Live by Night
The key question behind Live by Night isn’t so much “Why did they bother?” as “What went wrong?”
Every movie lover has their own list of directors whose new works automatically involve a trip to the multiplex, no questions asked. There are the names obligatory for most like Scorsese, Fincher, Nolan or Spielberg. Another filmmaker for this list is Quentin Tarantino. There aren’t too many writers whose dialogue is as easily identifiable in each and every one of his characters. Nor are there many directors who have become the main protagonist of their movies, even if it is from behind the camera.
The plot of “The Hateful Eight” is as simple as anything Tarantino has ever written, including the “Kill Bill” saga whose title pretty much summed up the whole movie. A stagecoach riding in post-Civil War times with a bounty hunter and the prisoner he's transporting for a hanging (Kurt Russell and Jennifer Jason Leigh, respectively) are forced to pick up two additional passengers on their way to Minnie’s Haberdashery, where they will take shelter from a snow storm with a group of rather unsavory characters. An Agatha Christie-type murder mystery will develop, and the tension will build to the point of full eruption, where it always seems to end in just about every one of Tarantino's films.
One of the things I like best about Tarantino’s movies is how little he cares about casting the biggest or most fashionable stars of the period, even though most of them would surely be happy to work with him.. His only casting criteria seems to be each actor’s ability to recite his very particular brand of dialogue with the necessary joy and conviction. There’s John Travolta, who prior to “Pulp Fiction," had just about vanished. There’s also David Carradine, Dennis Christopher and Don Johnson whose names probably mean little to you if you weren’t around during the Ford/Carter/Reagan years. There are also his regulars and semi-regulars, like Tim Roth, Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Madsen, all of whom clearly meet those standards. Curiously enough, “The Hateful Eight” also includes Channing Tatum giving a long and very Tarantino-esque monologue, even though he clearly has a long way to go before mastering the art of delivering his dialogue like the rest of them.
The first thing to say about “The Hateful Eight” is that it proves Tarantino still has the ability to entertain with the fewest of elements. Around the 90-minute mark, where most movies are about to end but this one was only halfway through, I stopped and realized how entertaining the film had been even up to that point, considering that the only relevant occurrences so far involved a stagecoach driver reluctantly agreeing to give a ride to a couple of people during a snow storm. Tarantino takes his time telling the story in painstaking detail in his own way, like when the opening credits spend an eternity with a simple shot of a crucifix, or when one of his characters makes the humorous decision to stick several metal poles in the ground, connecting them with ropes as to make sure no one gets lost traveling to the outhouse during the snow storm. Tarantino makes sure we see how every single character is put in place so that no one will miss the joke (this is also the main reason why this movie is almost three hours long).
I believe “Pulp Fiction” is still Tarantino’s best work by a wide margin. I also believe that ever since it came out twenty some years ago, his movies have progressively declined. “The Hateful Eight” is at the bottom of the pile for at least a couple of reasons. The first one has to do with the director’s insistence in trying to shock the audience with the same overblown images of cartoonish violence, movie after movie. In “Kill Bill,” he created a very particular type of stylized brutality which included limbs and blood flying all over the place, and hasn’t been able to stop using it ever since. The first two acts of “Django Unchained” were mostly outstanding and in their own unusual way were able to effectively convey the horrors of slavery. But as soon after the Christoph Waltz character died and the film seemed to reach its natural conclusion, Tarantino decided to add another half-hour, creating a gratuitous, bloody finale very similar to that "Inglourious Basterds." By closing “The Hateful Eight” in the same way, it feels like the director is just going through the motions yet again.
My favorite chapter in “Pulp Fiction” involves the scene where Travolta's character accidentally shoots Marvin in the face, and all sorts of hell breaks loose. Perhaps that movie’s biggest attribute was how unexpected everything was, but few directors have become as predictable as Tarantino. His latest sequences of violence have been as irrelevant as they are extreme. I first watched "Pulp Fiction" over twenty years ago and I can pretty much remember every detail involved in the death scenes. On the other hand, I saw “The Hateful Eight” last week, and by now I’ve pretty much forgotten how most of its characters meet their doom. The end of the movie has the same effect on me as both “Avengers” movies—there’s such an overflow of action in small time periods that the more the occurrences, the less memorable they become.
The second and more relevant problem with Tarantino’s recent works has to do with his characters. The one constant in all of his movies has been the presence of one sadist after another. But if you think about it, his casts are mostly populated by rather good-hearted people. "Pulp Fiction" had characters who truly valued each other’s friendship (Travolta and Jackson's Vincent and Jules), who went to great lengths to protect the heirlooms of strangers (Christopher Walken), and even a couple who went out on a date that concluded with the sweetest of blown kisses (Vincent and Uma Thurman's Mia) even if it was preceded by cursing, ODs, and what have you. At the heart of "Django Unchained" was the character of Dr. King Schultz (Christopher Waltz) who sacrificed his hard-earned savings and life for the happiness of the title character. Even the Uma Thurman “Bride” in "Kill Bill" initiated her roaring rampage of revenge as a reaction to the loss of her beloved, unborn child.
Any nice person might feel out of place in a movie titled "The Hateful Eight," but early on not all of the protagonists seemed to be as bad as the rest and that could have made them the good guys of sorts. Under such logic, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) appeared to be the hero of the piece, until he turned out to be as much of a sadist as any of the "Hateful" as he happily bargains with a blanket to a freezing man or he’s shown enjoying the slow, graphic hanging of a woman. I suppose this had to be the eventual tendency of Tarantino’s work. Once you’ve shocked the audience enough times, you may feel inclined to come up with something even nastier if you want them to feel anything. The problem is that he doesn’t seem to understand that uglier does not necessarily mean better. Tarantino seems to assume that if he’s able to create an awful enough character (and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Daisy certainly qualifies as that) the audience will automatically cheer when he makes her suffer the worst of fates.
As things turned out, I came out of "The Hateful Eight" wondering whether Tarantino spent too much time during his childhood ripping the wings from flies, or if maybe it’s just that he has that low an opinion of his audience. Perhaps his main concern in "Django Unchained" wasn’t dealing with the horrors of slavery, but rather just a fascination with the bloody sight of a Mandingo fight, or that of a man being torn apart by dogs. Every one of his movies has had at least one scene that makes you feel guilty over laughing at things like poor Marvin losing his head. "The Hateful Eight" has at least two scenes that make you feel ashamed for watching the movie at all. At the end of the day, his latest movie lacks Tarantino’s unpredictable combination of the good, the bad and the odd that made "Pulp Fiction" great. He has become repetitive to the point where I may very well think twice before attending the Ninth Film by Quentin Tarantino on the director’s name alone.
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