Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michael Madsen, Tim Roth, Walton Goggins, Bruce Dern, Channing Tatum, Demián Bichir
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Runtime: 167 min.
Verdict: A lazily structured first-draft. A chore to get through.
Genre: Drama, Western, Mystery
The overriding feeling at the end of it is of being unsatisfied. A lack of closure, maybe, because every time a secret is revealed in any mystery the relationship the viewer (or reader) shares with the people in the narrative becomes the primary factor. If a detective were to find a killer in a room full of people, there better be enough people in the first place, because they serve as the audience for whom the secret is being unraveled. If there were none, and if the detective were to simply turn towards us and indulge himself in a monologue detailing his methods and discoveries, I’m not sure we will be half as satisfied. Why? Because the percolation of the information serves as some sort of justice, an identity that has been revealed, and rightly so. That everybody in the audience knows isn’t enough, but what is important is that everybody in there knows and we have the closure that justice has prevailed. We cannot affect that world in there, except for instance, when Robert Langdon learns the true location of Mary Magdalene’s sarcophagus, and it is something of an interesting scenario because at that moment it (the illusion of the narrative) very much blurs the boundaries between fact/fiction providing for a real-life place, which serves as the bridge. So, either the mystery provides us with that bridge, an object of some sort that has travelled through time, or it provides the necessary proxy.
That is a major reason Ms. Christie’s Death on the Nile has always left me cold, and feels at best to be an academic exercise in overturning an archetype – that of the innocent but sure-to-judge audience – and if everybody is either a victim or a murderer, the world becomes a pretty cynical little place, like you know No Country for Old Men. Still, and until the secret is revealed, the very prospect of a significant (subjective, and the crowd presents assurance with the potential of providing closure) audience is cause enough to be excited by the mystery at hand. Gosford Park did follow that prescription, and surprisingly (read: disappointingly) Mr. Tarantino, who has pretty much internalized the theory around shock v/s suspense, just doesn’t give us enough by way of the prospect of an audience. There is Team A, consisting of a couple of bounty hunters, one of whom is black, a sheriff-in-waiting and a woman waiting to be hanged, riding on a stagecoach. There is Team B – consisting of a Mexican running the inn, an overelaborate Englishman (I’m confused whether Mr. Roth was doing a version of his character from Four Rooms, or if Mr. Waltz simply wasn’t available because of Spectre), an overelaborate Michael Madsen lookalike, and a Confederate General – whom Team A meets once they arrive at a haberdashery. Now, one might claim that Team B isn’t really a team, and I might want to argue back saying that between the title and the laws of suspense, any collection of people is a cause to be suspicious about, especially when an outlaw is being taken to be hanged to some place (a standard trope) in a western. So essentially we have set who walks in to a bar, and a set waiting in the bar, and were Ms. Christie the writer here, I suspect she would have had folks walk in at different times. A murder mystery is never about teams and always about individuals. The very prospect of an innocent bystander unsuspectingly walk into an established scene of tension doesn’t merely align our concerns for his well-being, it relieves himself from all suspicion while also providing him the opportunity to assume the role of a moral authority (Mr. Mangold’s Identity). No such luck here in Minnie’s haberdashery, and between all the chattering and cursing Mr. Tarantino writes himself into a corner while dealing with the false identities, the reveal around which isn’t merely unremarkable it is downright lazy. This is the problem – someone from team B says they are X. Alright. It is not Mr. Pink or Mr. Yellow, but just some overelaborate name. Then in the end, they say they are Y. The audience naturally is distrustful because we have no hook to hang on to – we don’t have any clues like the bottom of a coffee mug, or clippings spread around a cop’s wall – and Mr. Tarantino simply has someone from Team A do a “Ah, yeah!” routine every time someone from Team B reveal their Y identities. It is meaningless, a confirmation and a what-if-it’s-hot at the same time, and thus a cop-out.
So, when things reveal themselves we aren’t really surprised. We are waiting and more importantly we do not have the closure of justice being served. It is an interesting proposition at first hand, especially when the film ends with an event that serves as moral justice – the hanging of the woman. Now, before we have the PC police start frothing in their mouths, it is useful to highlight that none of these folks are really “hateful”. They are more like mildly annoying, and to be offended by their racial slurs and woman-beating is just about as kitschy a reaction as wondering how Mr. Coppola made such immensely “morally corrupt” individuals so likable, or be “horrified” at the evil that Mr. Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter presents. It is a middlebrow reaction at best and a self-congratulatory reaction at worst, and it ignores that morality within a narrative is relative and more importantly contextual. Hateful/Despicable is that wonderful psycho in Mr. Miike’s Shield of Straw, or those serial killers in some of those Korean films. I might argue that honor overrides all other negativities, more so in a western, and one might argue then that even the hierarchy of morality has been shaped by patriarchy. I don’t know, and let us do a roll call. Major Marquis Warren (Mr. Jackson) is a bounty hunter (an anti-hero at best), and to be fair what does he do – excite a Confederate General into drawing a weapon to kill him by recounting to him how he raped the General’s son (a symbolic act more than anything, underlined by Warren’s hint towards the images being created and thus a reality, a notion that ties in with fantasy history from his previous two films), which importantly was a reaction to the righteous son’s action of trying to kill him. There’s no standalone action (cause-effect) at any level, and the Major feels morally justified, because on both the counts he has a reason – the Confederate General denying him his identity, and his son wanting to deny him his life. The bounty hunter John Ruth (Mr. Russell) punches a woman alright, but then she is a dreaded criminal (imagine a man in her place). We can go along, but the point is that nobody here is despicable, just people acting self-righteously.
So, when the woman is hanged at the end by the two remaining folks, within the moral framework of the film, it is justified, because she has always been the antagonist – she has no stakes, and her identity is that she is merely a criminal (as opposed to say a woman who has been exploited all her life and thus been pushed to choose this life, and the expected self-congratulatory blah-blah), and she spends the narrative being the antagonist (knowing a secret and letting folks suffer and die). If you agree with me here, her hanging (an exercise designed for its theatricality) has no audience, apart from the hangmen. We have travelled a long distance for only to have her hang in private, which is just about the same as John Ruth hanging her just as soon he caught her. Not quite, as a matter of fact. You see, the two men in the end are the two who are indeed the innocent bystanders, and who represent the history/politics Mr. Tarantino is most interested in – the simple binary of the black man and the racial white man. As all binaries, it is a reductive representation of history, and under the now-annoying idea of Abraham Lincoln as a representation of all that is great about America (and world? Is this newfound fascination with Lincoln a highlight of the Obama presidency?) a simplistic fantasy. Having Lincoln treated less like a man and more like an idea (we have our own in our current Prime Minister) is just about the same as having him hunt down vampires, and I hope we get less of it in the future. Also, maybe, a little less of allusions to Jesus Christ, mostly because I’m not sure Daisy is some sort of innocent lamb slaughtered to give the folks a notion of justice.
What bugs me though is how lazy the film feels. The entire first hour is essentially folks howling dialogues at each other and long shots of the stagecoach running through the snow serving as filler. Everybody is in the same room, and when Major Warren tells elaborate tales about “black dicks in white mouths” you wonder what everybody else is doing. Where the hell are the reaction shots? Two folks are vomiting blood right after and we have no reaction shots from Major Warren, who is quite essentially our protagonist here. Isn’t everybody sharing the same moment? It is a strange choice, and I wonder what purpose it served, because for me, it only provided a convenient mystery around who drugged the coffee. There are meaningless foreboding shots of the outhouse, couple of them in fact, and all they serve is some cheap horror movie atmosphere. And the flashback chapter? Would we have been better served with a placard instead?
Most importantly though, I wonder why I am left unimpressed with Mr. Tarantino’s scores. For e.g. the harmonica thing in Kill Bill Vol. II when she walks in the desert, and here the opening. Is it because out of several choices he simply picks the most obvious one, so that rather than being captivated by the score at hand I am reminded of the likeliness? I don’t know, but the opening horror thing felt completely disconnected from the imagery (imagine The Shining’s opening score and its synthesis with the movement on the screen), almost as if I could go ahead and score the same images with Old Turkey Buzzard and lose out on nothing. Maybe, on his eighth film, Mr. Tarantino was just plain uninspired to make one, and is rather interested in making a contribution to theatre. If he does it sometime in the future, I hope this film will serve as a first draft.
Note: This is essentially an overelaborate MOM of a discussion I had with Gaurang Joshi.