So, a disclaimer: my first screening of this was not in actual 70mm film, but rather was with a Digital Cinema Projection (though to be fair plenty of theaters had issues doing 70mm to begin with). However, I did my second screening in that format. Is it worth it? Well…given that this is the toughest and most troublesome mainstream production I’ve witnessed of 2015, I’m wavering between, “Yes” and, “No”. Read on to see why. Content warning for descriptions of racism and sexual assault.
The first thing one needs to know about, “The Hateful Eight” is that it is a vehicle where Quentin Tarantino and company use the aesthetics of U.S. Civil War history, Spaghetti Westerns, and Grindhouse movies to look at the gaping maw of inequality, racism and sexism that, if Donald Trump’s popularity as a political candidate is any indication, America has yet to address. So, it is as gruesome, un-PC and filled with awesome needle drops as one might expect. However, if one is looking for catharsis, validation, or a rousing speech that blows said evils away, you’re out of luck. Movies that look at such tough subjects are commendable for having the guts to look at such issues, but with the way Tarantino and company make movies, I have doubts about whether such an uncensored, horrific display is going to do much good for discourse in a civilization that absorbs every fucked up thing that has ever occurred, then turns it into yet another aesthetic hook (think of the, “Post 9/11 Cinema” theorizing that has colored the examination of, “The Dark Knight”, The “Spider-Man” movies, “Stop-Loss”, “Zero Dark Thirty”, “Transformers”, “Man of Steel” etc.). Looking at the ugly truth is one thing, but like the movie adaptation of, “Gone Girl” before it, here is a movie so dedicated to unmasking America’s ugliness, and then rubbing it into the viewer’s face, that it almost forgets to have a point.
In fact, the movie is such a grim chasm that discussing the plot is almost meaningless, for it is built on people deceiving each other just to survive or to get something they want. Here are a group of characters who are, to quote Moviebob, just out and out rotten, all occupying a time and place that felt as dangerous to them as present day feels to millions of minorities in America. Except here are characters who seem to revel in the destruction and anguish, some with reservation (Samuel L. Jackson’s character Marquis Warren, for instance), others with glee (for example, Kurt Russel’s John Ruth along with their captive Daisy Domergue, played in a disturbing turn by Jennifer Jason Leigh). But what unites them is not just their proximity to each other, but also their capacity for evil. So here is a movie that is very upfront about the bigotry of its characters (pay close attention to the interactions between Marquis Warren and Demian Bichir’s mysterious Mexican cowboy Bo), and of the damage their period has done to them…but that all it is, just an upfront examination.
The movie’s unsubtle approach is a double-edged sword, for while Quentin Tarantino uses his mainstream platform to throw America’s Id into its face, such an approach dampens the mystery and thriller aspects that it tries to build up in the first place. Oh, it gets you alright: some gruesome deaths there, a horrific monologue by Samuel L. Jackson there (if you have any triggers/PTSD about sexual assault and racism…ho, boy, this is going to fuck you up), and a, “Rashomon”-like narrative turn…that pretty much confirms what one already suspected, and also covers for a series of twists that occur before the movie’s final chapter. On my first screening, these twists got to me, along with the said narrative turn, but on my second screening in 70mm, while said narrative turns still got to me (I’m quite screamish when it comes to movie violence and general unpleasantness, I admit), I’m not sure if the twists really say much besides, “Here’s the story- oh, wait, that wasn’t the real story, THIS is!”. While that is certainly a neat trick of making the viewer complicit in the violence that follows…that kinda fails when the ONE character one would think is the sympathetic guy, Samuel L. Jackson’s Marquis Warren, is already revealed to be kind of a prick long before his soon-to-be infamous monologue about his big black penis (no, really) comes into play.
Which isn’t to say that this is little more than a nihilistic chasm, because there are parts of this movie that I actually like. Ed Raskin’s editing is effective at punctuating the brutal moments and the build ups to them, and Quentin Tarantino’s direction/writing is some of the best its ever been. Robert Richardson is a damn good cinematographer, and Ennio Morricone brings an awesome soundtrack this time around, proving once again that he is one of the finest composers to ever grace cinema. Period. A lot of talent, skill and passion is behind and in front of the camera, serving America a dosage of truth through the genre conventions and tropes it often uses to whitewash and run away from the truth…but again, that is all is does, just giving one an ugly truth through a story full of lies.
Just what people decide to do with that is anyone’s guess, though it must be stressed that if Donald Trump’s existence and the media’s inclination to absorb, then bury, any unpleasant thing until it becomes an aesthetic spice to gaffaw over is any indication, it probably won’t be much. And that is why it is so hard for me to entirely condemn it or to entirely like it. Perhaps I’m laying too much on Quentin Tarantino’s feet, expecting him to whip the world into an activist frenzy, changing the world and destroying racism to the point where we can finally create a society of affordable health care for everyone, a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage…then again, this is the same guy who lambasted black critics for pointing out his love of the word, “Nigger”, while also picking a fight with the police over racist killings, so who even knows what the fuck he is up to.
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