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The Hateful Eight
Saturday 21 May 2016, by
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Apparently now well at ease with the genre, Quentin Tarantino, three years after his reinterpretation of Django, is back with a good, old-fashioned manly western. But if his previous output paid homage to spaghetti westerns, this new effort is definitely more influenced by the horror genre.
Indeed, Tarantino declared several times that The Hateful Eight was largely inspired by John Carpenter’s The Thing. And this influence is felt throughout the film : the presence of Kurt Russell (one of Carpenter’s favourite actors), snow trapping the characters in a enclosed space, the idea that the audience can’t quite tell which characters to believe or trust.
We could, at a push, see in the be-hatted, bespectacled stagecoach driver, an echo of Kurt Russell’s pilot in The Thing.
REDUCING THE SPACE
Where Tarantino’s film best succeeds is in its atmosphere. Leaving behind the grandiose, daunting sets of Kill Bill, Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, Tarantino favours sobriety and understatement by having most of the action take place in an enclosed space (like in Reservoir Dogs). Watch the same process at work in Django Unchained. In Tarantino’s previous film, the first part takes place in wild, open landscapes (as seen in many classical westerns) but, progressively, the story evolves within ever-decreasing spaces: the two protagonists cross Calvin Candie’s property, then find themselves inside his house and finally inside his small dining-room, where the most tense scene of the film (the ‘psychological’ duel) plays out. We have a similar set-up in The Hateful Eight with a wild, menacing natural elements that force the passengers of the stagecoach to stop at the inn. In both cases, the director progressively reduces space to increase tension.
At the beginning of the film, the still shots of snowy landscapes are particularly interesting. We wouldn’t have penned Tarantino as a “nature fimmaker”. But one must admit that these few shots are very strong, beautiful yet ominous as they suggest a coming storm. A few seconds later, a long and slow tracking shot reveals a wooden Christ (announcing the punishments to come ?) with the stagecoach approaching towards the camera. The heady music accompanying this particular shot progressively builds up to with the passengers’ unstoppable march towards the fight that awaits them. Their fates are already sealed.
Morricone’s original score and the use of some of his-largely forgotten-music composed for The Thing are largely responsible for the heavy, unpleasant and cloying atmosphere of the film. And where Django’s soundtrack-a mix of old-school tunes and spaghetti western-style melodies gave it a bit of an eclectic feel, Morricone’s score gives The Hateful Eight its own unique identity.
The last two-thirds of the film unfold in the subsequently blood-drenched inn. The set is stunning, although we get the feeling that it hasn’t been used to its full potential; viewers get their bearings thanks to a few stand-out elements such as the fireplace, the bar and the stove. However Tarantino mainly uses still shots inside the inn, which means we sometimes lose the full scope of the place. Maybe a roving camera would have allowed for greater viewer immersion. Maybe.
Another point to be made the lack of exterior shots. Tarantino doesn’t really use the outside much, the open landscape, despite giving us a snowy glimpse of its potential with a series of quick shots showing two characters using ropes and and pegs to connect the inn to the toilet. We’re tempted to see in this an important clue that maybe a character might get stuck outside in the blizzard. But no.
Basically, reducing the spaces Tarantino shoots in in turn reduces the film’s scope and possibilities. Tarantino sees his film as a kind of Agatha Christie-style whodunnit. Unfortunately we don’t get the sense that the characters are really looking for clues. They are actually very poor detectives; not even bothering to check under the beds for bodies.
Whereas The Thing kept throwing its audience curveballs, kept us on our toes by stumbling on false leads, The Hateful Eight doesn’t trouble itself with such complex twists and turns.
THE VERY HATEFUL EIGHT
It seems that the characters are just that bit too confident to really be worried about what’s at stake. And this is precisely the other problem with this film. Since Kill Bill, the director has imagined and filmed characters driven by vengeance (the Bride, the girls seeking revenge against the psychopathic stuntman in Death Proof, the Jewish soldiers in Inglorious Basterds and finally Django, tearing through white racists on his quest to find the woman he loves). They are so blood-thirsty that they become unpleasant (or hateful).
This is also obviously the case here and the director doesn’t deny it. Quite the reverse, this is what his story is built on: assembling eight awful characters in the same place and see what happens. The idea is exciting but is, unfortunately, problematic for a thriller. The audience, confronted with such unlikable figures, struggles to find one to identify with, or at least, express an interest in. There is no moral marker here, which ends up feeling slightly alienating. The characters die one after the other and we struggle to feel any concern or pity.
Tarantino succeeded in creating two particularly tense moments in his previous two films: the introduction sequence between the Nazi officer and the French farmer hiding Jews in his house; the diner scene in which we gradually realise that Django and Schulz’s strategy to get the former slave’s wife was collapsing. These two harrowing and stressful scenes worked beautifully; we, as viewers felt for the humanist peasant, the Jews hiding in his house and Django and Schulz.
In The Hateful Eight, it is hard to empathise with any of the characters or feel engaged by their journey. Kurt Russell, despite the odd moment of complicity, is relentlessly brutal towards his prisoner. Samuel L. Jackson pursues vengeance by becoming as sadistic as the racists he is fighting. The other “hateful” characters are of a similar ilk: a professional executioner, a perverse criminal, a racist old man… It is certainly entertaining enough and we watch the action unfold with a healthy dose of interest but we are not interested in the fate of the characters. They can all happily go to hell!
Moreover, the overzealous use of violence dilutes the tension we should feel. The first deaths are certainly impressive but they are almost (voluntarily) ridiculous. The dying characters spew out buckets of blood and, after the initial surprise, Tarantino fans and gory horror aficionados begin to laugh. We should be shocked, mildly upset perhaps, but end up giggling at their untimely death.
The genius of Carpenter’s film was to combine two different tones whist retaining unity of action: understated, slow, tense, disturbing moments intermeshed with explosions of absurdly gory violence, bodies split in two, spider legs growing out of heads… But we remain glued to the screen, sucked in by such exuberance, and visceral fear.
In Tarantino’s film, anxiety, suspense, paralysing violence are soon cast aside to leave way for pure entertainment (distancing the viewer from the action, when Carpenter managed to truly immerse his audience in his world of terror). In this film, violence doesn’t wear the viewer out, it is supposed to be fun to watch. As a result, we almost want the characters to suffer when we should feel empathy towards them. Tarantino is basically true to form: he toys with his characters, laughs at their fate, enjoys seeing them suffer and making them suffer.
It’s undoubtedly a Tarantino production; unique in its style. And rarely have we felt the puppet master’s hand hover over the characters this much. We can practically hear Tarantino sniggering after each twist and turn. In a way, he becomes even more hateful than his characters by taking such pleasure in their pain and demise. Worse, he makes us party to his cruel game. We laugh, we relish the opporunity to watch the ordeal his characters go through… once again at the expense of the anxious, claustrophobic feel that such a film should inspire.
THE HATEFUL NINE OR HOW TO TWIST THE TWISTS
After a bit of a flashback for some character background, establishing who the – for want of better terms - “good” guys and “bad” guys are, we’re introduced to a new character who, we think, is about to introduce a spanner in the works and usher in a twist.
Strangely enough, Tarantino doesn’t “use” this new character and abandons the possibility of a reversal of the situation. In the last act, twice do we think there will be a twist in the situation. But no, Tarantino doesn’t seize the opportunities he created so we struggle to understand what it is he’s getting at. We know he is trying to play around with the codes-and rhythm-of the genre to try and surprise the audience, something he did brilliantly in Pulp Fiction, with its complex and muddled narrative.
He did a similar thing in his previous film by ending the story twenty minutes after what seemed to be the final gunfight. The idea was praiseworthy but the last twenty minutes of Django Unchained are quite redundant. The final gunfight happens in the same place (Calvin Candie’s hall) as the previous one, when we would have expected it to take place in a different location, perhaps Calvin’s graveyard, as is the way in most spaghetti westerns.
Tarantino tries things, play hard and fast with rules and narratives but he doesn’t seem to explore their full potential and sometimes dives into a direction that doesn’t quite work. He toys with the audience’s expectations but doesn’t quite satisfy them, leaving us viewers slightly frustrated. He drives us towards the edge of a situation then back-peddles which, unfortunately, produces an uneven film (at times very good, at times a bit disappointing). The promise of a mix of western with horror wetted our appetite for a complete frenzy. Alas I would have liked him to follow through with that promise.