Sunday, March 5, 2017

What Civilized Society Calls Justice

Things change. They don’t change at all. Over a year since its release it feels a little like we never actually talked about Quentin Tarantino’s THE HATEFUL EIGHT. Sure, we’ve had discussions regarding various things surrounding the film going back to the initial leak of an early draft of the script which temporarily canceled the project—I received it from a few people but under those circumstances I could never bring myself to read the thing. Attention was also paid when it started up again and Tarantino himself directed a live reading of the script featuring many, but not all, of the actors who would eventually appear in the film. And then by the time it was finally coming out the talk focused on the 70mm release and all the issues surrounding that including how it didn’t get booked into the all-important Cinerama Dome because THE FORCE AWAKENS was set to play there. That’s the film more people were paying attention to over Christmas 2015 anyway but now maybe we can go back to THE HATEFUL EIGHT since I’m still trying to figure it out myself.
Whether intentional or not, the film plays like after DJANGO UNCHAINED Tarantino decided that while he’d loved making a western the epic sprawl of the whole thing may have become a little too unwieldy, Oscar for Best Original Screenplay or not, box office success or not. This time he tightens things down setting much of it in a single location, forcing a specific structure to the story and mostly implying the grand epic going on outside in the world of the film, to focus simply on what’s happening to the characters right at the moment. Filming it in 70mm affects it, more than I think was really discussed beyond the surface, and it definitely affects the way the story is told although as much as I loved someone, anyone, trying to accomplish that sort of thing at this late date and as stunning as it looked when I saw it at the DGA Theatre maybe selling the release so much on that presentation wasn’t the greatest idea. Maybe, just maybe, like the film geek-centric approach of GRINDHOUSE what was being sold to the masses was simply something people didn’t care much about. But now maybe we can move on from that. THE HATEFUL EIGHT was about certain things when Tarantino wrote the various drafts of the script and when it was finally made. Maybe it’s about other things now, in 70mm or otherwise.
Of course, you know the plot or you wouldn’t be reading this, but just in case—as a blizzard is about to hit in late 1800s Wyoming, bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L.Jackson) trying to get a few bodies back for his reward, hitches a stagecoach ride with fellow bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) who is taking the still alive-outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock to hang. They’re soon joined by Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) also on his way to the town to assume the job of sheriff, or at least that’s what he claims. But with the blizzard coming down fast they bunk in at Minnie’s Haberdashery to stay at least until morning. They have no choice, even though Minnie and her regulars strangely aren’t there—only a Mexican who calls himself Bob (Demián Bichir) running the place in their absence along with Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) who identifies himself as the hangman heading to Red Rock, cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) and General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern) formerly of the Confederacy who more than any of them just wants to be left alone. With little to do but try to keep warm, things seem suspicious but Warren and Ruth have no choice to stick around waiting for the blizzard to die down and for whatever’s going to happen to happen.
I got in two 70mm viewings at the time and even after the second was still unsure how I felt. The friend with me for the second viewing, the one at the DGA, speculated that the film played like it needed one more draft. And I’m still not sure that he was wrong. But THE HATEFUL EIGHT is not easy. It’s not meant to be, even if it was designed to be shown in the most old school style with all sorts of ballyhoo imaginable. It also may be the most difficult Tarantino film to get comfortable in since for much of the lengthy running time it’s hard to imagine ever actually wanting to be in this place with these people—it could have been done with a 78 minute running time but then it wouldn’t be able to trap us there. It’s a hangout movie where we don’t want to hang out with any of the characters. I’m definitely settled into its rhythms now that I’ve seen it a few extra times but there’s also the blunt truth that the film feels more appropriate at this moment. Things were different back during Xmas 2015—maybe not better but different enough that if it had come out one year later as things all around us have turned into the carnage in Minnie’s Haberdashery it might have all made more sense.
Unless I’m mistaken, the exact time period of THE HATEFUL EIGHT is never specified, only that it’s set some years after the Civil War. Long enough for things to move on but not long enough for the worst memories to be forgotten, the tensions of the era still falling to the ground as fast as that blizzard. The past is barely past and there are a few lines, beyond just the expected use of the n-word, that make my ears perk up a little more now. Chris Mannix with the anger of his Confederate past refers to suspicion of newspapers printed in “Washington D.C.” dragging out those two letters out making it clear what he thinks of the so-called real news that he’s been reading as things get too close for comfort in that stagecoach before trying to diffuse that tension by protesting, “You got me talking about politics!” as if that’s going to actually ingratiate him to anyone. The anger that Major Marquis Warren still has is there, simmering, with his Lee Van Cleef pipe close at hand constantly figuring out how to use that anger so no one can get the better of him ever again. And once we flee the snow into the uneasy atmosphere of Minnie’s Haberdashery, the ugliness only grows and the anger doesn’t have to be spoken out loud but of course that’s exactly what happens. Since everyone is trapped there’s no time element, just the awareness that things are going to boil over at some point and, appropriate for a western, several characters mention how they’re willing to wait until it does. The silences hang there as well and some of them don’t even bother to waste much energy claiming they are who they say because what’s to be gained.
For a movie in which at least a few of the characters are understandably paranoid (a word spoken, possibly anachronistically) about the immediate situation a surprising number of them seem to know, or at least have heard of, each other but that still doesn’t relax anyone. The two bounty hunters begrudgingly agree to watch out for each other as Chris Mannix reacts to their stalemate with an “Ain’t love grand,” a phrase spoken in THEY LIVE, another film about trying to determine who you can trust and it’s not even the most pertinent John Carpenter film referenced here. Even the names are murky--Domergue is pronounced several different ways and I’m pretty sure none of them are how namesake Faith Domergue of THIS ISLAND EARTH was ever referred to. As straightforward as John Ruth’s name is he’s still oddly called Bob a few times which he angrily corrects and his nickname is “The Hangman” even though part of the point of that moniker is he’s just a guy who delivers outlaws to a hangman, never doing the job himself while the hangman they meet in Minnie’s Haberdashery…well, you get the idea. “That’ll be the day,” Ruth spits out just as John Wayne once did in a certain John Ford western and the bounty hunter is so assured of his personal code that he just assumes everyone else has agreed to it too, just as he clearly wants to believe in the mythology of Major Warren’s Lincoln Letter, a cherished piece of correspondence from the beloved President that he keeps by him at all times, because what other truth could there be?
Kurt Russell plays the part with a little bit of that BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA twang back in his voice and the west Ruth lives in is basically the John Wayne mythology, one where you just know he wouldn’t shoot someone unarmed or in the back. At one point he even wipes a piece of food of Domergue’s face, a small piece of affection towards the woman he’s taking to her death which is definitely not going to be returned. Maybe it says something about Tarantino’s supposed dislike for John Ford, that this stuff about code and honor is all nonsense and even though he comes off as a guy who’s cracked a book or two in his time Ruth never seems as clued into the reality of things around them as Major Warren seems to be as if he knows from his own history that he can never afford to relax for as long as it takes to drink a cup of coffee. Walton Goggins’ Chris Mannix, meanwhile, is the son of the man who was the leader of the Confederate renegade army ‘Mannix’s Maurauders’ a name which recalls Sam Fuller’s MERRILL’S MARAUDERS—a World War II film, yes, but either way the Fuller America is a scrappier, much more incendiary mythology of America where the hatred can’t avoid bubbling to the surface sooner or later. For all the film’s focus on family, whether fathers, mothers or siblings, John Ruth never says anything about that as if he’s just been floating above history and never believes he has to get personally involved.
I don’t claim to be an expert on spaghetti westerns, even though I’ve seen a few that don’t have the name Sergio Leone on them, and I’m also not particularly versed in the sub-sub-genre of westerns set in the snow—there’s certainly McCABE & MRS. MILLER but that doesn’t seem to be much of a factor here. The Grindhouse aesthetic you’d maybe expect with crazy zooms, grainy Techniscope photography isn’t the approach taken here at all, with the use of 70mm becoming its own style. Putting aside all of the accoutrements of overtures and intermissions the grandeur does affect the film, it gives the whole thing a certain visual weight that makes every shot matter. And for all the surprise over Tarantino filming in 70mm but setting much of it in a single large room, there hasn’t been much talk of how that’s clearly affected the visual approach to that interior and while certain profile shots are very Tarantino-esque it always avoids standard coverage, there’s a decided lack of cutaways to characters listening to others talking unless it’s absolutely necessary. The stage play-like approach makes it extremely controlled in allowing for what we’re seeing or deliberately not seeing, as well as feeling that cold as we see their breath while they speak or getting us to wonder what that stew tastes like (seriously, I really want to know) as the actors play off each other-it’s not blithely cutting in closer to speed everything up. This keeps us correctly off balance and it’s for the best anyway since certain reactions at crucial points would reveal too much but of course it also means that we sometimes lose track of characters for way too long. Various silent glances register differently on multiple viewings when we can pay more attention to what they’re not doing and, I swear, it sure looks like Bruce Dern glances right at the camera around 37:05, an almost subliminal tell of what General Smithers is keeping from us. Close-ups are doled out carefully but they’re there which partly feels like a Leone approach but also works as its own thing—even if he has less to do than anyone I get the feeling Tarantino loves finding as many crevices as he can in Michael Madsen’s face and he clearly revels in the cracks of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s features covered in blood or otherwise. We want them to go outside and take in the glorious vistas but similar to how Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER was really looking into the faces Tarantino it’s all about those faces and the hatred behind them.
From the angle where we get our first look at the interior of Minnie’s Haberdashery there’s something deliberately unwelcoming about it allowing us to soak in the unease immediately, an oppressive feel that never really goes away. On first viewing the later flashback to a normal day in the life of the place (featuring Dana Gourrier as Minnie, who I wish there was more of, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN’S Gene Jones as Sweet Dave and the now obligatory Zoë Bell cameo) comes as a genuine breather after the downright oppressive feel after so much time in that darkness which seems to be part of the point as well. Watching that section again now that difference is felt even more, flashing back to a more innocent time, almost as if they were shooting this section on a totally different set. It’s a fanciful multicultural portrayal of the old west and whether it has anything to do with reality or not it seems like a nice place to be. It’s a picture of a more innocent time which we can picture for ourselves, the 90s, the early 2010s, pre-June 2015, pre-August 2015, pre-Election Day 2016, hanging out with our friends, joking around talking about movies and everything seems ok, no awareness of what’s coming. Yes, there are reminders of things like racism around us—if Minnie really did have that ‘no Mexicans or dogs’ sign up once upon a time she’s not exactly a total innocent, making me think of the fabled ‘FAGOTS – STAY OUT!’ sign which apparently hung in the West Hollywood Barney’s Beanery until 1984. You can take down those signs but it doesn’t mean that everything is cleared up. Doesn’t mean that we can fall asleep any easier tonight since that hatred is just lying in wait.
A few of the actors still don’t get to do very much even with that lengthy running time—Tim Roth, for one, is given a few enjoyable monologues done Terry-Thomas style after his introduction but after that doesn’t make much impression at all, certain characters forced to stay silent for a little too long in that second half standing up against a wall with nothing to do. Maybe there was some stuff left out, maybe there’s some things in there we don’t need—technically there are two versions of the film with the one available on DVD & Blu the standard release cut (167 minutes) while the roadshow 70mm version, overture, intermission and Cinerama logo aside, is only slightly longer so the differences between the two versions seem to be relatively minimal almost as if Tarantino made one of them slightly longer just because he could and have a little extra fun with the whole thing. In theory that roadshow cut could give us another version to buy at some point but I’m guessing it will have the same release date of a KILL BILL: THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIR Blu that we’ve all stopped holding our breath for. But what’s a Tarantino mythology without footage being withheld from us, after all.
It isn’t always as good as its best moments and a few points feel even weaker, RESERVOIR DOGS in the old west but not really. As punchy and dense as some of the dialogue is at times it also sounds a little too familiar to anyone who knows the Tarantino parlance, maybe a reminder that it needed the one extra polish my friend suggested. The confrontation between Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Dern that leads up to the intermission (in the roadshow cut, anyway) is honestly my least favorite scene, as well played as it is by the two actors, feeling shoehorned in there no matter how much the film needs this sort of reminder of all the things that have led some of these people here; some Bruce Dern dialogue heard on the soundtrack CD that was cut from the film might have helped the buildup to it. But even with the weaker points we still get Robert Richardson’s stunning cinematography both outdoors and indoors adding to the hellish cold and placed up against it is the pure scorching fire that is the original Oscar-winning score by Ennio Morricone who brings to the film a spectacular main title along with that ticking feel that burrows underneath the film, a clock ticking down continuously as if just waiting for the brutality to reveal itself. There are also several Morricone tracks from John Carpenter's THE THING and one from EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC in there—the brief use of HERETIC music is appreciated because that score is all-holy but it’s the tracks from THE THING which make the most sense here, almost becoming part of the text itself coming from another film set in the remote cold with Kurt Russell, another film where you can’t trust who you’re trapped with, making THE HATEFUL EIGHT in part a prolonged examination of that film from an alternate genre perspective or maybe just the western that John Carpenter never made. Like other Carpenter films it’s a story mostly set in one place trying to keep out a greater force only in this case it’s not just the blizzard (referred to as a ‘white hell’ which itself brings to mind THE WHITE HELL OF PITZ PALU, referenced in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS—movie titles are part of the Tarantinoverse before movies are even invented) but the world itself with all the hatred and racism imaginable.
Carpenter’s THE THING of course featured an all-male cast so the presence of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Daisy Domergue who is at least as nasty as everyone else could almost be a commentary on what that film was missing, as if a demonstration of proof that the hatred which takes over everyone makes any specific treatment of her as a woman of secondary concern so the hatred consuming humanity is what really takes precedence. When she gently sings “Jim Jones at Botany Bay” for a moment strumming that guitar, John Ruth drops his hostility towards her for a moment and look where it gets him. “We’re gonna die...we ain’t got no say in that,” is heard near the end just as “We’re not getting out of here alive…but neither is that thing” was uttered near the end of THE THING. Major Warren’s Lincoln Letter is the false symbol which asks the question that stands for much of the film, either saying that the final image is either an expression of hope between these two guys who have always been on opposite sides or a realization of that lie, saying that hoping for any better is just a waste of time. I’m not sure I want to say which side I’m leaning on right now, but the answer doesn’t make me happy. The evil of the past is what makes the present after all and maybe the best way to look at the future is to laugh at it, showing no fear. There’s no chance of getting out of this alive, anyway. But, as another film once reminded us, neither is that thing. Maybe that right there is a sign of hope.
No one person gets the star role but Samuel L. Jackson takes full command of the frame, energized by this part and with total confidence in each gesture right down to his silences, figuring things out before anyone else is, as Tarantino points his camera directly at him assured in the history of his anger and just as assured in his righteousness. Kurt Russell with that enormous mustache thingamajig seems to love settling back in his scenes and playing off the other actors and he brings to John Ruth a cocky determination that shows how he’s keeping a close eye on everything in front of him but never anything else, right through to his very last moment which maybe more than anything reveals so much about who he is. In some ways it’s Jennifer Jason Leigh who really gets the showcase part you’d almost expect more of the actors here would have, taking being chained to Kurt Russell for most of the film and on repeat viewings we can see just how much she’s willing to sit back, crack a few jokes and wait for what she knows is going to come without fear, opening her mouth to get a taste of the falling snow while waiting to reveal her true feral nature. We never know what she’s done specifically to face the hangman’s noose but by the end we have no problem believing it. Veering from comic doofiness to deadly seriousness from moment to moment, Walton Goggins becomes the spirit of the film, even if it is a nasty, racist spirit unable to wipe away the war between the world and his father in his head, firmly believing that the renegade army was justified. Among the other guys, Bruce Dern has maybe less screen time than any of them but he still gives the most underappreciated performance in the film, the n-word is the nastiest coming from him just as the desperation when he thinks he might hear something about his son is palpable and the way he wraps his mouth around some of Tarantino’s words has more fury than it does from anyone else. And his scene with Channing Tatum making a crucial star cameo drives home much of the thesis. He doesn’t care about anyone else, certainly not anyone dying. Land of the free, after all.
As we wait for the day when THE HATEFUL EIGHT finally plays at the Cinerama Dome (I know one person who saw it there at the premiere and I’m still jealous) we can remember the majestic 70mm images at the film’s opening, a reminder of the cold, uncaring nature that continues amidst all this hatred. By the time we reach the end of the last chapter we don’t emerge back out into the snow as a brighter morning dawns, but instead stay on all their bloody faces where the darkness remains. I’m still dealing with a few things in there but right now the film makes perfect sense to me. These are characters who have done too many things, hurt too many people for it all to be wiped away and there can’t be peace, just as we can’t wipe away the ugliness of the modern world and a so-called president who proudly mocks the disabled. Looking all around you see reminders of how much they hate you, how much they hurt you and how much they want to kill you. It’s the unanswered question of what civilized society calls justice and if the possibilities of that civilized world can ever be attained. “Justice delivered without dispassion is always in danger of not being justice,” one character observes but of course it’s up for debate if that person really meant what he said and, in the end, the film seems to say that dispassionate justice isn’t possible anyway. One of the Morricone pieces from THE THING titled “Despair” is heard near the end at a very crucial point as a character tries to answer for himself the all-important question, Who Are You? How much of a person are you, really? At the very least, movies do have the power to change for us deep down as times goes on. But nobody ever said that people change too.