Hateful Eight, The

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/26/15 13:04:34

"Beat Me Tarantino, Eight To The Bar"
5 stars (Awesome)

If "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is this season's consensus film--the one title that virtually everyone, save for those who have never warmed to the saga in the first place, can embrace and celebrate as one, then Quentin Tarantino's long-awaited Western epic "The Hateful Eight" is the one that is bound and determined to polarize them with its heady blend of dark humor, highly stylized dialogue and performances, gallons of gore, a freewheeling attitude towards genre tropes that allows the narrative to move in weirdly unexpected areas and enough uses of the "N"-word to make even his previous film, "Django Unchained," seem meek and retiring in that regard. Indeed, the early reviews and comments that I have heard from those who have seen have been pretty much split down the middle between those who love it and those who are utterly appalled by the film and its excesses--as has been the case with Tarantino's entire career, no one will be coming out of it with a mere mixed opinion. I suppose I can understand where the film's detractors are coming from but I cannot agree with them because to these eyes, "The Hateful Eight" is a knockout--a beautifully constructed and always ingenious work that both celebrates and subverts its time-honored genre while telling a story that takes place about 150 years ago but nevertheless contains enough parallels to what is going on today to make it seem as fresh, viable and connected to the contemporary world as anything that has appeared on a movie screen this year.

Set in the period after the Civil War, a time in which a once-divided country was still struggling to come back together again and where the old fissures are ready to rip open again in a heartbeat, "The Hateful Eight" opens on a snowy Wyoming pass as a stagecoach racing to beat an oncoming blizzard is stopped by a man standing in the middle of the road with three dead bodies. The man in the road is Maj. Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a one-time Union soldier turned bounty hunter who himself still carries a price on his head from Confederate sympathizers due to his particularly vicious actions towards them during the war. In the stagecoach is John "The Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell), a legendary bounty hunter who is bound and determined to get his latest capture--female outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh)--to the town of Red Rock to collect the inexplicably high $10,000 bounty on her head and to watch her hang. (When it comes to bringing them in dead or alive, Ruth is famous for choosing the latter--hence the nickname.) Ruth is initially suspicious, of course, but since he knows Warren--they once shared a steak dinner in Chattanooga--and since Warren is carrying a fortune in bounties himself, he agrees to give him a lift. As they continue on, they run across another traveller stumbling through the snow in Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), the son of an infamously vicious Confederate officer who claims to be the newly-elected sheriff of Red Rock--i.e. the guy that both Ruth and Warren need to see if they want to get paid for their prizes--and he ends up joining them as well.
Because of the blizzard, the plan is for the stagecoach to stop at a remote watering hole known as Minnie's Haberdashery and ride out the storm for a couple of days before heading on to Red Rock. When they arrive, however, neither Minnie (Dana Gourrier) nor fellow fixture Sweet Dave (Gene Jones) are anywhere to be seen. Instead, they are greeted by Bob (Demian Bichir), a gruff Mexican who tells them that Minnie and Sweet Dave are visiting family on the other side of the mountain and put him in charge. Inside, there are three more people waiting out the storm--flamboyant Brit Oswaldo Mowbray (Tim Roth), a hangman who is heading toward Red Rock to ply his trade, Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), who sits in the back and doesn't say much of anything and General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a former Confederate officer who has come to arrange a final resting place for his missing and presumed dead son and for whom the Civil War is still a fresh wound, especially when confronted with the sight of Warren. Needless to say, tensions are already running high between these eight people who are now stuck with each other for the next few days and are ratcheted up even further when the eternally suspicious Ruth confides to Warren his suspicions that one of the others is in cahoots with Domergue and plans to attempt to set her free the moment that he lets his guard down. Ruth's only real play is to just remain calm and patient and let the ringer show his hand first.

Between the expectations brought on by Tarantino's previous take on the Western genre, "Django Unchained" and the hype surrounding his decision to shoot in the all-but-defunct Ultra Panavision 70mm, a process that provides wider-than-widescreen vistas and stunning picture clarity that was utilized on such epics as "Ben-Hur" and "Lawrence of Arabia" before falling into obscurity, audiences may go into "The Hateful Eight" expecting enough stunning vistas and action to fill its epic-sized canvas, only to discover that the director has something else up his sleeve. Instead of presenting viewers with a full-throttle oater in the classic mold, he instead follows in John Ruth's footsteps by taking a slow-burn approach that first encloses his characters, all of whom have reason to be suspicious of each other, in a couple of enclosed areas (the stagecoach and Minnie's) and slowly ratchets up the tensions until they finally explode into violence and leaving the characters to try to piece together what is going on among them even as they are all bleeding out. In other words, he is more or less riffing on the concept of his first film, the cult favorite "Reservoir Dogs," than anything else--perhaps he was curious to see what he could do with that kind of setup today using the considerable directorial skills that he has amassed over the past two decades.

This setup may sound a bit familiar in theory but in terms of execution, the results are as dazzling as even his most dedicated fans could have possibly hoped. The storyline is endlessly clever and resourceful, especially in the way that it quietly shifts genre gears from being a Western to a kind of locked-room mystery--sort of the literary love child of Larry McMurtry and Agatha Christie--and in how it manages to reconcile the massive scale of its production with the relatively low-key nature of the story at hand. (For the first time since "Dogs," Tarantino has produced a screenplay that could pretty much work as a stage play with very few alterations to the text.) While action junkies may be put off by the fact that the film has gone through nearly half of its three hour running time before a single bullet is fired, the more patient viewers will realize that much of the fun of the film comes from the ways that it indulges in the pleasures of delayed gratification. Look, if he just wanted to bang through this particular narrative, he could have easily done a 90-minute version that cut away all but the absolute essentials and it could well have made for an entertaining movie along the lines of "3:10 to Yuma" and its ilk. However, it is in taking the long way around that the film really begins to work its magic because the extended running time gives us the chance to better known and understand the characters and add to the sense of mystery about whether they really are who they claim to be while subtly setting up connections between them that will pay off beautifully later on when their circumstances change considerably. This approach works so well, in fact, that when I went back to see the film a second time only a few days after my first viewing, I was surprised to find myself just as caught up in the story even though I obviously knew all of the twists and turns that were to come.

This is all fun and games on some basic level but while "The Hateful Eight" offers up all the usual pleasure one expects from a Tarantino joint--insane levels of gore (put it this way--be very careful about what food items you might get at the concession stand during the intermission), numerous in-jokes and references to other films (with the entire film in many ways playing like a riff on John Carpenter's remake of "The Thing" in ways ranging from sharing both star Russell and composer Ennio Morricone to the way that they both deal with people isolated from society by snow trying to learn who among them is not quite who they claim to be) but in certain aspects, he seems to be going for something a little deeper here. In interviews in the past, Tarantino has made claims to political subtexts in his earlier films and while that talk has often seemed a bit absurd in the past, it does make sense here. By setting the story in the wake of the Civil War and focusing much of it on the still-simmering racial tensions between a country that was supposed to have finally gotten beyond all of that, he offers up an uncanny mirror to our increasingly fractious times in which racial tensions seem to be on the rise everywhere and shows how people will try to manipulate those tensions for their own gains.

The film also seems to be commenting on our current political system and how it is more important now for a candidate hoping to sway people by presenting a narrative that cleverly exploits their hopes, fears and prejudices than anything else. For the most part, the characters can been split into those who tell stories and those to whom those stories are being told and the tension that develops as the stories are being spun is twofold--is the teller telling the truth and is the person who is being told buying the narrative that they are spinning. In perhaps the most audacious scene in the entire film--certainly the one that will raise the most hackles--Warren takes center stage to recount a long story that builds to such outrageous heights that it makes even the gold watch monologue from "Pulp Fiction" seem restrained by comparison. Is the story ridiculous and needlessly inflammatory, as some critics have said. Certainly, but what they are overlooking is that it is supposed to be ridiculous and needlessly inflammatory--he is telling the story (which is never corroborated in any way) because he is deliberately baiting another character into doing something against his self-interest, even after having just admitted to another character that another one of his stories was nothing more than a lot of slick-sounding horseshit. In fact, all the characters are weaving fictions of some sort throughout the film with the sole exception of John Ruth, a guy who may be crude and brutal but who is also the closest thing it has to a straight shooter--in fact, the single most poignant moment (okay, perhaps the only moment that could be described as "poignant") is the one where he, a guy who almost instantly dismisses everything people say to him as a lie as a reflex, discovers that he has fallen for someone's ruse and is genuinely hurt that someone would pull that on him.

As John Ruth, Kurt Russell reminds us again that he is one of those actors who is seemingly incapable of giving a bad performance. He certainly gives this part everything he has and the result is a funny and fearsome turn that casts such an indelible impression that even when he isn't on the screen, his presence can still be felt throughout. As his uneasy comrade in arms, Samuel L. Jackson tears into his part with undeniable relish that is as wide and all-encompassing as the screen it is being projected on. In their supporting turns, Goggins, Bachir, Roth, Dern and Madsen make for an inspired repertory troupe and each one makes the most of their spotlight turns. However, the standout performance in "The Hateful Eight" is Jennifer Jason Leigh's hair-raising turn as the deadly Daisy Domergue. At first glance, she doesn't seem especially threatening and when we see Ruth smack her around a few times when she gets out of line, our sympathies naturally begin to go her way despite what we have been warned. As it eventually becomes clear, there is a lot more to her than initially meets the eye and she proves to be the kind of dangerous wild card who can be sitting in chains at the wrong end of a rifle and still make you fear for the person holding the gun. This is one of the meatiest roles that Leigh, a great actress who seemed to have sort of fallen off the radar in recent years, has had in long time and my guess is that when the list of great performances in the Tarantino oeuvre is made, her turn will land pretty close to the top. (Leigh's performance is all the more extraordinary when you compare it to her other extraordinary supporting turn of late in Charlie Kaufman's upcoming stop-motion animation marvel "Anomalisa," in which she plays a character who could not be further removed from Daisy Domergue if she tried.)

"The Hateful Eight" is one of the best films of the year but like I said earlier, I can see some viewers having quite a different reaction due to the length (though this is the fastest three hours you will spend in a movie theater this season), the emphasis on yakking over action for the most part (though with dialogue as punchy as this, who wouldn't want as much of it as they could handle?), the grisly nature of the violence when it does kick in (though it is all staged beautifully and comes across as both gruesome and hilarious) and the various forms of brutality that befall the lone significant female character (though to be fair, what happens to her is not significantly worse than the violence that befalls the men of the story). That said, this is a film that is alive and kicking in every one of its oversized 70mm frames from start to finish and serves as yet another reminder--not that one was exactly needed at this point--that Quentin Tarantino is one of the most exciting and vibrant talents working in film today.

NOTE: As you may know, "The Hateful Eight" is currently playing in a limited engagement in about 100 theaters in a presentation designed to mimic the roadshow releases that were a thing about 60 years ago. This presentation will include a program, an overture and intermission and, most significantly, 70mm projection that has seen theaters install new projectors and/or screens in order to fully show off the Ultra Panavision 70 widescreen process, a format that hasn't been utilized since "Khartoum" back in 1965. I have seen the film twice now, once on a DCP in a multiplex and once in 70mm on the big screen (now bigger, thanks to a Christmas Eve install of a new 40-ft screen) and I promise you, if you have any interest in seeing this movie at all--or, baring that, some curiosity about what film exhibition used to be like back in the days before multiplexes and the like--and one of these presentations is even remotely near to where you are at, you owe it to yourself to see it in all of its splendor. In a mall theater on DCP, it is still a great movie but on the big screen in 70mm, it becomes a great experience as well.

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