PART ONE – SEE THIS MOVIE!
This review is of the Roadshow presentation at the Odeon Leicester Square – and there are spoilers in Part Two below – so if you haven’t seen it yet, skip that section below!
A lot has been said about Tarantino’s use of Panavision for this film, but perhaps the most important thing you need to realize is that the aspect ratio is practically impossible to bring down even to widescreen format – just look at the way films like It’s a Mad….World or Ben Hur were re-shot (using projectors), with the frame cropped or having bizarre panning across the frame – if you want to see this film (and it is a film, not a digital file) then you have to go and see it at a cinema.
Some people have criticized the use of this format for what is in effect a three-act theatrical play. In the past the screen was used to show enormous vistas or blockbuster sets with literal casts of thousands. In Hateful Eight for example, there is an extended scene with four characters cramped up inside a stagecoach. But the use of the camera here and in the rest of the film is brilliant. You are brought into the action in such a way that it is easy for you to get involved with the characters, and makes what happens later all the more shocking.
Example – In the second part of the film a stagecoach draws up to Minnie’s Haberdashery, a coach stop literally in the middle of nowhere. The co-driver, Six-Horse Judy, jumps down and puts her head through the coach window to welcome the passengers. The entire screen is the window, and as she smiles and talks to the passengers, she is talking directly to the audience.
Tarantino does act as The Narrator on a couple of occasions, but really the narrator is the camera. He uses it to lock in the viewer, to direct the gaze, in precisely the same way a writer switches between characters in a book to show their relative points of view and internal dialog – their motivations. Tarantino combines the camera shot with the performance of the actors to achieve precisely this effect. You see through one character’s eyes, rather than seeing everything all at once. Like a magician, he only reveals what he wants you to see.
Jennifer Jason-Leigh plays Daisy Domergue, an outlaw under sentence of death, in the custody of bounty hunter, Hangman John Ruth (Kurt Russell). Reviewers have talked about the treatment of the character and Tarantino does use the violence against her to shock and for comedic effect in the first part of the film – it changes mood completely in the second. Despite the murderous venom and bigotry Domergue displays, you still feel sympathetic to the character, and even Ruth at times can be seen to treat her with unexpected tenderness. Mark Kermode says that Domergue references Carrie towards the end of the film, but I didn’t see that at all. I saw one of the witches from Kurosawa’s adaptation of Macbeth, Kumonosu-Jou (English title – Throne of Blood). She sits on the floor, rocking, predicting Mannix’s doom. No matter what happens, she is always in control of the situation – apart from once – and that is done so brilliantly yet again you empathise with the character.
There is a lot of comedy in the film, aside from the ‘shock laughs’ of the audience. These are delivered through deliberately-crafted stereotypes – as Tarantino puts it in his interview in Sight and Sound, he asked the actors to have their characters play characters. So Mexican Bob (Bichir) plays the dumb Mexican they expect – Mowbray (Roth) plays the toff (he asked him to play it like Terry Thomas!) and Ruth comes across like John Wayne. Also in the S&S interview, he reveals something that Russell told him about when he played Snake Plissken opposite Lee Van Cleef in Escape from New York. He deliberately played those scenes as Clint Eastwood, as he felt completely overawed by Van Cleef, and he knew that two-handed scenes with Eastwood and Van Cleef had worked so well.
And speaking of audience, you really have to see a Tarantino film with an audience. The Odeon was sold out, and it had a great atmosphere. One of my favourite memories was seeing Pulp Fiction for the first time in Leeds, sat on the front row of a tiny cinema (now gone, sadly) as those were the only two seats left. The second half of Chris Walken’s speech to the young Butch was drowned out by laughter – during the OD scene you could have heard a pin drop, and when Butch’s pop-tarts pinged out of the toaster, the entire front row jumped.
Some things to look out for when you see the film:
Hats! When I realized this, I was totally blown away. Tarantino uses hats to signify vulnerability. Minnie’s has a ‘no-hat’ rule - which is no longer observed when Mexican Bob takes charge – so watch who wears hats, and when they are removed.
Watch the camera angles – Tarantino couldn’t use zoom lenses with a Panavision camera, or steadicam (obviously!) so every time the camera moves it’s either on a dolly or a crane. And for close-ups – it’s that close!
The blizzard can be heard moving around the theatre throughout the film. It sets the auditorium walls to be the remaining three walls of Minnie’s Haberdashery. And there is only one door – nailed shut!
PART TWO - SPOILERS BELOW!
It has been called Tarantino’s most political film, but most reviews I’ve seen have jumped on Jackson’s speech “…the only way White folks feel safe is if Black folks is nervous. And the only way Black folks is safe, is if the White folks is disarmed.” This has been taken to reference Tarantino’s involvement with the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign and his comments about the US police. But they’ve missed the point. It’s not those two lines – it’s Major Warren’s Lincoln letter.
Jackson’s character, Major Warren, is a renowned retired US Cavalry officer with distinguished service in the Civil War. He carries a letter from President Lincoln in his pocket, his most treasured possession. John Ruth, who lets Warren ride in his private stagecoach, asks to read it, and it brings tears to his eyes. He isn’t impressed when this is revealed to be a fake.
Warren wrote the letter himself and while this deception disgusts Ruth, Warren says, “well it got me into your stagecoach, didn’t it?”
The way I read this is as an indictment of Obama’s presidency – and I don’t mean all the blame falls on Obama – but the even the concept of the first African American president. We were all taken up by the campaign of Hope, and the day he was inaugurated we thought was going to be the dawn of a new day for civil rights and equality not just in the US but across the world. We thought that it would bring an end to US imperialism and the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. But this didn’t happen. The racists ran the ‘birther’ campaign, the Republicans blocked progressive policies at every turn. Externally, the secret war campaign started under Bush and aggressively pursued by Cheney was extended, with Obama’s Tuesday morning ‘kill list’ meetings bringing death to anyone, anywhere, including for the first time, US citizens. Camp X-Ray stayed open. More whistleblowers were imprisoned under Obama than under all other previous presidents combined.
This is the disappointment of Major Warren. The letter that promises so much, that he has used as protection and leverage (simply to get an even playing-field) is a fake.
Even after two terms of the ‘first black president’, the levels of deprivation and infant mortality rates amongst African Americans are directly comparable to those 150 years ago. African American males are disproportionally represented in what is the biggest prison population (as a percentage of the whole population) in the world. And as we have seen over the past couple of years, being black in the United States can get you shot dead by the police, whether you are a child in a playground or a grandmother in your own house.
Nevertheless, right at the end of the film, when Warren and Sheriff Mannix are united as comrades representing ‘frontier justice’, they return to the letter and we hear the full content for the first time. They know it is a fake – and yet the promise of the letter is renewed.
Mannix is seen up to the end of the film as a racist, a true believer in the ‘lost cause’ of the confederacy, a defender of General Smithers – yet when Warren baits Smithers and kills him, he takes no action. The entire point of the film and what creates the tension after that is the decision that Mannix makes – whether to side with the outlaws or Warren. Two of the most diametrically opposed characters as far as race and ideology go are united against a common enemy, in mutual respect – in that Lincoln letter.
The fact that the letter is fake no longer matters. The hope that it represents is not fake – and there is the possibility that its promise can yet be fulfilled.