Quentin Tarantino is fluent in various cinematic languages, to the point that he’s liable to switch dialect not just sentence to sentence, but word to word. The heist film, Blaxploitation cinema, the kung fu epic; his films duck and weave in and out of all of these. But it seems like he thinks in the language of the western.
Though it took him till 2012’s Django Unchained to set a film in the American West of the 1800s, Tarantino’s characters have always shared the DNA of classic Western archetypes. Much like the inhabitants of the American frontier, his films are comprised of people who live outside the bounds of traditional law, be they career criminals, psychopathic stunt men or bounty hunters. They exist in what Thomas Hobbes referred to as a state of nature, where it is “the war of all against all”. Without a centralised authority to arbitrate disagreements, these outsiders must form social/moral contracts with each other to get by – because even dark-suited hit men need a social code, if only to govern the use of hand towels. This leads to the creation of tenuous alliances that shift and dissolve at a rapid pace, where no one is entirely sure where they stand and the threat of violence is omnipresent.
Violence in both the mythical West and Tarantino’s universe isn’t so much a discouraged act as an inevitable force. “When fortune smiles on something as violent and ugly as revenge,” The Bride explains in Kill Bill, “it seems proof like no other, that not only does God exist, you’re doing His will”. It is the same sense of unwritten moral law that compelled Butch to arm himself with a pawn shop katana or made Mr White turn his gun on an undercover cop. Lieutenant Aldo Raine went so far as to compare the Basterd strategy to the Apache Resistance: “We will be cruel to the Germans. And through our cruelty they will know who we are.” By the time Tarantino directed Django Unchained, it was far from his first experience directing a revenge story set in an honour-based culture with captivating landscape photography and an Ennio Morricone-heavy soundtrack.
Tarantino has called The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, “The best directed film of all time,” which makes sense, given how much he has absorbed stylistically from director Sergio Leone (and Spaghetti Westerns as a whole). The iconic Morricone soundtrack, the scenes of escalating tension punctured by shocking violence and the cutting between panoramic wide shots and extreme close ups have all become part of the Tarantino style. The latter speaks to how both directors merge a sense of grand theatre with intimate struggle, allowing their sense of play to underscore rather than undermine the story’s pathos. When Django asks a black maid to “Tell Miss Laura goodbye,” before blowing Miss Laura clean out of the room with his revolver, it simultaneously works as a piece of dark slapstick and a moment of cathartic vengeance. It’s a skill that has come to characterize Tarantino’s increasingly singular works, his ability to blend a multiplicity of tones into his films in a way that enriches the experience without ever feeling forced or distracting.
The Hateful Eight is looking to be a classic Western powder keg. Take a group of volatile people with conflicting agendas, cram them in a confined space and watch the friction build until a fire starts. Because in Tarantino’s Wild West, the chances of a Mexican standoff are always high.
The Astor will be screening The Hateful Eight roadshow from January 14th. See the Calendar for times.