Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Hateful Eight (2015)

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
DP: Robert Richardson
Editor: Fred Raskin
Score: Ennio Morricone
Producer: Richard N. Gladstein, Shannon McIntosh, Stacey Sher
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walter Goggins, Channing Tatum, Tim Roth, Damián Bichir, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern
Distribution: The Weinstein Company
Length: 2 hrs. 53 min.

The script for The Hateful Eight is the first mystery Quentin Tarantino has written, according to him, and the traditional methods of building mystery narratives differ from those he normally employs when writing.  Perhaps this is why The Hateful Eight's mystery is, to say the least, idiosyncratic: even as the evidence mounts, the truth only comes out when everything spirals out of the characters' control.  But this is for the best; the anti-mystery of The Hateful Eight throws other elements of the film into perspective.

Tarantino said the film would not work as a play, and he's right; at least, it does things that could not be imitated on stage.  After all the key players have organized in Minnie's Haberdashery, we get a brief moment that singles out small elements of their surroundings, elements we soon realize are meant to be clues.  When the significance of these clues is finally revealed, it's not because any of the characters was particularly clever and managed to decipher them.  Rather, the film flashes back, and shows us what happened directly.

Another reveal of the truth comes when Walter Goggins's character, a racist Confederate Army veteran named Chris Mannix, questions the honesty of Samuel L. Jackson's character, Major Marquis Warren.  Warren carries a letter with him he claims to have received from Abraham Lincoln, but Mannix doesn't believe it, and his prying eventually brings Warren to reveal that the letter is a fake; he made it because it Lincoln's name carries more weight with white people than the word of a black man.

We have one instance in which the truth is revealed by the film itself, while the characters neglect the evidence that points to it, and one instance in which a character draws out the truth not through evidence, but through persevering with his hatred for another character.  And in the end, the latter truth is roundly ignored, the characters deciding that a false narrative is more appealing.

This is what I mean when I refer to The Hateful Eight's anti-mysterious nature. When I say it throws other parts of the film into perspective, I was really referring to one specific scene: the scene in which Marquis Warren terrorizes Bruce Dern's character, former Confederate general Sanford Smithers, by telling a lurid story in which he claims to have killed Smithers's son. The scene plays out in close-ups of Jackson and Dern, accompanied by visual representations of Warren's story and shots of another character playing the piano.

The piano, and the way we see the lid close over the keys when the tension of this scene is released, recalls Alfred Hitchcock's comment about "playing the audience like a piano," and Tarantino's own comments about how he likes engineering reactions. The close-ups in this scene make visible Smithers's own reactions to Warren's story, and cut off the rest of reality. The viewer is keenly aware of the physical distance between Warren and Smithers, and the breadth of the setting around them, but both of those things are eliminated. Warren's story may or may not be true, but its truth doesn't matter here; what matters is the effect it has on Smithers, formed not only by the content of the story, but by the language Warren uses and how he carries himself.

The truth is secondary to whatever serves the characters, and what serves them is in the title of the movie.  These are characters who don't care to have any kind of direct confrontation with the social hatred that divides them because the narratives that justify it serve their ends so well, and the film shows just how American that attitude really is.

Although it's effective when the plot spirals out of control, it feels a little like the film cheats to get there, possibly because the big deception that sets it off doesn't actually bear any relation to the hatred behind the other deceptions in the film, and kind of comes off as impotently nihilistic for it.

Still, The Hateful Eight is uniquely effective among Tarantino's movies. In some films, Tarantino glamorizes and doesn't mitigate glamour with anything more than self-reference. This isn't necessarily a bad thing - in fact, he's shown he can make it a strength (Inglourious Basterds) - but a couple times, it amounted to less than The Hateful Eight, which darkly hints at something more behind its self-reference. Whether you think it's intelligent in doing so is up to you, but it lets it combine Tarantino's own characteristic tone and aesthetic with the grim, slow-burning suspense found in films like The Thing (an example I use because The Hateful Eight liberally quotes from it). I don't say this completely without reservation, because the other people in the theater where I saw it apparently thought it was much funnier than I did, but I can only speak for myself.

I haven't seen the shorter version of this film, but I can't imagine it would work very well without the intermission, so I'm going to say the longer version is the one to see.

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