like an attempt at rewriting a thesis...

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