The Hateful Eight (2016)


The Hateful Eight PosterDirector: Quentin Tarantino

Release Date: December 25th, 2015 (US); January 8th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Crime; Drama

Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight almost feels like a career denouement. Fittingly, its structure loosely resembles that of the director’s inaugural feature, Reservoir Dogs, though experience has clearly softened his haste. One can imagine a young Tarantino, exuberance overriding patience, penning a screenplay too snappy to tempt overstaying its welcome (at less than 100 minutes, it is his shortest film). With over 20 successful years to his name and having perfected his incomparable style — arthouse blockbusters — snappy screenplays no longer have a place in the auteur’s workshop. The Hateful Eight reflects just that, seemingly to the point of no return.

Post-Civil-War tensions are rife in what is essentially a courtroom western. In non-revelatory terms, let’s run through some of the prosecutors (after all, Tarantino’s screenplay does the best descriptive job). John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is pure Americana, the type who gets glossy-eyed reading a letter written by President Abraham Lincoln. He is transporting criminal Daisy Domergue to Red Rock where she will be hanged — Jennifer Jason Leigh, oddly enough, increasingly channels The Breakfast Club’s Allison with each disconcerting grin and her general weirdness. Along the way they meet Major Marquis Warren, practical and thoughtful, played by Samuel L. Jackson.

He hitches a ride after some toing and froing, as does Chris Mannix who the trio find flailing around frantically in the brewing blizzard. Mannix, the prospective Sheriff of Red Rock, is weaselly and the most out-there of the entire bunch. He is played by Walton Goggins, the film’s MVP on the humour front. Tim Roth (Oswaldo Mobray), Michael Madsen (Joe Gage), Bruce Dern (General Sanford Smithers), and Demián Bichir (Bob) are already huddled up in Minnie’s Haberdashery when the travelling troupe arrive seeking shelter from the storm. Turns out the snow would have been a safer bet.

This rabble, though most engaging, are a noxious bunch. They use “during wartime” as a reductive excuse for past misdemeanours when really those misdemeanours were, and are, a way of life. “Justice delivered without dispassion is always in danger of not being justice,” muses Roth’s Mobray with ominous foreboding. Much has been made about the treatment of Domergue, and it’s plain to see why: she gets throttled often and without much in the way of retaliatory action. The characters are almost universally vile, Domergue included; the abuse is not funny nor, crucially, do I think it is meant to be. It didn’t offend me (the N word is again invoked with consistency) but others mightn’t be so kind.

For around an hour and a half, you get the feeling Tarantino and co. are taking the material seriously, so much so that those doing the striking gain a nasty reputation. But when the spaghetti violence takes form later on, that conscientious veneer ceases to exist and gory absurdity reigns supreme. Perhaps justifiably, given the caricature-esque group involved. At this point the violence is played, at least to an extent, for laughs and shock value — although it is worth noting most of the amusing moments arrive via verbiage. Ruth, for instance, intentionally has the worst comeback patter: “My pistol plays a tune… Domergue’s Death March.”

Jackson gets the best of the dialogue and subsequently repays Tarantino’s faith. He delivers a whodunit monologue with such devious joy; you can just about see the actor licking his lips as he succumbs to the satisfying taste of the words rumbling around his mouth. On the topic of audio, Ennio Morricone delivers another resplendent score, thoroughly grandiose and absolutely worthy of the occasion: his return to the genre for the first time since Buddy Goes West (1981). Galloping horses carry a distinctly cinematic sound and Tarantino, a movie lover, knows it. He also knows and cherishes the woody authenticity of film as a shooting medium, making Robert Richardson’s immaculate visual serving a welcome non-surprise.

There are times, and this is true of all Tarantino outings apart from the aforementioned Reservoir Dogs, when you find yourself actively egging conversations towards their conclusion. This is especially applicable in “Chapter One” of The Hateful Eight, when Warren is attempting to nab a seat in Ruth’s convoy. It might be a genuine attempt to flesh out key characters or simply a matter of self-indulgence, or possibly a bit of both. Tarantino writes and writes, and then writes some more, and when you see one of his films you just have to accept that. Because when he gets it right — and let’s face it, he does get it right quite a lot — even Aaron Sorkin must look on with a hint of jealousy.

Having said that, there isn’t much depth beyond the obvious cultural and political divisions (which are so plainly invoked they barely register as thoughtful). The certainty of death manifests via blood-trails in the snow — these rose markings could also represent the importance of evidence on the path to justice, though I might be clutching at straws with that one. Tarantino makes it work, however, by subbing in rich characters and the unrepentant screenplay I have already alluded to. The film exists in an era that demands people declare their backstory upon meeting a stranger and those variably truthful backstories are thoroughly enticing to hear.

A chapter in the film’s second act expertly refreshes proceedings just when you think the film might be turning stagnant and a tad repetitive. “The name of the game is patience.” It is true; patience welcomes more positives than negatives in The Hateful Eight. Quentin Tarantino is the sort of director who would rather swim across an ocean than take a speedboat in order to prove his point. You’ll know by now whether or not you enjoy that sort of storytelling. Regardless, there is something charming about a film that keeps you in the cinema a little longer than necessary — especially if said film has a lot going for it.

The Hateful Eight - Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh & Bruce Dern

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): The Weinstein Company

Selma (2015)


Selma PosterDirector: Ava DuVernay

Release Date: January 9th, 2015 (US); February 6th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; History

Starring: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo

Carrying on the awards-fetching tradition that tends to follow flicks of biographical and historical heritage (a tradition particularly in vogue at this year’s Oscars) is Selma. We all know the argument by now: ‘the only reason this weighty film about that important figure doing those serious things has been made is purely to fill the brazen palms of those involved with golden statuettes’. As a general rule I don’t really toe that line. There are too many external factors that’d have to align for a filmmaker to predict prizes before even rolling a camera, and then successfully follow through with that prediction. Oscar bait. It’s a bit of a nonsense assumption anyway. Selma is a film first and foremost, about struggle and perseverance and dignity.

Movies aren’t made to be awarded then, but when the turn of the year approaches and the air begins to smell that bit more Weinsteiny, it’s still an exciting time for cinephiles the world over. And it can be a kick in the teeth when evidently deserving performances aren’t given at least a nod of appreciation by those all-knowing folks in Hollywood. David Oyelowo’s shunning by the Academy is as bewildering as it is unfair on the Brit. He plays Martin Luther King, Jr., minister and activist at the helm of the African-American Civil Rights Movement in the middle of last century.

Director Ava DuVernay’s film centres on Dr. King and his collaborative attempt alongside other SCLC members to gain voting rights for black US citizens in the 1960s. As such, success hinges upon how effectively Oyelowo embodies the famous fellow. In some ways, playing a prolific figure such as King might be easier because his presence has continued to circulate in some form for so many years and his mannerisms and tones therefore exist in great volume, essentially forming a vault of primary sources for the actor to refer to. Having said that, there’s very little room for error because the man is so recognisable — if you’re watching Selma, you’re probably pretty well-versed in the humanitarian’s past. The audience knows King and Oyelowo has to convince, not after 30 minutes or 60 minutes but after 10 seconds, that he is King.

Goodness me, he convinces. Oyelowo’s portrayal is very similar to Eddie Redmayne’s manifestation as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, not because the roles reflect each other in too many ways but because each actor completely dissolves into the persona he is playing. The magnetic charisma is there, shining through particularly during speeches delivered with power and precision, but Oyelowo also conveys a vulnerability in King that humanises the god-like leader. Moments of self-doubt creep in and harness his stubbornness; this unusually burdened appearance can be seen in a prison cell conversation or an emotional debate between husband and wife.

At this point it’s also worth noting some really solid work done by Oyelowo’s supporting cast, namely Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King and Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon B. Johnson. King and Coretta’s relationship is frosty when we meet them, the latter certainly an admirer of her husband’s moral graft but not as keen on any potentially nasty consequences. “I don’t joke about that”, she says after he quips about dying in the line of protest. Ejogo’s Coretta is strong-willed but clearly at odds with the viable threat posed to her family.

On the other hand, King’s combative rapport with the US head of state is driven by ethical politics. Wilkinson plays the President with that familiar governmental defensiveness — sympathetic to a degree but only really in favour of King because he’s not “one of those Malcolm X types”. It’s a shame we don’t get to see more of Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch plays him in one short scene) as the clash in styles between he and his activist colleague could’ve added another layer to the film’s fairly cut-and-dry morality. Henry G. Sanders’ heartbreaking turn as a pained grandfather is as affecting as anything else on screen. Unfortunately Tim Roth hams it up a too much as the Governor of Alabama, his performance lacking somewhat in authenticity when pitted up against the others.

As alluded to previously, there are a few heavyweight vocal diatribes laced throughout the film but DuVernay smartly avoids employing the famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Instead the material is fresher and Oyelowo is afforded the chance to inject less high profile dialogues with his own portentous verve. Thus there’s never a preachy air but rather a story bound by the bluntness of immorality, one that holds a mirror up against an inconceivable blotch on our history whilst also hauling shocking relevance today.

Despite the obvious humanity failure on display, DuVernay manages to avoid the gloominess of the subject and instead directs with spirit. A bubbling, soulful soundtrack compiled by Jason Moran — which reminded me of a Coen/T-Bone Burnett concoction, oddly — gives energy to proceedings. This vibrant approach means when the Selma to Montgomery protest marches from which the film pivots occur, their impact is heightened. The notorious Bloody Sunday walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge is harrowing in its depiction but also sublimely executed; raw brutality is interspersed with a white reporter’s increasingly disturbed commentary and reactions of abhorrence from around America brought on by television broadcasts.

It might’ve been largely overlooked by awards shows but Selma isn’t a film that should be ignored by those who love accomplished filmmaking. Indeed, Ava DeVernay’s moving dramatisation of oppression in society fifty years ago reaffirms a life lesson that some are failing to abide by even in 2015. For that reason alone Selma is a film worth seeing.

Selma - David Oyelowo

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (c): Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Fox, StudioCanal