Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross
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It’s reassuring, at this late stage in his career, to see Quentin Tarantino entertaining the notion of reining himself in a little. His latest, The Hateful Eight, only takes place in two locations: a stagecoach hurrying to outrun a fierce blizzard, and a frontier outpost called Minnie’s Haberdashery, short one Minnie and plus a cadre of strangers with unclear identities and motives. It shares its broad structural outlines with his second film, Reservoir Dogs, and though the basics of Tarantino’s ideology haven’t changed — the crooks and liars of both films each have their own moral codes whose incompatibility brings them to a decidedly nihilist result — the scope of his politics has. Depending on how skeptical you are of his intent, that scope has has been either permitted or necessitated by Tarantino’s relentless pastiching of bygone genre after bygone genre (blaxploitation, kung-fu, westerns, WWII revenge), and it’s made each movie he makes a stickier wicket to dissect and debate — especially in light of the violence running through all their films, and its use in moments of catharsis.

The Hateful Eight is among the name-brand director’s most divisive efforts to date, and as far as I can suss out there are two primary reasons for this. The first is a matter of craft; the vast majority of the film takes place in Minnie’s Haberdashery, and the first half especially attempts slow-burn suspense with a surprisingly slow body count; I found this material psychologically bracing and superbly crafted, thanks as much to the script’s diverse characterization as to Tarantino’s evolving, impressively non-repetitive camera placement and cinematographer Robert Richardson’s careful application of those blown-out highlights only he seems to be capable of pulling off. That half gives way to a second half that rapidly accelerates Tarantino’s inversions of audience sympathies and expectations. Some have found the film boring and indulgent; to me, the film is too densely layered with dramatic details to pick at to feel anything of the sort.

That boredom, or disinterest, or however The Hateful Eight’s detractors wish to characterize their impatience, may be directly tied into the second primary reason for the film’s divisiveness: it is a political jumble. This jumble is, make no mistake, largely a matter of design — the script is too careful about its refusal to morally approve of any one character to consider otherwise — but what is more contestable is whether this jumble contributes to a cohesive top-down satire of American race and gender relations, or whether it is confused at best and toxic at worst.

At the very least, I think Tarantino can be granted that he takes the material seriously. Though the film indulges in macabre humour, none of its violence feels celebratory or joyful; gone is the calculated cool of moments like the Tupac-backed shootout of Django Unchained (in fact Hateful has only a few moments of pop music, and besides the ending song they feel misplaced next to Ennio Morricone's effective original score). Instead, the sudden, enthralling violence of the film frequently gives way to immediate, disturbing visions of pain and sorrow, be it a frown of resigned disappointment before an execution or a slow-motion display of unscored screaming and writhing after a game-changing sneak attack. The director’s other films have mixed moments of justified and senseless or ambiguous violence; in this case, the morality of every act of violence is scuttled by some detail of motive or execution. Though that partly absolves the film of claims that it trivializes or celebrates violence, it creates another issue. It compromises The Hateful Eight’s effectiveness as satire.

Microcosm is avoided at every turn. Everyone is either too caricatured or too complicated to actually represent a cultural faction, and that limits the reach of Tarantino’s commentary both in historical and contemporary contexts. Thus, despite the explicitly political crossfire of motives in play, the only coherent viewpoint Tarantino expresses is a broadly philosophical one: lying begets lying begets hatred begets hatred begets violence begets violence. The opening image, a stone carving of Christ on a crucifix in a snowstorm, encourages a connection to such biblical morals.

Nonetheless, Tarantino’s moral relativism is not always even-handed; Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the scheming, handcuffed, dead-or-alive bounty mark around whom swirls the film’s violence and distrust, is on the receiving end of an awful lot of misogyny; unlike the film’s depictions of racism, however, this attitude is never seriously challenged. I wouldn’t say that’s tantamount to misogyny on the film’s part, but I would say that Tarantino’s fixture on a melting pot approaching boil seems to have exposed a lack of engagement with sexism. As a small mark of consolation, Daisy is the fixture of the film’s most awe-inspiring sequence, an extended shot of the prisoner playing guitar and singing in the foreground as she frequently, furtively glances over her shoulder to watch her captors. Every glance is accompanied by a focus rack and a sudden change in sound perspective as her voice becomes distant, her lyrics almost incomprehensible, before both sound and picture both whip back into focus as she turns her head back forward. It’s a moment that reminds that though the political success of Tarantino’s films is often in question, his wealth of storytelling ideas never ceases to amaze.

And, for what it’s worth, those ideas transmit significantly better in the film’s 70mm roadshow presentation. Not because the logistical nightmare of reviving 70mm film projection is any kind of visual revelation (the 65mm photography is a boon to the film, but the projection might as well have been 4K), but because the different edit of the film improves it at several key moments, including the aforementioned guitar scene and an intermission that both calls attention to the bisected approach of the film’s two halves and gives Tarantino a chance to employ a delightful structural gag just after the film starts back up. Moments like these make for undeniably engaging cinema, so long as the prickly disposition and up-and-down political messaging of the thing don’t turn you against it before it has a chance to impress you. The Hateful Eight consistently compelled me and challenged me and never slips up enough to collapse, though it’s so oversaturated with moral and ideological qualifications that it never had a real shot at being an unqualified success.

4 comments:

TParker said...

Nice icon on the tab. Is that who I think it is?

If so, then I felt Daisy drew a lot of uncomfortable parallels with that character. Both are larger than life fugitives with relatives they have loved and lost, both entertain you and make you laugh, and both get mistreated so badly you feel kind of bad for them.

Will said...

It is indeed! I can see the connection, though I think there's a big gap in Tarantino's sympathy for Daisy (who is a powerful member of a gang of killers never redeemed or treated with compassion by any of her adversaries, only her allies) and Leone's for Tuco (who is alone and vulnerable but nonetheless receives pity).

Tamsin Parker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tamsin Parker said...

A gap? Certainly. The world is indeed divided into two parts, those with friends and those who are lonely.

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