Thursday, 21 January 2016

Eight Points On Hateful Eight

      Spoilers, yer peckerwoods!

      Chapter 1: The Highs
  1.  It's just utterly beautiful. The wider-than-widescreen captures the "Wyoming" (actually Colorado) landscapes brilliantly. I've always had a major weakness for film stock of snowy wilderness, and this pushes the relevant buttons perfectly. With the film as long as it is, it's easy to imagine how the austere, vicious coldness of the surroundings could have been have been visited less often via a tighter edit, but I'm glad that didn't happen. It aids the sense of isolation, it actually made me feel physically cold myself (though recently I'm learning how unusual my physical reactions to visual stimuli are) and it just looks absolutely gorgeous.

  2. Pretty much the whole cast run the range from dependably consistent to flat-out wonderful. Special nods go to Jennifer Jason Leigh's performance as a captured criminal - who gives every impression of intending to escape from Minnie's by chewing her way through the walls - and to Walton Goggins as the similarly muggy Chris Mannix, who serves up a huge performance of oily smiles, petulant rage, and slack-jawed charm. In truth, the large variance in ham across the cast means some scenes don't entirely gel, but when the individual flavours are so good it seems churlish to complain they won't go together to make a good stew.

  3. Let's give Tim Roth his own section, actually, because of the extra layer to his performance. For most of the film he had me wondering whether it wouldn't have been cheaper to just hire Chrisoph Waltz to play the hangman, rather than getting Tim Roth to pretend to be Waltz pretending to be English. But then the chapters demonstrated that this was precisely the point; Tim Roth is playing an Englishman playing a different Englishman.  Why shouldn't the fictional Englishman's fictional Englishman sound like a gregarious German pretending to be English?

    (This also works with regards to Senor Bob, who due to me not paying attention to the opening credits I was convinced throughout was being played Robert de Niro. But it turned out it wasn't an Italian-American actor pretending to be Mexican, but a Mexican actor sounding like an Italian-American [1] actor pretending to be Mexican.)

  4. I really love the idea of just cutting out the antiheroes and villains of westerns and sticking them together without a square-jawed hero to ruin everything. Not only does that make things more narratively interesting, but it ties into the casual brutality of the times (which is not to say we're any better these days, so much as we're more interested in hiding it).  There's a real weight of personal and geographical history here, for all that the actual interplay can seem characteristically flippant and light (with both those words taking new meanings with reference to Tarantino, of course), and the implication that no-one in the Old West gets to cast themselves as an unambiguous hero is a strong one, though of course one that's been flying around for some time now.

    Chapter 2: The Lows
  5. Michael Madsen. I just don't understand the appeal. He was OK (though ridiculously overrated) as Mr Blonde, and ever since then every time I see him he impresses me less. Here he's basically the same greasy-haired murderslob he was in Kill Bill, only with a more irritating voice.
  6. An obvious complaint, but still accurate: it's just so fucking long. To Tarantino's credit, there's nothing that struck my upon watching as desperately needing cutting, but there's a massive difference between something having no dead wood and something so tightly structured that it cannot possibly be afford to be trimmed. Hateful Eight is most decidedly not the latter.
  7.  The arithmetic. Yes, the posters for the film feature eight people, which presumably correspond to the "Hateful Eight". But does OB really not count just because he doesn't get to tell any stories before he vomits up his liquified innards?  What about Jody? Does he not count just because it takes a while to learn he's part of events?  This is the most frustratingly ambiguous title maths since Blake's 7, and it bothers me for all the petty stereotypical reasons you would expect it to. Still, since calling this "Quentin Tarantino's eighth film" is questionable too, so maybe it's all in jest. A film that ends on so deranged a black pun is capable of anything, I guess.

    Chapter 3: The Who The Hell Knows?
  8. So. Let's talk about the race angle. You all knew this was coming. I'm not going to go into detail about the sheer frequency of that word being bandied around in the script. People much smarter than me have gone back and forth on this; I have nothing to add. What I want to focus on instead is the way Tarantino's decision to not ignore the racial strife of the time rubs up against his decision to have no-one in the script be a conventional hero (both of which I would independently applaud). Because for all that he's named the film The Hateful Eight, it's obvious that we are not intended to find all eight characters hateful. Indeed, fully half of the characters are presented sympathetically at least some of the time, with the reveal that four of them genuinely are fucking appalling human beings just that: a reveal. The point of the exercise here is clearly to make us wonder who is antihero and who is villain.

    All of which is fine. Tarantino was on Front Row promoting the film recently, and I dimly recollect him making the point that he didn't want to make anyone a purely evil character any more than a purely good one. Again, that's fine. Good, even. I don't want to go on record suggesting we need less complicated characters. And some of the racial interplay was very well done - Ruth processing Warren's lie about the letter in particular was pitched just right, with script and Jackson both walking a fine line between guilt at having lied and exasperation that Ruth can't see why the lie was prudent, even necessary.

    But here's the thing. If you want to write a story about how nobody is a total shit (or at least, working out who the total shits are is a non-trivial task) I'm uncomfortable with you including racist characters in there too. White filmmakers should not be in the business of redeeming racists.  I mean, sure, it's not hard to work out why Tarantino went with the idea, nor even that it completely lacks utility. Maddix's racism and how it flavours his potentially short-lived alliance with Warren makes for fascinating viewing, and it, alongside the surprise death of Russell's character before the last act, lends the final moments of the film real weight. It's not often so commercially conventional a film has had me so unsure about which way a character will turn, for all that I ultimately guessed right, and for the right reason.

    The benefits the choice has for dramatic tension, however, interest me less than the damage done elsewhere. Do we really want a story about moral grey areas that ultimately implies that racists aren't necessarily bad people? Is that the message we want to be reverberating around packed cinemas in 2016?  That strikes me as counter-productive. It's ironic that various US police forces announced their intention to boycott the film after Tarantino's entirely justified comments on racist cops murdering black teenagers, considering the finale of the film revolves a racist-as-fuck sheriff defending a black man from two white people even after the black man shot his childhood hero.

    "Racists can do heroic things too" is simply not a message I accept society needs right now. Not because I think racists are irredeemably bad people, but because our problem today isn't that we don't realise racists can be otherwise decent people, but because we don't realise otherwise decent people can be racist. I'm not interested in stories in which racist authorities actually turn out to be helpful. I want stories in which helpful authorities actually turn out to be racist. Because that's the world we live in. That's the moral complexity (to the extent that "nice guys can be racist dicks" is a complex idea, as oppose to one pointedly unexplored by society) we have to get our heads around, if we're to have any prospect of advancing as a society.

    For all that the film, and Tarantino himself, want to be on the side of people of colour - and oh, how desperately they want to do that -  they keep swimming in the wrong direction.
                [1] Though of course describing De Niro as such is something of an oversimplification.


Jamie said...

Good review (quick point though, there's a sentence in section 4 that starts but doesn't finish...).

I enjoyed it too, and though it was long I didn't generally feel it dragged - though perhaps it took a little bit more time to get to Minnie's than I expected whilst watching it.

Similarly to you I was unsure which way Mannix would jump; he was a gloriously ambiguous character right down to the final five minutes. (Side-note: if you want more loquaciously charming scene-stealing from Walton Goggins, watch Justified asap.)

I see what you're saying re race; you have a very valid point. One counterpoint I'd make is that perhaps Tarantino is trying to encourage racists to find common cause with others and step past their bigotry? The AV Club review ( suggests interestigly that the lie of the Lincoln letter was chosen as an ending point to the film to imply that although America may be built on a lie, trying to live up to what that lie represents is in the end the more honorable path than giving into nihilism and malice.

Having said this, Tarantino's simplification of complicated issues is hardly new over the last few films (or beyond), so maybe I'm just relieved that this doesn't quite recycle the same plot beats for the third time running, and overly defensive as a result.

As for the title, it annoyed me, too; although I've started to assume that maybe Tarantino was just jokingly referring to the number of films he's directed (was Kill Bill split at the studio's behest? I can't remember), and the concentration the promotional material had on the number of characters was meant to distract you from deducing Jody's presence. (I also think it would be a bit harsh to refer to OB as particularly hateful.)

SpaceSquid said...

Thanks Jamie; I've fixed the sentence fragment.

The problem I have with the idea of QT suggesting people should reach beyond their bigotry is tied to my original point: the people who we could ever hope might be able to reach beyond their bigotry don't actually see themselves as bigots, and portraying bigots the way the film does helps them in their delusion.

I do like that reading of the Lincoln letter, though. And yes, IIRC it was the studio who wanted Kill Bill cleft in twain. Or, at least, it wasn't Tarantino's idea.