THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015, Quentin Tarantino)
Gory, mean-spirited, nihilistic, and full of spewing bigotry, Tarantino’s latest controversial blood-boiler shows no signs that the aging filmmaker (now 52, and no longer the young punk crashing Hollywood’s party) is softening or chilling out. He’s as angry as ever, and in this three-hour gangster mystery he lashes out about gun violence, race relations, immigration, war, and American history.
Not just history of race, violence, crime, and politics, but of film itself. Beginning with a lengthy overture set to a still frame of red mountains with a stagecoach silhouette, we’re instantly transported to the past: 1950s and ’60s epics filmed in Ultra Panavision and projected on the widest screens in the biggest theaters. The music is by the world’s greatest contributor to Western movie scores (Ennio Morricone), and before you know it you feel like you’ve time-traveled. Then we go further back, to the late 19th century, as a snowy Wyoming mountain pass is the setting for the whole bloody affair.
Describe the plot to someone, and they may tell you that when Tarantino does a movie about untrustworthy men bleeding in a safehouse together and a black bounty hunter known for killing dozens of southern whites, this might be a tired mashup of RESERVOIR DOGS and DJANGO UNCHAINED. And there’s certainly a nod to QT’s past with all of this (not to mention echoes of his former dialogue — notably an exchange taken from TRUE ROMANCE [“How about you?” “How about me what?”]), but the quotation marks around this aren’t for repetition or redundancy; they are signifiers that we’re exploring a filmography as much as a national history. Because who’s that reading the voiceover narration? Tarantino.
As with most of Tarantino’s work, especially his best (and this is among them), the greatness here comes both from artistic and technical proficiency, and from substantial profundity. Speaking to the former, this is one beautiful-looking film. The 70mm allows for compositions that reveal things and people on the edges of the frame that tell as much of the story as those in the center. But 70mm isn’t just wider than 35 (2.76:1 aspect ratio compared to 2.4 or so), it has better resolution — the textures this film picks up, such as dust in the light, hot breath barking out of cold mouths, and creases in leather coats… it’s remarkable. Speaking to the latter, there’s an aching beauty in the symbolic presence of “The Lincoln Letter” that Jackson’s character carries in his pocket. When it’s first introduced, Russell regards it like a work of art — like a great film one wants to revisit. He’s emotionally moved by its contents and respects its presentation and preservation (remind you of anything, celluloid lovers?) When its truth is revealed, we discover that all of our leaders’ optimistic hopes for a peaceful future and more civilized evolution are but wishful fictions, yarns spun by active imaginations and nothing more; and, it should not be ignored, that American history was actually written just as much by black men, who are finally going to take the credit for it.