A Cabin Called America

Film review: The Hateful 8 (Director: Quentin Tarantino)

By Sascha Krieger

The first joke is in the format. Quentin Tarantino, the passionate film history enthusiast, has shot his latest, his eighth film in „glorious 70mm Panavision“, using old cameras and lenses from the glory days of monumental Hollywood studio fare. And indeed, the film opens with magnificent panoramic shots of the untouched snow-covered loneliness of the majestic hills and mountains of Wyoming. It takes a while till a human presence enters and when it does it is no more than a tiny speck in the sublime whiteness, a minuscule stage-coach moving through pure nature. Then the focus narrows and soon so do the rooms. The film moves inside: first into the coach, then for most of the films 167 minutes into the interior of a haberdashery/living room/store/bar in the middle of nowhere. As the blizzard closes in, humankind is trapped in the narrow confines of a seemingly secure world, pretending this is reality, not the vastness outside. Within this confined space, we meet America, just years after the Civil War: The South is represented by a retired general (Bruce Dern) and a rebel militiaman turned sheriff (Walton Goggins), the North by a black cavalry major turned bounty hunter (Samuel L. Jackson) and a tough white colleague of hin (Kurt Russell), accompanied by his prisoner. Soon conflict emerge and the room is divided. The North gets the bar, the South the fireplace.

Nine people (or so it seems) inhabit this narrow space and enact American history and present in a nutshell: racism abounds, North and South battle, the truth is disputed, justice discussed. When the difference between justice and „frontier justice“, a nice term for mob „justice“ is explained, the experienced Tarantino expert knows that indiscriminate carnage will ensue and the latter prevail. And so it does. The general is the first to go but by far not the last as America’s obsession with guns and the freedom of the presumed freedom of the individual to „protect“ himself take control and are played out in a choreography of violence and more and more pathetic deaths. Hallmarks of Tarantino’s films are here: the chapter structure with more or less revealing title, the slow revelation of entanglements and storylines, the playful breaking of narrative technique and chronology, the ironic overdoing of characterisation and violence, the play between mask and identity.

The Hateful 8  is post-western, thriller, domestic drama and dark comedy – and, of course, it is none of this. A metaphoric parable on America, it may well be Tarantino’s most political film to date. It deconstructs American identity, not surprisingly revealing the country’s foundation as a meaningless bloodbath, it examines the country’s division and turns its love for the individual into an absurd ballet of guns and blood. The country’s landscape that the panoramic format tracks is not in its natural beauty and wilderness, it’s in the worn and battered and bloodied and weary faces. America’s geography is of weather-beaten skin, distrustful eyes and hands clutching triggers. Man has taken over and built a world of narrowness, a world that’s as inescapable as it is void of meaning.  The exquisite camera (Robert Richardson) built for vast expanses and trapped in a wooden cabin is the film’s ultimate joke.

In relation to the number of characters appearing, the death toll has never been higher in what is a miniature universe ruled by fear – a very contemporary depiction, one must only look at the current Presidential election campaign. Ennio Morricone (Tarantino’s love for the quirky, unapologetic and unashamed parts of film history is as visible as ever) has provided an exquisite overly dramatic soundtrack in which the „land of the free and the home of the brave“ appears as a petty circle of infighting among a people paralysed by fear, a fear that doesn’t need an object, that has become natural and automatic, that breeds distrust and hatred, a country that has entrapped itself in violence and blindness. Of course, The Hateful 8 is grotesquely funny and wildly entertaining, full of quirky and memorable characters, of ironic twist and turns and a narrative that creates suspense and almost childlike excitement. But at heart, this is one of Tarantino’s darker films, a strongly pessimistic assessment of his country. The ending is no exception. There is no way out, Abraham Lincoln’s letter lies bloody and crumpled on the floor as the last to hold out lie dying. But there is a strange peacefulness in that last pairing, a faint trust and maybe, just maybe the tiniest glimmer of hope. Is all lost? The question remains unanswered.

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