The Hateful Eight – Quentin Tarantino (2015)

I was so excited when I heard that Quentin Tarantino was making his first Western. Now, Tarantino is not one of my favorite directors by a long shot – in fact, he has yet to make anything close to a great film. He has always been a very facile director, and never fails to entertain; what sets him apart from other directors is that he thinks cinematically, and makes use of a wide variety of cinema’s formal devices to aid in the task of entertaining us. Noted for his distinctive voice and his ability to write gobs of dialogue that snap and pull us along, Tarantino has, all the same, failed to apply that voice to the task of saying something. His films are about little more than the experience of watching films; at least until recently. While I am in the distinct minority that finds Deathproof to be his best work, a vehicle where he finally unleashed all his energy as a purely genre filmmaker, generating little more than 90 minutes of adrenaline, it is nonetheless true that Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained both were exceptionally good films, and marked a turning point for him in terms of narrative concern. Both of those films took as their subject a certain historical revisionism, but one that revised history by way of playing with and detourning the tropes of past films which were themselves already revisions of historical “fact.” I found Inglourious Basterds exceptional in the parts where Tarantino departed most from being Tarantino, where we almost forgot we were watching a postmodern pastiche and instead slipped into a kind of serious art film about World War II (the parts with Christoph Waltz, that is, and not the idiotic stuff like the intrusive ’70s exploitation freeze frame on Eli Roth swinging a baseball bat). “If only Tarantino would ditch his shtick and make a straightforward, serious historical film,” said I. Well, Django was resolutely not such a film, but it was an incredible one nonetheless, containing some of the most perverse and jarring questioning of racist representations, and their presence at the core of our national self-conception, that any director has posed. It was also very funny and rousing, giving us a black hero who finally begins to revenge himself on the stupidity of past screen representations; Tarantino deconstructs our own expectations, almost making fun of us, while also entertaining us. Given that upward trajectory, I was quite hopeful that The Hateful Eight would be more along those lines, a take on the Western genre that both satisfied as a genre film while also having something to say about how those films relate to our still unquenchable thirst for manifest destiny, male desire, etc etc. Instead, Tarantino gives us a three hour “Agatha Christie” Western. Why has nobody thought of such a hybrid before? Perhaps the answer is self-evident. I must give Tarantino credit for such a radical conception, as it assuredly fits the formal mold of his more recent efforts. If only it were any good…

Okay, maybe that was a bit low. It is good enough, in the sense that all his films are good enough – it is entertaining. Mostly. Along with Kill Bill: Vol. 2, though, it is the most leaden and boring of Tarantino’s output. The plot is a kind of Ten Little Indians without any suspense or “mystery.” Eight scummy Western varmints find themselves trapped together in a small mountain cabin during a blizzard. There is John Ruth (Kurt Russell), a bounty hunter noted for bringing his captives in alive, so the hangman can get his due, and his captive, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a feral woman who, we eventually learn, is leader of a nasty gang of thugs. There is Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), also a bounty hunter, and a former Union officer, who begins the film by hitching a ride with Ruth in his private stagecoach. There is Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), newly elected sheriff of the town of Red Rock, purported destination of all involved, and a former Confederate soldier, who also hitches a ride with Ruth. At the cabin (really a store – Minnie’s Haberdashery), we meet Bob (Demian Bichir), a strange Mexican with little to say about his past; Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), an English hangman, headed to Red Rock to start work; Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a lone wolf cowpoke; and General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a Confederate officer who doesn’t like people yelling in his ear while he sits under a blanket. Is that eight? I hope so. Well, once everyone is all snuggled up together, we get treated to a long session of Ruth making the circuit of the cabin, asking everyone about their origins, and then the characters hash over the veracity of said origins, in a style that feels like Tarantino channeling Encyclopedia Brown. Everyone is not who they say they are – imagine that! What is the mystery afoot? Basically, who will get their head blown off, or their testicles shot through, and when. Told in chapters, the film jumps back and forth somewhat in time, building “tension” through withholding information that, if presented chronologically, would make for a straightforward tale of treachery and revenge. It would still be a tale which we have little stake in, but at least it would dispense with the pretension that there is some puzzle to be solved. Even though we have copious backstory on each character, we don’t care about their fate, as they aren’t real to us; only Samuel L. Jackson succeeds in making his character (really the main one) sympathetic, to the point that we do care about his fate. I dare not say much more about the course the film takes, as it would “spoil” it, but there is very little to this movie – after you’ve seen it once, I can’t see the need to revisit it. Does it have any relationship to the Western as a genre? Barely. The tone is of a piece with Django, a kind of unconcealed glee at the nastiness of its subject matter, but in Django, the subject was a revenge rightfully deserved, and it implicated the audience in a very intelligent way. The Hateful Eight is grim, nihilistic, borderline misogynist, and, in the end, dreary. There are good performances – Walton Goggins is a standout alongside Jackson – and a few intelligent points about race, but you leave the theater wondering what the necessity of any of it was, the mood souring the longer you dwell on the ending. Even the original score by Morricone is uninspired and quite conventional. I must admit, I didn’t see it in 70mm, which might have at least provided some further diversion during the tedious middle 45 minutes, but really, why Tarantino pulled out those stops for this picture is the real mystery.

Two out of five stars

The Revenant – Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (2015)

This past year has been an excellent one for trailers. I found the trailer for Carol  more affecting than the full movie, and to some extent, The Revenant falls into that category as well. Trailers have the advantage of being short and sweet, of suggesting with the most fleeting of fragments what must (almost always) per force be elaborated and expounded at feature length in order to provide some kind of through line for the audience. (Rare is the feature film, even in the heady heyday of such features, the 1960s and 70s, that dared keep an audience hallucinating for more than 90 straight minutes). Trailers can often, through compression and a kind of distillation, intensify the themes and emotions of the film proper; of course, few take advantage of this in our era of thuddering robot superwhatever apocalyptics perpetually descending from the sky. The trailer for The Revenant was very dreamlike and hypnotic, suggesting an acid western set in the polar north, the setting perhaps scrubbing the film clean of that genre’s more egregious elements. I had the opportunity to see the trailer often over the course of the fall, and it raised the goosebumps every time. So stoked was I to see it that I actually had the release date memorized. Given my anticipation, it is no surprise that the film could not quite match it. And it is not only unrealistic, but undesireable, for a film to live up to its trailer. While we might think we want to taste only strong flavors, to be continually excited by thrills and chills, such moments can only stand out, and acquire a power that resonates as something greater than a mere image, by being cast against a continuum of “normality” (which is established differently by every film). For an image to have staying power, it has to generate more than an adrenaline spike or a soak of serotonin within us, and for that to happen, it must be surrounded by images that work differently, that labor quietly and don’t call us to attention. The ideal film, like a piece of symphonic music, marshals these two modes in a collaborative relation to each other, so that the quiet or “boring” parts build in such a way that the loud or “exciting” parts seem natural, or, even when surprising, a necessary result of the other. I can’t, then, fault The Revenant for not getting there; it tries, and comes close to the mark.

The film is a relatively straightforward survival and revenge epic, and I can elaborate the plot without spoiling anything, as the trailer pretty much reveals the major plot points. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a mountain man scout whose back story we only get a fleeting glimpse of. Having “gone native” and partnered with a Pawnee woman, who is subsequently killed in a French raid on their village, Glass is, at the outset of the movie, working with his adolescent son as guide to a party of trappers led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson). The trappers are a motley crew, with one in particular, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), carrying an unconcealed antipathy for Glass and his boy. Soon after the story begins, the trapping party is beset by a war party of another tribe set on recovering the chief’s daughter, who has been kidnapped. Forced to abandon their pelts and flee by river, the trappers, now reduced in number, must journey overland for their best chance at survival – or so says Glass. Fitzgerald is distrustful, and not shy about saying so, but he ultimately adheres to the orders of the upstanding Captain Henry. Soon everything is turned on its head as Glass is mauled by a bear while out scouting. Barely alive, Henry tries to carry him out of the wilderness, but is soon forced to abandon that idea, and Glass, in the interest of saving other lives. Glass’s son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) stays behind to tend to Glass until his seemingly inevitable demise, along with the naive, straightforward Bridger (Will Poulter) and Fitzgerald, who volunteers, Henry having promised those who stay a hefty reward later on. Within a few days, Hawk has been killed, Glass left for dead in a shallow grave, and Bridger and Fitzgerald are trudging their way out of the wilderness. At this point, the film transitions to a survival epic, as Glass hauls himself out of his grave, and begins the long process of dragging himself, injured, unarmed, and unprovisioned, to civilization, in the hopes of revenging himself upon Fitzgerald. How and if he succeeds in this quest, who he encounters along the way, and how the journey changes him are the subjects of the film.

The Revenant succeeds in building the kind of relentless pressure that is suggested in the trailer; Glass’s struggle to navigate the landscape as well as overcome his physical limitations, conveyed through DiCaprio’s performance, places the pressure of his body on the viewer. At the same time, his journey is plausible, both physically and historically, with the hallucinatory aspects a side effect of historical distance. Tom Hardy almost succeeds too well in his role, as Fitzgerald is almost sympathetic, an antihero rather than a villain; thus, while the final confrontation does have impact, it doesn’t provide the catharsis we hope for. (I know, I know, that’s probably the point, but after two hours of wilderness trekking on the verge of death, I think some catharsis is not too much to ask). The rest of the cast is excellent, in particular Domhnall Gleeson as Captain Henry – he is a portrait of moral outrage, uprightness, and his period flavor is quite canny. Formally, the film is innovative and compelling. Inarritu makes use of digital technology in the service of his trademark long takes to great effect, as in the opening raid on the hide factory, where the camera moves with horsemen, drawing near to their faces, then pulling away as they fall, wheeling about to capture a medium shot of action unfolding, panning up to see action in the trees, and the like, all without cutting. While the already famous bear attack does look like digital animation, it is incredibly well done, and still has physical force behind it – partly because the rest of the film is rooted in a very real, and formidable, landscape. It would be nice if more directors would follow Inarritu’s lead, and use digital technology to enhance reality, rather than to prop up blatant unreality. The film’s failures will also be familiar to the director’s followers. The relationship between Glass and his dead wife, portrayed in dream sequences or magical realist visions, we cannot say for sure, are quite pretentious, and a bit patronizing in their New Age-y view of Native Americans. Further, while DiCaprio is great in his role, he doesn’t quite look old, or grizzled enough, to pull off a realistic mountain man, and, more importantly, the father of a late adolescent. Because of this, his relationship with Hawk lacks the realism necessary to make Hawk’s death felt rather than merely symbolic. We never see enough of Glass caring for Hawk when he is younger, or struggling to raise him without his mother; instead, the flashbacks concentrate on the hazy details of the mother’s demise, which, after one iteration, is somewhat beside the point. Even so, The Revenant succeeds, and more so than last year’s overly lauded Birdman, as it has a straightforward drive that it mostly sticks to and delivers. The real star of the film is the setting, the landscape as a memento mori of and ode to an age when the struggle for human survival was primal and brutal. Like DiCaprio’s character, we are left feeling unfulfilled, the journey not quite accomplishing what we might have liked – but Inarritu nevertheless takes us farther than most other filmmakers these days.

Four out of five stars

Jauja – Lisandro Alonso (2014)

Jauja introduced me to a director I must admit I was ignorant of, although he has directed four other features; the film was entered in Cannes this past year, which is what brought it to my attention. Set in Patagonia, at the turn of the century (or perhaps before, the date is unclear), the film features stunning imagery and restrained performances, most startlingly from Viggo Mortensen, who speaks his patrimonial tongue throughout. A kind of existential western, Jauja concerns Mortensen’s journey, as a cartographer traveling with an army detachment, to locate his runaway adolescent daughter. The film begins with dreamy vibes and only grows stranger, more spare and more hallucinatory, as the saga unfolds. That said, Alonso is known for low-key storytelling and the use of non-actors, so this is emphatically not hallucinatory in the acid western stylings of Robert Downey’s Greaser’s Palace or even Jodorowsky’s El Topo. Rather, the film, by the end, reminded me very much of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Peter Weir’s masterpiece from the late 70s. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I won’t, but I will say that the film, which I felt was going in disappointing directions by the three-quarter mark, turns around in the finish; indeed, the ending, as the best endings do, forces you to reevaluate all that has come before, and opens up a poetic dimension unimagined until that point.

Three and a half stars out of five