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Being a fan of Quentin Tarantino (or, really, even just being a critic inclined to award one of his films an asterisk-free positive review) has of late been a frustrating exercise in repeating the phrase: "Yes, but he actually pulls it off!"
In the two decades since PULP FICTION, the onetime insurgent has firmly established himself as the Id of contemporary American cinema, and as such tends to operate within attention-getting parameters that only appear all too easy to imitate to lesser filmmakers. "No, you see, I'm actually commenting on racism!" "You're supposed to be grossed-out!" "She gives and gets as good as any of the men, so we're treating her as an equal!" These are the familiar retorts of Tarantino's legions of lesser imitators, wannabes and in some cases acolytes (looking at you, Eli Roth;) deployed on cue to deflect criticism or (if we're being frank) to whip defenders into a rhetorical frenzy. And in 99.9% of case, it's bullshit - increasingly tiresome bullshit, at that.
But, damn it, above it all (and evermore above nearly everyone else) there still stands Quentin as the living, breathing 0.01% - the guy who just keeps getting away with it. Not because he's popular, or because he's famous, or because the sons and daughters of the cinematic world he exists as the heart of (he's the tone-setter: Whatever obscura he conjures today will be the new bar of "cool" tomorrow and mainstream enough to be mixed into Marvel epics and Disney fairytales a year from now) but because he always backs it up. The wannabes' bullshit-bravado consistently turns out to be his real deal. The fakers' dodges are his stone-cold truth. Where other would-be provocateurs wield smoke and mirrors, Tarantino remains the magician who really can part the sea and call down the lightning.
And, as you'll likely have already surmised, this power is once again on full and righteous display in THE HATEFUL EIGHT; whose basic conceit - eight bad guys, zero good guys, one location, let's watch what happens - sounds an awful lot like the sort of shallow excuse to load the screen with self-indulgent perversity (Matt Zoller Seitz, in his negative review, described it as "just watching a bunch of scorpions in a bucket,") and dismiss any critique with "It's a meditation on violence!" followed with "What'd you expect - we put 'hateful' right in the title!" And in 99.9% of cases, you'd be correct to call that out for the obvious cop-out that it sounds like.
But this is that 0.01%. And, damn it, he actually pulls it off.
(SPOILERS from here on out.)
The setup really is as basic as you've been led to believe: We're in Wyoming, sometime not long after the end of the Civil War. A blizzard has waylaid bounty hunter John "The Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell), his prisoner-in-transport (Jennifer Jason Leigh as a venom-spewing hillbilly murderess called Daisy Domergue), fellow bounty hunter and former ex-slave turned Union mankiller Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and a racist ex-Confederate marauder named Chris Mannix who claims to be the incoming Sheriff of Red Rock (Walton Goggins) at a remote mountain inn; where something seems "off" as soon as they arrive: The door is broken (you have to nail it shut every time someone enters or exits), the owners have apparently left on Holiday with a mysterious Mexican named Bob (Damian Bichir) left to manage things, and the space is already occupied by fellow travelers including a chipper Englishman (Tim Roth) identifying himself as Red Rock's incoming (professional) hangman, Bruce Dern as an aging Confederate General familiar to Mannix (and at least one other...) and Michael Madsen as quietly-withdrawn cowboy Joe Cage. (That makes eight, with Tarantino veteran James Parks as a decidedly non-hateful stagecoach driver none the less marooned with the titular octet of villains.)
There are other clues of something unsettling being afoot (an "unlucky" half-plucked chicken, an unexpectedly bad-tasting pot of coffee, a lone jellybean lying out of place on the floor) and John Ruth - who, this being The Tarantino Universe, is expected to have some experience being stuck in the snow with unfamiliar company - thinks he's got a pretty good idea what's up: One or more of his fellow occupants is an ally of Domergue's, waiting to spring a trap. But, either way, everyone is still stuck together for awhile; and to make matters worse several of the players already have entirely separate reasons to be at eachother's throats. For example: Major Marquis' head was once a prized-bounty for the now-former Confederacy, and Dern's General has come to Wyoming to symbolically bury a beloved son who hasn't been seen for awhile...
I got into a (fulfilling) conversation not long ago on the subject of HATEFUL and it's seeming shallowness, and - after having opined that Tarantino typically has more to say than he let's on - found myself stuck trying to articulate exactly what he may have been saying here. It's a tricky question, mainly because Tarantino doesn't, in fact, always load a message into his work; and when he does it's usually something pretty difficult to argue over ("Nazis were bad." "Slavery was bad." "Misogyny is bad.") Quentin is a creature almost purely of and by the cinema, and he's never seemed particularly interested in matters of morality or philosophy. That's not to say moral or philosophical elements aren't part of the fabric: DJANGO UNCHAINED, KILL BILL or even DEATH PROOF do end up having a lot on their mind (he's too smart and much too detail-oriented for things like that not to make it in), but he's clearly more invested in what films say about themselves, the process of their making or the way they're received by an audience. That's not shallowness - that's Aestheticism.
And in HATEFUL EIGHT, Tarantino The Aesthete (or Aesthetician?) is primarily interested in exploring the nature of narrative itself. It's a film about storytelling and stories, how they can be used as weapons or traps, and how an audience processes the story being told. That makes it less a cousin to fellow racially-charged Western DJANGO and more akin to INGLORIOUS BASTERDS; which not only featured movies as both literal and figurative weapons of war but also begins by letting audiences revel in Jewish-American avengers brutalizing Nazis but ends shortly after showing off a theater full of Nazis themselves in a Goebbels-produced propaganda film that looks very much like the Nazi flip-side of the same breed of pulpy mythmaking (right down to a shared visual-cue of swastika's carved by knives in very different contexts.)
The metaphor is more explicit in BASTERDS, since the setting and story allowed for film to feature literally in the story. EIGHT is set just before the (practical) dawn of Motion Pictures, so instead the storytelling here is all about oral-tradition: The Hateful Eight are mostly strangers or threadbare aquaintances, mainly "knowing" eachother through reputation, self-exposition or by minor bits of documentation that are supposed to identify them (John Ruth's warrant for Daisy, Oswaldo the Executioner's calling-card;) with Joe Gage spending his hours quietly scrawling his life story ("only thing I'm qualified to write") in a journal for those in need of less subtle indicators of where the game is at this time.
The point is that stories like these are only as good as our faith in the telling, and given the people involved that's not very good at all. At one point, John Ruth reacts to the revelation that a particular fact of Marquis' backstory that had endeared The Major to him is a complete fabrication (and what's worse, an obvious one that everyone but Ruth had already seen clear through) with abject betrayal - as though his heart had been ripped out, Which is all the more odd, considering that John Ruth is a vicious sadist who goes out of his way to catch his quarry alive just to watch their executions and takes repulsive pleasure in beating Domergue to a bloody pulp every time she speaks out of turn (but then, Domergue is a murderous racist, and so on down it goes.)
The film goes on like that, with each new revelation (there's a time-reversal flashback that flips our understanding of prior events on its head midway through, a Tarantino signature) designed to manipulate and throw-off the audience's perception of reality and present-narrative. But more so than even that, the writer/director is clearly taking obvious enjoyment in playing with audience expectations about genre, narrative and the story itself: The title is actually an understatement, as we soon come to realize that these aren't just hateful people but genuinely rotten, subhuman monsters: Ruth is a proud sadist, The General earned "The Butcher" as a wartime nickname, Mannix is of a family of vigilantes specializing in ravaging free Black towns, Daisy is something like a screaming witch out of Shakespeare and just wait til you find out what Bob, Oswaldo and Joe Gage have been up to.
For a long while, it feels like The Major will at least be some sort of antihero, given his DJANGO-reminiscent backstory and Jackson's totemic place in the Tarantino canon; and Quentin teases that possibility out as long as possible before cruelly ripping it away in a monologue sequence wherein The General finally learns (in detail) the fate of his missing son that represents a new career highlight for both writer/director and performer and a grim revelation that a presumed plurality of the audience has been caught rooting for a guy who's among the worst of the whole crew. That Daisy Domergue gets repeatedly slugged across the jaw is a recurring bit of ugly scene-punctuation throughout the film, but in aesthetic terms nobody in HATEFUL EIGHT gets smacked around as hard as the audience...
...even if they don't realize it. Tarantino is a student of base-satisfying grindhouse schlock above all else, and he knows better than anyone how to stage a moment to trick an audience into accepting acts of grueling brutality as righteous catharsis. The Major's monologue, climaxing with the relation of an act of violence that's warranted a sentence of death by samurai sword in at least two other Tarantino yarns, has been greeted by cheers and laughter in screenings nationwide, which one can easily imagine soiling a more sober observer on the film itself - particularly if one is (for some reason) inclined to take Joe Popcorn's applause as evidence that he (or she) actually understands what they're actually applauding.
HATEFUL EIGHT may not be the new all-time champion of using the cheers of clueless viewers as a self-indicting punchline (of the audience, not the film); that's still Paul Verhoeven's STARSHIP TROOPERS. But unless one is predisposed to imagine Tarantino as an unironic gawker at the Roman Colosseum, it's hard to imagine how anyone can see these sequences and not picture Quentin himself perched in the high-shadows, watching the watchers and rubbing his hands with puckish satisfaction: "You dumb assholes. Think about what I just got you to applaud for." There's an argument to be made where there's a level of cruelty to that, as well - the skilled, clever filmmaker lording his mastery of the form over the pathetic masses - but that doesn't mean he's not good at it or that it doesn't work.
And to be certain, Taratino's technical chops are sharper than ever. The stagebound screenplay rockets by feeling barely half as long as it is (this review concerns the 3 hour "roadshow" version, which features an overture and intermission) and what first feels like the techno-fetishist joke of shooting a single-room piece in expensive 70mm UltraPanavision film reveals itself as a canny way to make every inch of the frame sparkle with life and important detail - rarely has the gag of putting vital actions in the background of a seemingly-unrelated moment worked to greater effect; while the legendary Ennio Morricone's clever, playfully self-referencing score loads every scene with mythic emotional undercurrents that serve to ease the transition when the film abruptly cuts from being a talky, meditative chamber-piece to an absurdly over-the-top locked-room bloodbath at about the midpoint. Midpoint, incidentally, being the point where Leigh's Domergue, who's been simmering like a rattlesnake for the most part, gets to cut loose with a savagely energy that could well make hers the latest career salvaged by Tarantino's unparalleled eye for pairing talent with role; though it's Goggins who walks away as cast MVP, easily.
Speaking of cliche's that are tiresome regarding other films and filmmakers but ever-appropriate for Tarantino, THE HATEFUL EIGHT is an endurance test on multiple levels. It'll be too long for some, too talky for others, too violent for many and too unmoored from tepid moral/philosophical concerns for plenty; and even some who'll no doubt come to love it will have done so by failing the test to comprehend it: If you think there were any "good guys" by the end, that anyone was "redemeed" or that we're supposed to be "happy" about what's transpired, you missed the point - and if you're "happy" about what's transpired, well, thanks at least for becoming part of the entertainment for those who were paying attention.
This is mean, nasty, utterly uncompromised visionary filmmaking straight from the lizard brain of the filmmaker who is himself the lizard brain of his chosen medium; and the only thing more disturbing (yet repugnantly thrilling) about what he's accomplished is just how fabulously he accomplished it. Supposedly, Tarantino plans to fold up his director's chair after two more features - we should all be hoping against all hope that walking away turns out to be the one act as director he isn't capable of.
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