On ‘Free Fire’ and ‘The Hateful Eight.’

The murder mystery is a well-worn genre, as comforting as slipping into a warm bath with a toaster that’s conveniently placed for a staging. There’s Clue, Murder on the Orient Express, Gosford Park — the list goes on. Notably, the first two of those examples have remakes upcoming, and the last is maybe the ultimate homage to the genre; despite the fact that each has cemented enough of a place in the pop cultural eye for all of us to know who committed the murder where and with what, a fascination with the whodunit persists. And why wouldn’t it? Caging a group of people in one place is the easiest way to ramp up tension; throwing in a murder to solve is the cherry on top of the cake. There is, however, an easy way to further up the ante.

Quentin Tarantino and Ben Wheatley’s most recent works are perfect examples of this reversal of genre. The Hateful Eight and Free Fire both cram their casts into a single space — a cabin and a warehouse, respectively — but their hope of getting out isn’t solving a murder: it’s committing it until there’s just one person left standing. Some of the same mysteries persist — why are they all there, who’s lying, who’s not — but they take on a different color in the fabric of the story when it’s clear that nobody’s safe, not even perceived protagonists (The Hateful Eight kills off its supposed main character halfway through in a move that restructures the entire rest of the narrative). In other words, the fun doesn’t stop when you figure out who’s lying about their motives; it ends when heads roll.

Both filmmakers have also made earlier forays into this territory — Tarantino with Reservoir Dogs and Wheatley with High-Rise — but the movies correlate to each other in reverse. Though The Hateful Eight is more similar in scale to Free Fire as both dramas essentially play out in a single room, and Reservoir Dogs and High-Rise take some more liberties with space, The Hateful Eight is thematically closer to High-Rise, and Reservoir Dogs with Free Fire. The former pair deals with bigger ideas, while the latter focuses more on the characters involved.

The Hateful Eight, a revisionist Western, goes deep into the anomaly that is American history, i.e. the idealism and hopefulness that form the backbone of American ideology despite a long history of slaughter and exploitation. Its characters are largely irredeemable, and the America that they’re all yearning for is a lie, explicitly manifested in this case by a forged letter from Abraham Lincoln, ever the beacon of American goodness. The specifics of why they’re all there — for a bounty, for a grudge — are less important than what they represent as they re-fight a war that supposedly ended years ago. It’s a film that addresses the lie in the promise of equality regardless of race; High-Rise addresses the lie in relation to wealth and social stature.

High-Rise is a slight anomaly here, as it’s based on a novel by J.G. Ballard as opposed to an entirely original property, not to mention less easily readable as an example of the genre, but the skeleton still exists. It focuses on a group of people all essentially trapped inside a single building, and its central conflict arises from how they relate to each other, and what’s being kept from the tenants. Its visual depiction of haves and have-nots is still striking, as social strata are literally indicated by which floor of a high-rise tenants can afford to live on.

Reservoir Dogs and Free Fire play a little faster and looser with their themes. Reservoir Dogs follows a robbery gone wrong, and Free Fire follows a similarly FUBAR-ed arms deal. They’re not fights of ideals as much as they are clashes of personalities, and the losses and betrayals are quite literally personal rather than allowing for the abstract. Reservoir Dogs is maybe the better example here — think of the end of the film, when Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) discovers that the protégé he’s been defending (Tim Roth) is, in fact, an undercover cop. The tight focus on his face as he processes and then acts upon that betrayal is of an inherently intimate timbre. The biggest beats in High-Rise don’t pack quite the same punch.

The other big difference between the traditional whodunit and the modern reverse is in how each ends. While whodunits can usually be wrapped up with a neat bow as the murderer is apprehended and brought to justice, these little slaughterhouse dramas don’t provide much by way of catharsis. Nobody makes it out of Reservoir Dogs or The Hateful Eight alive, let alone after having achieved some kind of justice, and the ending of High-Rise, while following the death of the complex’s biggest brute and a small revolt against the social structure of the apartment, only suggests further trouble to come.

There’s also the fact that the characters featured aren’t entirely easy to root for. High-Rise’s ostensible protagonist is a little too detached, and his fellows are killers and hedonists. The Hateful Eight is filled with racists, misogynists, and bigots. That said, Reservoir Dogs’ band of robbers is a little more sympathetic, and the cast of Free Fire is colorful enough to earn some goodwill that might not necessarily be warranted by their behavior.

Even if we don’t know who’ll end up in cuffs, we’re all familiar with the structure of the whodunit. Turning it inside out reveals how much space there is for exploration in the genre, whether it’s in the form of social commentary or in telling a more focused story. Tarantino and Wheatley have proved themselves deft hands at setting up these time bombs, and it can only be supposed that the genre will become more explosive as it grows — though that’s not to discount the more cut-and-dry mysteries that are on the release slate. As proved by the BBC’s recent remake of And Then There Were None, there are still plenty of surprises left in the genre. Who knows, maybe this time it won’t be Professor Plum in the hall with the candlestick.