The Hateful Eight: First Encounter

(Quentin Tarantino, USA, 2015): More ornery than a cornered rattler and crazier than a snakebit dog, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight runs with such furious, runaway locomotive force against everything sensible you want to love it just for being so brazenly batshit. I mean, a 70-mm three hour epic that takes place largely indoors? An ‘action’ movie that’s got more talking than six Eric Rohmer movies spliced end to end? A frontier shotgun wedding of Miss Marple and The Evil Dead? How grateful must we be then, merely for the idea of Quentin Tarantino. That, in the age of the digital reprocessing of pop blandness on such an oceanic scale, that a guy this cantankerously eccentric can even exist in the global movie business, let alone be one of the world’s very few remaining name above the title auteurs?

Yes, yes, I’ve heard it all, and there have certainly been spells where I’ve agreed with at least some of it: that Quentin Tarantino makes movies are meaningless without other movies as referents; that he’s so in love with the sound of his own words being read that he loses all sense of the simple pleasures — like momentum and brevity — that are so endemic to the movies whose blood he slurps; that surely the lavish, upscale A-list re-making of formerly low-rent and largely culturally disreputable trash genres is a dead end game and certainly no thing for a real artist to devote an entire career to?

But all that is bullshit as long as the movies themselves stand tall on their own as unique, distinctive and challenging cinematic experiences and The Hateful Eight, in keeping with — I’ve got to say it — just about all Quentin Tarantino’s movies so far, stands out in all these ways and even more not exactly incidental one: it stands apart as a QT movie. It feels, that is, not only like maybe the first movie of his that needed all those other bargain-basement genre precedents for it to exist, but all the previous Quentin Tarantino movies to make it possible. It feels like something that’s actually grown out of all the other work.

I know this will be, and already has been, widely disputed, but I really don’t give a shit, and when I get round to a second viewing — something I’ve come realize all Tarantino’s movies demand, and an indication, for me at least, that there’s more to these than usually first meets eye and ear — I hope to probe more deeply into just what lies buried beneath them thar snow and blood-splattered hills.

So, if I may, please indulge me while I elucidate some of the more immediately apparent characteristics of what may soon seem to be a great movie. Let me start with that Ennio Morricone score, since the movie, particularly in its roadshow iteration replete with intermission and overture, itself does: it’s as sparse, minimal and deliberately subdued as anything the veteran movie-composer iconoclast has ever done, and is in itself a subtle sonic harbinger of the expectations about to thwarted, the genre — western of both Stateside and spaghetti variations — in the very first stages of being unsaddled, hoisted beamward and slowly bled out.

Then consider that gathering storm in the opening act: we are adrift in a vast sea of ever-whitening blank space, a deliberate visual choice which will not only make the final destination of the roadside cabin station a relief of sorts, but which plays itself most perversely with the idea of pure western-movie visual expansiveness: as the crowded stagecoach rumbles its way toward Minnie’s Roadhouse in remotest Wyoming, the gathering blizzard begins to render the entire visual field of the movie an increasingly blinding and impenetrable white, so that as our eyes adjust to the interiors so do our senses recover their sense of depth and selective discernment. Outside, we lose all sense of space, intimacy and the heated pulse of human conflict. Inside, these things take on the scale and scope of landscape itself. With these characters and the baggage they carry with them to Minnie’s, the movie moves its mountains indoors. And when it gets inside, if we’re still paying attention, the movie will compel us to look at those interiors every bit as carefully and intricately as Altman did back in the similarly snowbound season of McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

The role of bullshit in this movie — in the sense of bullshit as the very lifeblood of human character, a quality every bit as essential to surviving in the movie west as knowing how to ride, shoot or (see The Revenant) make a warm sleeping bag of a dead horse’s carcass — is nothing short of brilliant, and an opportunity for indulging both an incrementally unravelling spool of dramatic revelation and saying something that might not have been stated quite so baldly since John Ford himself moved indoors to make a talky parlour movie about the transcendent, rich and vital role of bullshit in American mythology called The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. (Another interior gabfest of a Western, along with Stagecoach, High Noon, Rio Bravo3:10 to Yuma, Man of the WestDecision at Sundown and Day of the Outlaw.) If we understand the West to be less a place than a process, and that process to be the mythical re-invention of self out of the pliable putty of history, then all that talk and balderdash in The Hateful Eight, the obsessive and recurrent confrontations building to ejaculatory final-act bloodbath based on competing mythologies, makes perfect sense: the real Western, as opposed to ‘real west’, is all about telling tales, spinning yarns and the sheer out-bullshitting of everyone else. It’s all talk, and practically no walk — at least as an entertainment form, and Tarantino gets that. In this sense, the movie’s structure, in which we are driven inside by the gathering storm and the increasingly claustrophobic grip of competing bullshit agendas squeezes until it pops like an arterial cumshot compilation in the final act, is eminently logical, reasonable and even necessary.

Besides, what the western has always been about, and which accounts for the sheer durability of an otherwise rather conspicuously circumscribed form in terms of setting and iconography, is not then but now, and what The Hateful Eight seems to be about is pretty much exactly what the title says it’s about: people who hate each other. People who hate each other because of their class, their race, their gender or the threat they might represent to one’s own fragile outward shell of bullshit, and who will lie, cheat, steal and kill to protect themselves from being revealed for being just as insecure, alone, scared and self-interested as everyone else. The frontier here is of the deepest and most brutal existential kind, where nobody feels like they’ve got any legitimate purchase on the terrain unless they dig in and hang on for dear life. There’s no future outside those doors where the wind howls and oblivion beckons, and the only way to make it from one moment to another is to protect your ass from being exposed at any cost. This sounds like America in the year 2016 to me, when Donald Trump can be seriously entertained as a Presidential contender, gun violence has entered the realm of ambient wallpaper news, and locking ourselves inside has actually felt like some form of escape. More to come, I think. (Weinstein Company)