** (2 stars)
wd – Quentin Tarantino
ph – Robert Richardson
pd – Yohei Taneda
m – Ennio Morricone
ed – Fred Raskin
cos – Courtney Hoffman
p – Richard N. Gladstein, Stacey Sher, Shannon McIntosh
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, Demián Bichir, James Parks
America is a good idea.
Alexis de Tocqueville, a French political thinker and historian, wrote the following in his analysis and description of American life, Democracy in America, published in 1835:
I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her ample rivers – It was not there; in her fertile fields and boundless prairies, and it was not there; in her rich mines and her vast world commerce, and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits ablaze with righteousness did I meet the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.
Is America good in practice?
I do not mean in the question of do Americans go to church (which means nothing to me), but in the sense of the motivation for its actions; does any nation do things because they are intrinsically good, or because they are practical? What exactly is the moral virtue that de Tocqueville found there?
Many filmmakers all over the world attempt to find the good in their countries by plunging into the political muck through their art, so we are not really talking about America here; we are talking about civilization. But Quentin Tarantino is an American filmmaker and, by studying both is oeuvre of the last 10 years as well as his public behavior during that same time, a very liberal one. It’s funny for me to think that the artist behind Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994) would turn into a political filmmaker. He’s Godard, without the psyche.
The Hateful Eight begins with a long shot circling a wooden statue of the King of Kings covered in ice, with music luminously scored by Ennio Morricone. From then, the film plays itself in novelistic fashion (as its director likes) over the course of 187 minutes in 6 chapters.
Let’s get the plot out of the way: Samuel L. Jackson plays Major Marquis Warren, a Union soldier-turned-bounty hunter who hitches a ride on a stagecoach containing another man of his profession, John Ruth played by Kurt Russell (in full-on John Wayne mode), who's bringing in his latest catch, Daisy Domergue, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and planning to collect $10,000 on delivery at Red Rock.
They're joined by another stranded individual, caught in the approaching snowstorm, an ornery Southerner (Walton Goggins), who claims that he's the new sheriff in Red Rock. They stop during the storm at Minnie’s Haberdashery, where they meet British hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth, in full-on Chrisotphe Waltz mode), temporary caretaker of the stagecoach stop Bob (Demian Bichir), a former Confederate officer General Smithers (Bruce Dern) and laconic cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) – and whom I have decided to assume that Mr Tarantino named as a nod to the infamous 80’s gay pornographer. Why? Not sure. Warren is clearly named after Charles Marquis Warren, a director of 50's westerns.
The first half of the film is all talk and social measuring. The second half is all that plus a lot of blood and guts. We don’t know whom to trust. Once the film enters the haberdashery, it doesn’t leave and Mr Tarantino finds a lot of interesting ways to do what directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski did before him with confined spaces. Although, the film that The Hateful Eight most resembles is John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982).
As a cinematic mystery, I think The Hateful Eight fails completely. Rarely has Mr Tarantino gotten so much in his own way, whether it’s his focus on his civic agenda, his insistence that we “hang out” with all his creations or when he literally uses his own voice to relay information. It is clear that the mystery element of the film was something he stumbled into during the writing process instead of augmenting the characters out of the particular situation. (This is something he avows, by the way). His dialogue, of which there is a lot, is hardly rich. Most of the time, it seems like an exercise in protraction.
Many have had problems with Mr Tarantino’s treatment of the Daisy character, which I find ridiculous. Accusations of misogyny don’t hold up when you look at his filmography as a whole. But, really, they don’t hold up in a vacuum either. The real problem with Daisy is her thinness: her motivations and history aren’t ever quite clear, which is why Ms Leigh’s characterization is so consummate. Every face she pulls, every gripe she yelps is about something. The best sequence in the whole film is one where Daisy grabs a guitar, after having just learned something, and plays the old Australian folk song “Jim Jones at Botany Bay”, which she performed live on set.
The film’s first half ends with a long monologue delivered by Mr Jackson that uses racism and homophobia to propel the succeeding events of the film forward. It is a highly uncomfortable sequence but not entirely for all the reasons Mr Tarantino intends. There is a plausible deniability in this case because the story that Warren is telling could be fictitious and merely a ploy to get another character in the film to do something. Make of it what you will.
In the film’s 5th chapter, a new character appears played by a famous movie star whom I felt was utterly miscast. I won’t reveal the star in question (I’ve omitted them from the cast list) but one might suspect that what Mr Tarantino was doing here was in the vein of Sergio Leone’s ingenious casting of Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). But in this case, I never bought this person as a vicious killer.
So clearly, much of this film bothered me. Again, a lot of the misdirection Mr Tarantino uses here in order to create the “mystery” just comes off as either flimsy or cumbersome. His sense of tone is somehow both assured and frivolous. Though, maybe that’s the point, for by the film’s end, everything crystalized for me.
The last five minutes of this film are some of the best of Mr Tarantino’s career. Two characters are ending the life of a third and what transpires, as Mr Tarantino’s camera rises, is as audacious and moving as anything he’s pulled-off. How prosperous and opportune could a civilization be if racism, misogyny and homophobia weren’t included? Also, what if these things didn’t appear in people’s minds as measurable quantities? Does misogyny trump racism in today’s world? Does that really matter? For me, this is Quentin Tarantino’s Dogville.
One final note: I saw this film in it's roadshow format of Ultra-Panivision 70mm film with an overture and an intermission. The digital projection that most of you will wind up seeing omits these last two things and shaves off about ten minutes of the film's runtime.