Friday, January 1, 2016

The Hateful Eight

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For some reason, I feel like Quentin Tarantino's newest film, The Hateful Eight, isn't getting as much buzz as his previous movies have. Maybe because it's three hours long, not counting an intermission that is included in the 70 mm version (which sadly was not screening at the theater I saw the film at. Which is a damn shame). Maybe because it's Tarantino and Hollywood seems really fickle when it comes to paying attention to his work (and anyone's work in general). Or maybe because this film is incredibly uncomfortably through its tense composition and doesn't leave viewers any pleasant space to linger in.

Tarantino was one of the first directors for whom I started paying specific attention to style and authorship. A friend from high school was a fan and introduced me to his work. Because of her, I saw Kill Bill Vol 1 and 2 and decided to see Inglourious Basterds at a midnight screening. There's a certain edge and grittiness to all of Tarantino's work and masterful storytelling. He takes characters that you otherwise wouldn't want to spend time talking to, let alone be stuck with in a room for three hours. But that's exactly what he does. And not only does he convince you to spend three hours with these people you'd hate on any other day, he makes you care about them. The Hateful Eight is one of the clearest examples of that.

Let me give you a run-down of the film. And note, this will not be spoiler-free, so be forewarned. Major Marquis Warren (played by Samuel L Jackson) is a bounty hunter and former soldier of the American Civil War. When we first meet him, he's killed three men and is bringing them to claim his reward in the town of Red Rock. But he's lost his horse and flags down the coach of John Ruth (Kurt Russel) who's got a bounty of his own - a woman named Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Lee) whom he's chained himself to so she won't escape. It isn't clear what Domergue's done other than being a murderer but boy does Ruth hate her - and she hates Warren due to his race. Immediately this world is clearly laid out for us in terms of ugly racial slurs and sexist epithets. The characters are immediately interesting and personable, but there's no easy way to empathize with them in the ways audience members are accustomed to. It's difficult to pick a side - the sexist and kind of racist Ruth, the sexist but otherwise seemingly moral Warren, and the racist but continually battered Domergue. Joining them is the racist and sexist new sheriff of Red Rock, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) who is a former Confederate soldier with a firm belief in "frontier justice" and fondling recalling the work of the rebel troops.

The four arrive at Minne's Haberdashery, a frontier trading post of sorts to wait out a blizzard that's rolling in. However, Minnie is nowhere to be found and the place is already full of more suspicious characters. Tensions rise as the cast slowly reveals none of them are exactly who they appear to be but agree upon an unsteady truce to ride out the storm. It all falls apart as Senor Bob (Demain Birchir) plays "Silent Night" on the piano (a moment seeming to recall this song's usage in the truce of World War I, despite the anachronistic reference) while Warren describes to General Smithers (Bruce Dern), an elderly Confederate, how he knows Smithers' son and how he raped and killed his son, describing it all in excruciating, vivid detail. As the morality initially assumed of Warren falls away and another takes its place, the first shots are fired and death comes knocking at the cabin's door. While Smithers is killed by Warren, someone poisons the coffee, killing Ruth and coach drive O.B. (James Parks) in what is now my worst nightmare (dear Quentin Tarantino, you took my two biggest phobias of blood and vomiting and paired them together. I both admire and despise you for that). Sheriff Mannix is almost poisoned as well and Warren teams with him to find out who of the remaining living cabin members is the poisoner. Domergue knows, having seen the suspect poison the pot and also happens to be working with them. In fact, she's working with all three suspects, as well as a man beneath the floorboards who chooses an opportune moment to shoot up through the floorboards at Warren and Mannix. The hidden man is Jody (Channing Tatum), Domergue's brother, the ringleader of a gang that is known for absolute destruction. Each one of Daisy's collaborators all have a price on their head and bargain with Mannix and Warren. However, no one gets out of this alive and in the end, we're left with a shot of Daisy's hanged body while Warren and Mannix slowly bleed to death.

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It's a tragedy in the most basic and complex sense. Tarantino creates deep, heavily flawed characters of which you can presume nothing, leading us on a detective story that ends in epic bloodshed. While certain reviewers found the film tedious, I felt time fly by as the story slowly unraveled, caught up in character interactions and complicated notions of morality. There is no clear hero in this film and, while Warren is certainly the closest thing we have to such a figure, it's going to be a long time before the description of killing Smithers' son stops echoing in my ears. While violence is heavy in this film, it doesn't become the plot and serves instead to heighten tension and utterly unease the viewers. The carpet is swept out from under our feet after Warren reveals his dark side and we never stop falling until the last scene.

While the film is exhilarating, it is also difficult to watch at times. This is intentional. The racial slurs and sexist language used throughout the film is repetitive but never loses its jarring intensity. You can argue whether including such language is acceptable and good arguments are had on both sides - yes, because it is historically accurate; yes, because the world that is created shows these characters more vividly by using language as they would have actually used it (I'm pulling this strain of thought from Stephen King's On Writing); no, because no white male filmmaker should use these words even in the context of a certain universe; no, because the true power of these words is misunderstood and misconstrued. I won't make a call on this because I can't. It's not appropriate for me to. Instead, I'm going to recognize it as part of the film and discuss its implications in the film, leaving the broader idea of such usage in culture to you the reader.

Warren and Domergue are both trapped in a dance of trying to gain power in this film. Warren, with his (falsified) letter from former President Lincoln, uses it gain leverage and respect from white men who otherwise would not give him any notice at all. Domergue doesn't have a letter or much of anything left to give her power - except for her ever-watchful eyes, her intimidating looks, and her hiding associates waiting to spring into action. It sounds like quite a lot compared to what Warren has, but ultimately, Domergue still gets the short end of the deal. She's treated roughly by Ruth and is called a bitch by half the men in the haberdashery. We're led to believe that, like Warren in response to racial epithets, she's heard much worse, but it's hard to get images of Punch and Judy out of mind after Ruth punches her in the nose, drawing blood.

Domergue is a fascinating character for me, because female criminals are incredibly interesting. They aren't often discussed and aren't often recognized and are either highly villainized or excused and pardoned. A reviewer from the New York Times sees Domergue as scapegoat and her character as one that leads the film into "elaborately justified misogyny." The treatment of Domergue is misogynistic, but my take-away from this film was very different and, while I can't guarantee that the very enthusiastic men sitting next to me who chuckled when she got punched saw it the same way I did, I don't believe that Tarantino is supporting misogyny and in fact is arguing entirely against such sexist ways of thinking, the same way in which he argues against racism. However, it's not the clear-cut pretty ways we're used to seeing, where characters come out and say that racism is bad and sexism is wrong. No one says that in this film because they don't live in a world where that is possible. Life is literally put into terms of worth, in terms of bounty and those who are seen as "unimportant" and not worth as much - the poor innocent people who run the haberdashery, a majority of who are women of color - are killed and discarded down a well. It is brutal, it is ugly, but it is still clearly too relevant to our real world. The characters don't think in terms of racial equality and feminism  - we the viewers have to instead, and the view of the camera (aka the director) allows us to do so. We know that the usage of the n-word against Warren is disgusting and inappropriate. I believe the usage of "bitch" is the same - but for some reason, a lot of us don't see it that way. Unlike Mad Max: Fury Road, which I heard people hyping it of breaking stereotypes in film and making a feminist action and didn't live up to my expectations, Hateful Eight never promises to do anything of that sort. Instead, it extorts misogyny, to the point where it breaks it. In the moment after Ruth punches Domergue, making her nose bleed, Warren laughs. And Domergue looks at him and winks. Warren immediately stops laughing, utterly shocked. Her knowledge of her situation and her reaction to it allows her to gain the upper hand. Domergue is not surprised by her treatment - and sadly, neither am I. Perhaps what's most unfortunate about Daisy's character is how real her situation is - women have been scapegoated in crime rings, beaten while imprisoned, considered not real women after having committed murder, and portrayed as more obscene for having killed than if a man had throughout a lot of American history. It's painful to have this forced in our face and perhaps even more painful to know that there is nothing Daisy can do about it - she's in the hands of the law now, and it's a very biased law. All this being said, this doesn't make any of Daisy's actions excusable. She laughs while those around her are dying and she's horrifying and brilliant. Creating these fascinating, twisted people is what amazes me about Tarantino. It reminds me of reading Edward Albee's Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf and being horrified that I was so enraptured by such terrible people. Except I'll take Albee's messed-up dinner party any night rather than being trapped in a cabin with any of Tarantino's characters.

When Daisy is hanged at the end, there is a certain way of seeing the view as very voyeuristic, as two men winning a battle and glorifying over her dead body. But the very last shot changes this perspective. While a dying Confederate soldier and a dying African American bounty hunter bleed to death, taking one last look at the Lincoln letter as Mannix reads aloud, "We have a long way to go" while Daisy's body hangs in the foreground, it's clear that any idea of "frontier justice" is ineffective and wrong. All have died - the good, the bad, and the ugly - and the world waits for true justice to arrive.

Of course, that's just one reading, one interpretation of this film. There's hundreds more and I look forward to reading and hearing more of them. The Hateful Eight may not be the sort of entertainment we're used to, but it's important and difficult and requires a lot of focus and thinking. Something I couldn't help but pay attention to was the audience around me in theater. There weren't many of us there on a Tuesday evening at the end of December - maybe about fifteen, at the most. But what intrigued me was the diversity - in age, race, and gender. For such a small audience in Minnesota, I feel like that really says something. Say what you will about Tarantino - he brings a large variety of people together to see his films. And that's just as important as the film itself.

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