“Justice delivered without dispassion is always in danger of not being justice.” The Hateful Eight and The Revenant

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

A bleaker afternoon at the movies I don’t think I’ve ever spent. Get this for a double feature: The Hateful Eight AND The Revenant. Back-to-back. Six hours straight. Gruesome violence, rampant misogyny, flippant sociopathy, and snow … lots and lots of snow.


I’m not averse to revenge fantasy as a narrative arc. We all get to channel the murky, marginalized, pre-pubescent rage of our middle school years watching some big-screen hooligan seeking sweet justice. Yet, how many movies like this do we really need?

(Having just completed a brief, shining stint on jury duty this morning, I’m even more averse to cinematic celebrations of vigilantism at the present.)

The Hateful Eight is quintessential Quentin Tarantino – which means it is as artistic and provocative as it is juvenile and misanthropic. Tarantino, in his novelistic and verbose style, turns cowboy romanticism on its head, telling the sordid tale of eight (seems more like nine or ten, but whatever) fugitives (literal and/or emotional) who converge on a general store (the comically named “Minnie’s Haberdashery”) amidst a teeth-rattling blizzard. The MacGuffin animating the plot is actually a person not a thing – though the way murderer Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh as the MacGuffin in question) is disturbingly manhandled through the film makes that distinction debatable. Domergue is a bloody Raggedy Ann doll, banjo-eyed and tragicomic, two-parts Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” and one-part Sissy Spacek’s “Carrie.” She’s one of the best things in a film that otherwise can’t seem to make up its mind whether it’s a testosterone fever dream or an epic indictment of male ego. Leigh’s droll turn coupled with Ennio Morricone’s throbbingly beautiful horror show score save the film for me.

The rest of the cast includes Samuel L. Jackson becoming even more of a Cheshire Cat-caricature of himself as a Civil War veteran and bounty hunter who magically always seems to be 17 steps ahead of any other character; Kurt Russell as an Old West Remington Painting Cossack who speaks with John Wayne’s wiggly weird voice; Tim Roth in the Christoph Waltz role as an oily, glib, bespoke-dressed hangman; Bruce Dern and Michael Madsen basically playing Bruce Dern and Michael Madsen in Reconstruction Era clothing; Demian Bechir giving us yet another in a shamefully long line of stereotypically duplicitous Latinos; and Walton Goggins as a gummy, big-toothed take on the sweaty, nervous, hair-trigger, hammy loon that always pops up in a movie like this. Oh, Channing Tatum, burying any sparkle he has under a mound of Dippity Do, slides in at the three-quarters mark in one of those chronological misdirects that Tarantino employs … to the point of cliché. How many hateful people is that now? 62?

Did I hate The Hateful Eight? No. Yet, I’m struggling to discern why mid-career Tarantino flicks like Kill Bill or Inglourious Basterds – equally violent and similarly reckless in their disregard for our common humanity as Hateful Eight is – resonate with me so much more profoundly. Recent efforts like Eight and Django Unchained leave me a bit cold (and a lot worried). Some of it could be my age, and some of it could be that the real world is ever more perilously resembling the fictitious community of Red Apple cigarette smoking fiends that Tarantino gleefully depicts.

However, I also hypothesize that Bill and Basterds both reveal an empathy for the underdog and have a kind of constrained feminism/humanism at their core. Django and Eight – as beautifully as they are filmed (Eight especially with its sumptuous Panavision vistas and claustrophobic production design) – have a caustic ugliness in their DNA that belies the apparent intent behind Tarantino’s cartoonishly extreme brutality. He always seems to be suggesting to certain members of his audience, “Oh, you like guns? Oh, you hate [insert race/gender/faith/ethnicity here]? Oh, you like throwing around sexual grotesqueries for comic effect to create discomfort? … Well, here’s what that really looks like. Still interested in carrying that behavior into daily life?” Yet, with The Hateful Eight, I am not sure where pornography ends and social critique begins.

That said, The Hateful Eight entertained me. I could not take my eyes away for a second … which is saying something, especially in its grinding last 45 minutes. The Revenant, on the other hand, is a high-minded bore that had me checking my watch every twenty minutes. (In its defense, I did see it after spending three hours in Tarantino-ville.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Like The Hateful Eight, The Revenant is a retro trip into frontier vengeance with a heaping helping of postmodern enlightenment. Whereas Eight wears its aspirational abhorrence on its bloody sleeve, The Revenant, directed by Birdman’s Alejandro Inarritu and starring Leonard DiCaprio as fur-trapper Hugh Glass, plays its politics a little closer to the buckskin vest. As viewers, we enter the film, keenly aware of DiCaprio’s ecological advocacy, so it is unsurprising that the film takes a hardline on “you mess with the planet … the planet messes back.”

Yet, unlike Tarantino’s drama, there are no obvious black hats. One can even argue that Tom Hardy’s antagonist John Fitzgerald – who (spoiler alert) actually buries DiCaprio’s character alive shortly before slaughtering DiCaprio’s son – is no more evil than any other European-American in the film, motivated as they all are by the seemingly limitless money they hope to reap at the expense of the land and its inhabitants. These fools simply do not know any better, so why is it such a leap of logic that Hardy’s character goes from killing animals and Native Americans at a whim to extending those same courtesies to his fellow fur-traders? And that may in fact be the film’s thesis … or I may be projecting, as the film is so frustratingly artistic (read: obtuse) that I wasn’t always sure what I was even watching. Ah, an Ansel Adams winter sky here. A glistening tree branch there. A floating shaman. A pyramid of bleached skulls. WTF?

For those of you out there who loved this film – be you survivalist or nature-lover – please don’t hate me for rooting for the bear, but I found myself slapping my knee in delight as Leo was tossed around like a chew toy by a mother bear protecting her cubs. Of course (another spoiler alert, essential for my animal-loving buddies out there) the CGI bear is killed, which squelched my buzz for the rest of the picture.

It is this mauling and Leo’s subsequent “Hey, I ain’t dead yet!” burial that sets up the vision quest/hero’s journey as DiCaprio crawls through the muck, grunting out all manner of guttural protestations, to stake his revenge on the man who done him wrong (Hardy). If chapped lips, broken appendages, greasy hair, and frost-bitten noses are your thing, then this is the film for you. I found it an interminable slog, with a concept that might have made a fabulous short-film but felt woefully padded at nearly two hours and forty minutes.

Early in The Hateful Eight, Tim Roth’s character observes, “Justice delivered without dispassion is always in danger of not being justice.” Both film’s wrestle with this idea to varying degrees of success, ultimately losing the delicacy of this concept in self-indulgent largesse. The problem with Eight is that there may have been too much hot-blooded passion in Tarantino’s execution, drowning his critique of our white-washed conception of the Old West in a tsunami of Karo Syrup. And The Revenant remains too icily remote, enamored of its own gunmetal haze at the expense of visceral investment.

Somebody wake me when Oscar season is over.


img_3692-1Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Nature is out of balance: Disney’s The Lone Ranger

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Perhaps I am just contrary. Often, when all of humanity looooooves a movie (see: Titanic, Dances with Wolves, The English Patient, Top Gun), I can’t stand it. And when a film is vilified to box office extinction (e.g. John Carter, Daredevil, Speed Racer, and The Golden Compass), I actually think it’s pretty good.

Maybe my expectations are just suitably lowered by the anti-hype. Maybe the public has an unfair axe to grind with these particular “flop” films. Maybe I always root for the over-marketed, over-budgeted underdog kicked around the Hollywood playground. Maybe all of the above.

(In defense of my admittedly dodgy tastes, I am united – in at least one instance – with all moviegoers, all film critics, and anyone with a pulse in loathing Ryan Reynolds’ godawful Green Lantern.)

This brings me to The Lone Ranger, akin to John Carter, Disney’s latest attempt to create a blockbuster tent pole franchise from a radio serial property. Hollywood execs, just an observation, but this particular strategy never works – and, while I adored The Shadow, The Phantom and the marginally financially successful Dick Tracy and Flash Gordon, the cash and Oscars weren’t exactly flying at those pictures either.

But let me say this: I liked The Lone Ranger. I mean, I liked The Lone Ranger A LOT! I thought the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, made by the same troika of Gore Verbinski/Jerry Bruckheimer/Johnny Depp, were over-baked, shrill, and much-too-self-indulgent (especially everything after the first entry). I did not have the same issues with The Lone Ranger.

Yes, they could have trimmed about 20 minutes (what summer movie couldn’t this year?), but I thought that pairing Armie Hammer (this poor guy, like his cinematic “older brother” Jon Hamm, can’t seem to catch any real starring success on the silver screen) and a beautifully understated yet madcap Johnny Depp, as the Lone Ranger and Tonto respectively, was perfection.

The film slyly turns the dutiful Native American sidekick trope on its square, fuddy-duddy head, positioning Depp’s Tonto (who has been working this deadpan schtick since the insipid Benny & Joon) as a wry, world-weary, rubber-jointed Buster Keaton/Charlie Chaplin anti-hero.

The animal-lover in me winced at a few odd choices, like cannibal rabbits that make a very brief appearance salivating at the campsite fire of Tonto and the Ranger. Or the requisite horses falling over and over. (I really hate that about Westerns.) However, I do know that these choices all were to support some theme that the filmmakers were exploring about nature being out of balance. (Nearly every character appears to give voice to some derivation of this idea at least once.)

In fact, the film sets as its backdrop the industrialization of America (as represented by the marvelously understated villainy of Tom Wilkinson and the not-so-understated but equally fun hijinks of William Fichtner and Barry Pepper), literally driving train tracks through the untouched beauty of Native America homelands in the West.

The twists and turns in the plot are as predictable as those in a Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner short, but the journey is a big, dumb summer delight. For once, in my view anyway, Depp’s zany-hat-wearing, fey eccentricities are actually in service to the narrative (unlike another hit film I hated, Disney’s Alice in Wonderland). Some critics have unfairly labeled his performance boring and dull; I would counter that, for the first time in a long time, he is stealthy and nuanced, deriving humor organically from situation (and only a pratfall or two).

I liked that the film layered in messages about respecting our history, our environment, our culture, and our world. In a movie called The Lone Ranger, released over a Fourth of July weekend with tie-in toys available at Subway, those themes ain’t gonna be too deeply explored … so just give these blockbuster kids a break, willya?