No Girl, Too Many Guns: THE HATEFUL EIGHT

January 13, 2016 § Leave a comment

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Tarantino’s last four films before The Hateful Eight have been revenge fantasies. Kill Bill I and II were martial arts frenzies driven by a bride’s fury against her murderous husband and his cohorts, the violence so kinetically efficient as to be cartoonish, the sword-slashing deftly balletic. It felt claustrophobic, as if embodying fantasies cooped up inside the Uma Thurman character’s vengeful head, which had in fact been hit by a bullet or two, whereas Inglourious Basterds sprawled into a grand anti-Nazi feast of retribution, with humour aplenty. It also had a heroine, sole survivor of her massacred Jewish family, who has escaped to Paris, where she runs a cinema, a crucial element in the film’s spectacular culmination. Django Unchained set loose a black hero bent on saving his enslaved wife and punishing the plantation owner along with those complicit in his crimes. It had exhilarating pace and energy, and the compensatory release of laughter in the midst of brutality.
Violence is a given with Tarantino. Reservoir Dogs, I have to admit, proved impossible for me to watch because of it. But I’ve come to appreciate his films more over time, specifically since Jackie Brown, an Elmore Leonard adaptation with characteristic attention to race and class within a clever, fast-moving comedy crime drama. There are always surprises in Tarantino’s films, simultaneously rocking expectations and reminding us that for him nothing is sacred. This boldness is a strength that Hollywood now lacks, and carrying pure cinema unconfined by plot, developed characterisation or filmic convention into overt politics seems to have been a natural development akin to that of Tarantino’s auteur hero, Jean-Luc Godard.
Godard famously said that ‘all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun’. With girls, guns and a certain amount of genius, he duly tested the formula with such films as Breathless (1959), Bande à part (1964) and Made in USA (1966). (Tarantino named his production company A Band Apart, a commitment as well as a homage). For these Godard took American crime fiction as a template to be worked on. To speak explicitly of guns Tarantino has chosen the other quintessentially American genre. His Django drew lavishly on the spaghetti western, and now The Hateful Eight (with a majestically prowling Morricone score) pays the expected homage to Sergio Leone, while undertaking nothing less than a dismantling of the Western in its various moods and mutations as the mythic American narrative. It’s his most political film yet.
Even compared with gangster movies, which are mostly male affairs, ‘girls’ in the Western are allotted marginal space. You could say that The Hateful Eight doesn’t have one at all, despite Jennifer Jason Leigh’s star billing and her character’s name: Daisy. We first see her bundled up and dirty, a bag lady with a black eye, and as the film proceeds, its assorted gunslingers holed up to sit out a blizzard at Minnie’s Haberdashery (where’s Minnie? – that’s the first of several mysteries), she becomes ever more grotesquely battered, bloodied and sexless. All the same, she fights back.
In any other Western, the fact that Daisy’s a living corpse, shackled to a bounty hunter (Kurt Russell) and on her way to the gallows, still wouldn’t have left her so de-eroticised. Tarantino deploys and subverts sundry Western tropes, making sure to leave out the old-style gallantry that could be counted on from John Wayne and his like. The same applies to the fleeting flashback appearance of six-horse Judy, a rosy-cheeked blonde in fringed buckskin, sunnily reminiscent of Doris Day as Calamity Jane. She’s allowed a moment’s stock flirtation over the sweet jars before any opportunity for barn-dancing romance is thoroughly thwarted and the Western as pioneer idyll snatched away from us.
We’re in snowy Wyoming, in the aftermath of the Civil War (maybe two years later, maybe ten), a classic setting and time. The temporary occupants of Minnie’s Haberdashery include an ex-Union major (Samuel L. Jackson), a Confederate general (Bruce Dern), a young Johnny Reb who says he’s the new local sheriff (Walton Goggins) and an English hangman (Tim Roth). The snowbound cabin is like a stage set and dialogue expands theatrically to fill it, heavy with the kind of paranoid unease that sets fingers itching on triggers. The wounds of war fester, hostilities revive. Jackson’s provocative words in a powerful set piece with Dern are timely, for now as well as then.
T.H.E. crackles along with a terrific script and a degree of comic brio that darkens once the slapstick running gag runs out. When it does there’s enough gore to fuel a Jacobean tragedy, which is what the film’s conclusion grimly recalls. Guns are handled with love, emptied, filled with bullets and emptied again. With only Tarantino’s chapter titles and intermittent voice-over to guide us through the thick of events as they twist and turn at speed we probably miss as much as we notice. It’s hard to write about this film after only one viewing.
It’s also hard to feel good at the end: without the buoyancy of revenge for catharsis, without the villains seen off by heroes. There aren’t any heroes.
Lethal racism, capital punishment and guns everywhere: a vision of America that’s still recognisable. And no one can get rid of the guns.
This is an antidote to Spielberg’s sentimental liberalism, which always has a battle to fight just so it can boast Americans are always the good guys – all too evident in his latest film, Bridge of Spies, set in the 60s and with covert reference to the present.
Spielberg’s Lincoln was a film about the struggles of the 19th century president, and about Obama in the 21st-century. In T.H.E. Samuel L. Jackson’s character carries around a letter from Lincoln that everyone wants to see. What happens to the letter in the final scene confirms a terrible bleakness. All that can be said about such absence of hope is that there’s so much anger in this state-of-the-nation film that the bleakness is almost rousing.
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