02 January 2016

The Merciless West


For Pike Bishop, the hardened leader of a gang of outlaws in Sam Peckinpah's 1969 epic The Wild Bunch, even criminals must adhere to some set of ethics. When a double-cross is suggested, William Holden snarls, "When you side with a man, you stay with him. And if you can't do that, you're like some animal - you're finished! We're finished! All of us!" Without some semblance of honor, all hell will break loose.

Hell breaking loose is precisely what happens in Quentin Tarantino's masterful The Hateful Eight. Easily his best picture since Kill Bill, Hateful distinguishes itself from his previous two revenge fantasies in that the good and the bad are not nearly so viscerally defined.  Nazis and slavedrivers are just about the two most reviled archetypes in the American imagination.  But in Hateful, the "good" guys are only identified as such because their atrocities are only slightly less odious than those of the really bad guys. The result is a supremely taut Western mystery that's hilariously clever in only the way Tarantino films can be.

The eight in the title refers to the eight characters stuck in a mountain inn riding out a blizzard in postbellum Wyoming.  Kurt Russell plays John "Hangman" Ruth, a bounty hunter determined to bring uncouth Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to nearby Red Rock to hang.  John Ruth is filled with paranoia that he's walking into some kind of trap to free his prisoner, but it slowly becomes clear that a conspiracy is clearly in play.  Samuel L. Jackson plays a fellow bounty hunter and former Civil War hero with an extreme "proficiency at killing Johnny Reb." Tim Roth, Demián Bichir, Walton Goggins, Michael Madsen, and Bruce Dern round up the superb cast.

Filmed in ultra Panavision 70mm, Hateful produces some of the best cinematography of Tarantino's oeuvre. Shots of a stagecoach ambling through the high Rockies while White Stripes' "Apple Blossom" plays is a particular delight. The wide 70mm format gives the actors room to really stretch their legs with their facial expressions, nuanced glances, and subtle mannerisms. A suspenseful Western wouldn't be worth its salt without a cavalcade of suspicious glares and piercing gazes. Coupled with a tense score from Ennio Morricone, Hateful firmly places itself within the Western film tradition. 

The three hour running time passes quickly as the usual chatty Tarantino script drives the narrative rather than digresses as we find out about the characters' backstories, which are equal parts disturbing, hilarious, and bizarre. Although others may lazily call this a Tarantino fantasy, that assertion would be mistaken. The old West was a harsh and unsparing place. Peckinpah understood this, and so does Tarantino. During a massacre scene, a dying beautiful young woman reaches up to grab the hem of the coat of the man who just shot her in a seeming plea for terminal comfort. The man gives her a warm look and then shoots her in the face to finish the job, her hand stuck gripping the bottom of his coat. This was the old West. Raw, merciless, and inexplicably brutal. The film makes reference to this when Samuel L. Jackson's character is outed for an indiscretion he incredulously asks the aggrieved John Ruth in only the way Samuel L. can, "What, did I hurt your feelings, John Ruth?" As if anyone can spare the luxury of feelings in such a morally bankrupt world.

But Tarantino's most consummate stroke is his exploration of American race relations.  On one side you have Samuel L. Jackson's Major Marquis Warren who supposedly has a personal letter from Abraham Lincoln and John Ruth.  On the other is Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern) and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a former Lost Causer. The animosity between the two sides is explosive and deadly, but they soon find themselves facing a common lethal foe, and inadvertently find each other somewhere neither thought possible: on the same side. The parallels to today's racial strife cannot be ignored. Don't worry, Tarantino hasn't gone political, he's just gone societal. White America and Black America has a chance to come together if their common goal is truth and justice.

Tarantino touches upon something in Hateful that sets it apart from some of his earlier work. The concluding scene, which follows a truly howl-worthy climax, is the most profound of his venerated career, devoid of any hints of irony or cheekiness, but full of hopefulness and regret.

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