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January 11, 2016

The Hateful Eight: Because 789

Well, I wanted to make a subtitle that referenced Killer7, but a “classic” joke will have to do.

Even though I’m probably going to finish this post with a few thousand more words in place, there’s a part of me that’s struggling to describe The Hateful Eight.  Part of that has to do with the fact that I knew virtually nothing about it going in besides the title and Quentin Tarantino’s name attached to it.  (He didn’t steer me wrong with Django Unchained, so he’s obviously earned my trust.)  Information probably hasn’t been hard to come by, since I’ve seen articles go up here and there on the internet.  I never got around to reading them -- except for one review that I clicked on, but couldn’t be bothered to actually read.  Because reasons.

Part of me thinks that that’s a mistake; staying well-informed is vital in a lot of circumstances, even if it’s for something as seemingly trivial as the entertainment industry (inasmuch as the haven of art and creativity can be “trivial”).  On the other hand, maybe it’s nice to be surprised every now and then.  If you don’t know what’s coming, then the surprise can be that much more satisfying.  Or as pleasant as bathing with angry piranhas, but whatever.

So where does that leave The Hateful Eight?  Pared down to basics, I think it’s a good movie -- great, even.  But it is absolutely, ABSOLUTELY NOT for the faint of heart.  And I’ll explain what I mean…with enough spoilers to shroud the entire west coast in darkness.

Here’s the setup for the movie.  Hot off the heels of the Civil War, bounty hunter John Ruth is carting the convicted prisoner Daisy through a wintry Wyoming to the town of Red Rock for hanging.  Along the way, he runs into Union soldier Marquis Warren and Red Rock sheriff-to-be Chris Mannix, and so all four of them are en route to town.  Unfortunately, a blizzard rolls in and forces them to take shelter in a haberdashery, along with another set of travelers. 

With the inclusion of an old Confederate general, a taciturn cowboy, a dandy of an Englishman, and the Hispanic employee left to manage the store in the owners’ absence, the titular “hateful eight” are assembled.  Except the guy who carted Ruth and crew to the shop in the first place is there, too, so I guess it’s technically nine?

So basically, the movie lies to you just by having a title.  We’re off to a rollicking good start.

The trick to the movie is that -- as these things tend to go -- something isn’t right about the situation.  John Ruth suspects that there’s some trouble brewing in such close quarters, and someone’s scheming to bail Daisy out of her date with the gallows, as per some pre-arranged agreement or special bond.  Essentially, there’s a mystery to be solved, and pretty much everyone’s a suspect.  That might not be such a bad thing, if not for the fact that everyone there -- except maybe the stagecoach OB -- is dangerous as all hell.

Well, let me rephrase that.  True to the title, virtually every (main) character in The Hateful Eight is a terrible person.  Ostensibly, the whole thing is supposed to be a whodunit mystery; virtually everything that happens takes place in close quarters, i.e. a couple of sets (the shop, the stagecoach, and the areas around them).  It’s more about the threat of violence than trying to figure out “who shot Mr. Burns”, at least early on.  That’s not to say that the bodies don’t start dropping, but what’s important throughout the movie is that tensions are high, and high for a reason.  Or, to put it a different way?  I almost feel like the movie doesn’t need a mystery plot -- or any plot -- because it excels on the strength of its horrible, horrible people.

That seems like something pretty backwards to say, especially if you’ve seen my stuff before.  “Characters should be likable!”  “Characters should be charismatic!”  “Characters should have synergy!”  And so on, and so forth, shouted into the night, every night.  I’ve been burned by movies and games that try to present bad guys as good guys, and good guys as bad guys.  And sure, I skew toward the squeaky-clean Boy Scouts.  I prefer optimism and hope in my heroes, and my stories at large. 

But they’re not a requirement.  Not even close.  What I require from a story is a good set of characters, because -- say it with me now -- characters create opportunities.  And even though I saw this movie pretty much at the start of the new year, these hateful, terrible, awful, no-good people are going to be a solid example of what good stories can offer.

Side note: this movie has some amazing facial hair tech. 

Let’s use the big one as an example.  Samuel L. Jackson is one of the big names in this movie, who reprises his role as Nick Fury plays the aforementioned (Major) Marquis Warren.  At the outset, he seems like an okay guy.  He’s traveling on his own, but runs into some bad luck and ends up more or less stranded in the frigid Wyoming wilderness -- until Ruth rolls up, and gives him a golden opportunity.  You learn a little about who he is, and what he’s about, and you think, “Okay, he might be a little roguish, and a little rough around the edges, but he’s all right.  He must be the movie’s anti-hero or something.”  The capper for all of this is the letter he’s got on his person at all times -- a personally-addressed gift from none other than Abraham Lincoln.

Then Daisy spits on it, and he clocks her in the face hard enough to make her tumble out of the stagecoach.  Then the movie goes a little further, and you find out that the letter is a fake Warren used to con people (Ruth included) into giving him a second look.  And then he hangs out with the old Confederate general in a scene that makes it look like they’re going to put aside their differences, despite them being on different sides in the war…but the good feelings don’t last.  Because then, Warren -- with the knowledge that that general burned black soldiers alive just to keep his white ones going strong -- explains in grave detail how he forced the general’s son to walk through the snow in the nude, and subsequently suck off Warren so he could maybe get a blanket…only to die instead.

And then Warren reveals that telling the story -- however true or false it might have been -- was all part of his master plan.  Because once the general seizes a gun and takes aim, Warren can shoot him dead virtually without repercussion.  Because “self-defense”.  And then he drinks brandy to celebrate.

There’s an argument to be made that Warren is the most hateful of the hateful eight.  If nothing else, Samuel L. Jackson brings an undeniable presence to the role -- which is to be expected, because Samuel L. Jackson is, well, Samuel L. Jackson.  But whether it’s acting chops or the sheer level of sociopathy, it’s hard to underestimate what the others bring to the proverbial table.  John Ruth is otherwise known as “The Hangman”, someone who delights in seeing his bounties dangle on a rope.  He’s distrustful, he’s brash, he’s got no problems being antagonistic, and, notably, he treats Daisy like a punching bag.  That’s not exaggeration, either.  She’s got a nasty-looking black eye throughout the movie, and early on Ruth elbows her hard enough to make blood spew from her nose.  Later on he throws hot stew in her face, and later still he mounts her and punches her hard enough to knock out almost a whole row of teeth.  That’s all ignoring the fact that he keeps Daisy chained up to his wrist throughout the majority of the movie; when the shackles actually come off, you can see how bloody her arm has gotten in her travels.

No one can say The Hateful Eight doesn’t earn its moniker.  Tensions flare and pressure builds as these people are forced into close contact with one another -- people with different backgrounds, experiences, and allegiances in a time period that’s already pretty volatile.  Much like Django Unchained (if not more so), the movie asks its audience to stare uncomfortable topics like racism in the face, with a heaping helping of violence on the side.  Arguably, it’s also a movie about misogyny, classism, and -- oddly enough -- vigilante justice. 

How does the saying go?  A good villain is convinced that he’s doing the right thing -- or something to that effect.  Do any of the characters in this movie think that they’re going the right thing?  It’s hard to say for sure.  Then again, maybe “the right thing” is only a formality in the movie’s context; in the wake of hard times and an uncertain future, these people are doing what they can to get by.  To survive.  Well, granted the amount they need to do to “get by” is debatable; taking Daisy in nets Ruth $10K, but given his reputation as The Hangman and how far money might have gone back in those days, I wonder how much he needs to live comfortably. 

The important thing is that these people are doing what they think they need to do, be it for their basic needs or a sense of satisfaction.  Taken in that light, these guys aren’t absolute monsters just for kicks.  They have reasons and motivations for becoming so hateful -- through lines that, heinous as they might be, you can’t help but want to follow.  Those reasons help guide them, and, however slightly, make them more than just agents of depravity.  Put simply?  These guys may not like each other, but they can sure as hell respect each other.

Warren and Ruth aren’t exactly buddy-buddy at any point in the movie, but over time it becomes less of an issue of “I’m black and you’re white, GRRRR!” and more “I’ll lie to get what I want, so surprise!  You never should’ve trusted me!”  No, really.  When Mannix exposes the Major’s lie -- by virtue of its circumstances being too impossible to believe -- Ruth seems genuinely shocked that his traveling buddy could do something so dirty. 

Incidentally, it’s mere minutes later that Warren decides to have a heart-to-heart with the old general Smithers, and even if it leads to the latter’s death, you still get a sense that it’s possible for these people to connect.  They didn’t have to be hateful, which is a sentiment that shines strongest in the movie’s final minutes.  But they are hateful, and it’s just something the audience has to deal with.

The question is, should they deal with it?  And my personal answer is…yeah, they should.

Like I said at the start, The Hateful Eight is not for the faint of heart -- which is probably to be expected from a Tarantino film.  It’s true that, like Django Unchained before it, there’s both a lot of conversation and an emphasis on that talking.  Given the time period, it’s not as if they could have staged a minutes-long dust-up -- even though Django kind of already did, but whatever.  The important thing is that the movie makes some pretty steep demands of its audience in terms of its content and the level of investment they’re supposed to hand over.

Off the top of my head, The Hateful Eight expects you to sit through things like
--the sudden murder of innocent shopkeepers
--the sudden murder of innocent assistants, especially when they’re begging for mercy
--racist undertones
--heads getting blown apart
--more heads getting blown apart
--racist overtones
--full frontal nudity
--violent stabbing
--poison that makes people puke blood
--bloody projectile vomit that in one instance actually gets blasted directly in someone’s face
--casual segregation
--Channing Tatum

I’ve got nothing against Channing Tatum.  I just needed something funny to end on.

Is there something exploitative about all the violence and depravity put on-screen?  I mean, Django was the Tarantino movie that came before this one, right?  So isn’t it treading familiar ground?  Has the famous director settled into a rut that he can’t escape from?  Well, not really.  It’s close to the same setting, but there are key differences that keep things from being a rehash.  Oh, but it IS exploitative, right?  Tarantino thinks that people LIVE for all that gore and sin, so he’s just giving the people what they want…and THAT’s the rut he’s settled into, isn’t it?

Well…not really.  I mean, I can kind of see why people would have problems with this movie and Tarantino’s works at large.  But even though I’m a delicate little daffodil, it never felt as if there was anything in the movie that bothered or offended me.  There was stuff in there that made me recoil so badly that I fused with my seat in the theater, but it’s ultimately just a movie -- and given the screen time offered, it leans more toward conversation than violence. 

Opinions may vary, of course, but I don’t feel like the movie’s being manipulative.  It’s just telling the story of a bunch of scumbags.  It’s about men (and one woman) who’ll lie, cheat, steal, and kill to get what they want, but they’re not savages; they have their humanity, their honor, their pride, and yes, even their bonds.  Mannix suspects the ugliest of the bunch of being a traitor, but at the outset he says that he’s en route to visit his sick mother.  That could’ve easily been a lie, but on the other hand?  What does it say about his character when that’s his go-to lie?

This movie has a purpose -- and part of that purpose is to present a mystery.  And on that note, I have to ask: remember that game 999?

For those unaware, 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors is a visual novel that came out in 2010 for the original DS.  The premise is exactly what it sounds like: nine people wake up one night on a massive cruise ship, and have to take part in the “Nonary Game” -- i.e. a bunch of math-themed puzzles -- to try and escape.  If they don’t play by the rules, the bombs in their stomachs will blow them up from the inside out, as one of the contestants discovers firsthand.  Similarly, they have nine hours to make it to the end of the Nonary Game, or else the ship will sink to the bottom of the ocean with them inside it.  So it’s a race against time to find a way out, as well as figure out who set up the game in the first place.

The trick to 999, plot-wise (because the “final boss” of that game is, no joke, a Sudoku puzzle you solve upside-down) is that even though you’re given the basic information needed to progress through the story, certain elements are kept a secret.  The guy who gets blown up by breaking the rules is more than he appears to be, i.e. he was in on the Nonary Game as something of an overseer, and forced to take part for the mastermind’s revenge (or something like it).  The main takeaway, which the characters find out as the story progresses, is that even though the entire game revolves around the number nine, there are more than nine people on the ship.  So while the clues are there to figure out the truth -- by using the very concept of save scumming in a way most would have never thought possible -- the takeaway is that the game keeps its cards close to the chest to set up a bunch of twists.

So basically, the game lies to you just by having a title. 

Wait, why does that sound familiar?

I’ll spoil a lot in my posts, but I won’t spoil every last detail of The Hateful Eight -- that reason being that you should see and judge it for yourself (because it’s not like this is a review or anything).  But I will say that there are some secrets and surprises being kept by the movie itself, not just its core characters.  Some of that stuff will really throw you for a loop, especially if you get sucked into the movie’s rhythm and stop actively looking for the culprit.  There are a couple of sequences throughout where the format and chronology changes, and completely turns the story around -- unexpected stuff, and almost jarringly so, but it ultimately works.

If we’re being totally honest here, though?  I have to admit, I didn’t really need a mystery to follow.  I appreciate that it manages to remind me of and/or borrow beats from 999 (because that’s a good thing to do, without question), but I’m a little torn.  Like I said, the movie had me sold on the strength and synergy of its characters, even if they’re technically horrible people.  In an alternate universe, the movie would toss them all into that store and let them hash out their differences, and come to blows without the threat of a traitor in the midst.  I’d be okay with that -- and perhaps in that alternate universe, I’d have dreadlocks.  But since this is the movie that we got in our universe, it’s hard to complain.

Now excuse me while I start to complain.

It’s worth noting that this movie is a little over three hours long.  It sure doesn’t feel like it once things get moving, but that’s the thing: it does take time to get moving.  It’s a real slow starter, which is to be expected when you’ve got to establish more than a half-dozen characters, the setting, and the plot -- and true to Tarantino’s style, there are some lengthy conversations.  I know it’s been a good while since the days of Kill Bill (itself no stranger to people talking it out, IIRC), but if you’re expecting stylish, wall-to-wall violence, this isn’t the movie for you.  The violence isn’t even all that stylish; it’s direct and practical, as you’d expect when killing someone is as easy as aiming at them and moving your finger a little bit. 

As a final point -- not really a complaint, but an observation -- there’s a part of me that thinks it’d be apt to call The Hateful Eight a comedy.  It’s no Guardians of the Galaxy, for sure, but a lot of lines and scenarios are geared toward getting a laugh out of the audience.  Fine and dandy, but here’s the thing: given the circumstances and subject matter, The Hateful Eight has some seriously dark humor built into it.  I can see why people would take issue with Daisy’s abuse, because in any other context it would be sickening; in this context, the setup and timing of Ruth tossing a bowl of stew in her face is supposed to be a joke.  And…yeah, it IS a joke.  It’s cringe-inducing for sure, but it’s so masterfully done that you can’t help but react to it -- even if that reaction involves a couple of laughs.  I guess this is black comedy taken to its extreme.  Or close enough to it.

Daisy getting beat down isn’t the only source of humor in the movie, thankfully; as expected, the racial tensions lead to a lot of slurs and insults.  It doesn’t veer into the realm of offensiveness, because A) those jokes aren’t directed at people in the real world, and B) the jokes are made in the context of the movie and the times.  But in my experience?  It led to situations where the people sitting to my immediate right laughed the hardest whenever someone made a racist joke.  I chose to leave that hornet’s nest alone back then, and I’m continuing to do so now.

Also, this is the second straight instance where the people on my right offered up a meaningful anecdote.  Is this going to become a trend?

I wouldn’t mind that, in all honesty.  And I don’t mind The Hateful Eight, either.  I like it a lot, and even if I saw it quite literally at the start of 2016, it’s a movie that’ll leave a strong impression throughout the year.  Tarantino and his crew knew what they were doing, and created a movie that, while shocking, doesn’t just exist for shock value.  It’s a story above all else, with the power to affect people and appeal to the worst (or perhaps best) of them.  Without question, it has a right to exist -- because even if the key players are a bunch of scumbags, it’s still plenty entertaining.  And that’s why I’m putting it somewhere around HERE on my SmartChart™:

There you go.  Judge the movie on your own terms if you’re up for it.  That’s what Tarantino himself would likely want, and that’s what I’d recommend as well.  Not that I’m his servant or anything.  Although, I can’t help but wonder: does liking The Hateful Eight as much as I did mean that I’m actually a much worse person than I claim to be?

Nah, that’s impossible.  My penchant for dishing out unpopular opinions has already made me THE ENEMY OF MANKIND.  You can’t turn heel if you’re already a heel.

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