Life too close to art for Tarantino

By Robbie Collin

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Events in US last year led director to tone down a film for first time.

Quentin Tarantino has a new movie. As usual it doesn't adopt half measures.

The film, a scabrous chamber western called The Hateful Eight, has fared well in the Golden Globe nominations. It has three nominations: best supporting actress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), best original score (by Ennio Morricone) and best screenplay.

After Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, two history-bending romps that proved to be his most popular films to date, Tarantino has come back with something bitter, pessimistic and bone-gnawingly tough, yet rapturously beautiful (it was shot in Ultra Panavision 70, an extinct visual format that allows for extraordinary compositions).

It owes equal debts to The Iceman Cometh, an Agatha Christie parlour game and John Carpenter's claustrophobic alien horror The Thing. For newcomers to his fanbase it's a serious test of nerve, but for the black-hearted faithful, it's nirvana.

For one thing, it's around three hours long. For another, as the title suggests, there's nobody to root for. Instead, the film serves up an all-you-can-eat buffet of villainy, as a blizzard strands eight horny-hided ne'er-do-wells in a mountain way station where murky business is already afoot.

What's more, the American Civil War was only a matter of years ago, and the party seethes with racial and national malice.

One of the eight, Samuel L. Jackson's Major Marquis Warren, fought for the Union and carries a letter from Abraham Lincoln in the breast pocket of his greatcoat - while two more, Walton Goggins' slack-jawed South Carolinian sheriff, and Bruce Dern's ornery General, are Confederate good ol' boys still smarting from defeat.

Strained race relations are nothing new in Tarantino's work - or life, come to that.

The director grew up around the South Bay region of Los Angeles in the 60s and 70s, moving there from Tennessee with his mother, Connie, when he was 3 and she 20.

They arrived in the aftermath of the 1965 Watts riots, six days of violence sparked by segregation and white-on-black police brutality. (His father, Tony, a law student and wannabe actor, left home before he was born.)

Tarantino describes the westerns of his childhood - among the thousands of films he pored over as a kid and, later, as a clerk at the Video Archives rental store in Manhattan Beach - as "cynical" and "bitter"; even "anti-American, in their own way".

Director Quentin Tarantino with partner Courtney Hoffman arrive at the Los Angeles premiere of "The Hateful Eight" at the Cinerama Dome. Photo / AP
Director Quentin Tarantino with partner Courtney Hoffman arrive at the Los Angeles premiere of "The Hateful Eight" at the Cinerama Dome. Photo / AP

Soldier Blue and Little Big Man transposed the horrors of the Vietnam War to the wild frontier, while McCabe and Mrs Miller was as paranoid about the governing machinery of modern America as The Parallax View, or All the President's Men.

Westerns, he says, have a special status: they say more "about the decade in America in which they were made" than "almost any other genre that doesn't deal with modern times".

As such, Tarantino deliberately shaped The Hateful Eight to reflect the racial strife of recent years. He was determined to "tap into" the growing turmoil - with "bounty hunters representing the law", the symbolic splitting of the cabin into "northern" and "southern" sides, and a speech, delivered by Tim Roth's debonair hangman, about the pitfalls of "frontier justice".

"But then as we were making it, as the events of the last year and a half just kept happening, the movie became more relevant than we ever could have imagined," he says.

The incident that hit him hardest was the mass shooting at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in which three men and five women attending a prayer meeting, along with their senior pastor, were shot by a 21-year-old "white supremacist asshole", as Tarantino puts it, "who wraps himself up in the Rebel flag" of the Confederate states.

For the first time in his career, Tarantino says he found himself editing out a line from his script because news events had made it retroactively too on-the-nose.

 Tim Roth plays "The Little Man" in The Hateful Eight. Photo / AP
Tim Roth plays "The Little Man" in The Hateful Eight. Photo / AP

It came at the end of Walton Goggins' sheriff's tirade, near the start of the film, which now ends with the line: "When n****** are scared, that's when white folks are safe." (It's elegantly answered later by a line from Jackson's Colonel: "The only time black folks is safe is when white folks is disarmed.")

Originally, referencing his own killing of blacks during the Civil War, Goggins' character concluded: "You ask the white folks in South Carolina if they feel safe." But the line now carried an extra, unintended sting. So Tarantino took it out.

What followed the Mother Emanuel shooting surprised him. "I mean, I've always felt the Rebel flag was some American Swastika. All of a sudden, people are talking about it, and now they're banning it, and now it's not okay to have it on f****** licence plates, and coffee cups.

"And people are starting to question about stuff like statues of Bedford Forrest [the Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard] in parks.

"Well, it's about damn time, if you ask me."

- Daily Telegraph UK

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