Friday, January 1, 2016

The Hateful Eight

File:Tarantino caricature.jpgA vast, snowy landscape is the introduction to the eighth film directed by Quentin Tarantino, The Hateful Eight. Reuniting him with some old pals like Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, Walton Goggins and being joined by Demian Bachir, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Channing Tatum, this is his most violent film in a decade. It is also the first time (not including Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2) that Tarantino has done two films of the same genre back to back. That genre is one that has influenced his entire career: spaghetti westerns.

It is unfortunate that the western has fallen from grace around the world, for it was once, as Andre Bazin (the father of the "auteur theory") wrote, that the western is cinema par excellence. Why? Because cinema is movement, and the galloping horses and fights were "usual ingredients" in these films. How ironic it is that Tarantino is the one who might be the one to resurrect the genre, for his films are very talky with (for the most part) few fights. Here, the vast majority of The Hateful Eight takes place in a wooden mountain pass in the midst of a terrible blizzard. It's not a tale of morals, as many famous American westerns are, but instead a mystery featuring the most vile, violent humans imaginable. This is appropriate because the Wild West was a horrifyingly violent, despicable time in human history, not some romantic period in which we should strive to return to. Tarantino gets this. He's a director (or, if you must, auteur) who understands that details are important. He is helped enormously in this regard by utilizing a score by legendary composer Ennio Morricone, the 87-year-old musical genius returning to the genre after a 40-year absence. His score here is awesome, helping to immediately set the mood in which our roughly eight or so characters find themselves trapped together.

The first two we meet are Daisy Domergue and John Ruth. Daisy is played by Leigh, and it's one of her very best performances. She's a notorious gang member captured by the bounty hunter Ruth (Russell), a rugged monster with a gravely voice and a John Wayne-like way of speaking. Ruth may be a cruel animal (it's probably Russell's most diabolical role ever), but he's on par with Daisy in viciousness. Ruth is transporting Daisy to a town called Red Rock, where she will be hanged. The trouble is he is trying to outrace a terrible storm. Along the way, he is joined by another bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren (Jackson), who is also transporting persons (though these ones happen to be dead), and a man claiming to be the sheriff of Red Rock, Chris Mannix (Goggins) joins as well. While Ruth seems to like Warren, Mannix and Daisy are both explicit racists, and they make it known. Speaking of racists, at the mountain pass, the elderly Confederate general Sandy Smithers (Dern) is resting, as is a British hangman named Oswaldo Mobray (Roth), the quiet "cow puncher" Joe Gage (Madsen), and a Mexican employee of the mountain pass named Bob (Bachir). They're all cold characters in a cold western world.  

Say what you will about Tarantino, but few other writers can create dialogue like him, and perhaps even fewer directors have such nostalgic love for the traditional looks of classic Hollywood. He and his cinematographer Robert Richardson filmed this in 70 mm, which also is a bit ironic considering there are not a whole lot of landscape shots of rural Wyoming but instead a claustrophobic cabin (though this 70 mm is effective for the close-ups of the eyes, an important feature of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns. That being said, Tarantino also frequently uses violence that will disturb many viewers; it's not Greek-like and unseen like in Reservoir Dogs. With The Hateful Eight, the violence is quite explicit, and the movie itself is inferior to his previous western, Django Unchained, and his revisionist World War II drama Inglorious Basterds.

Act Two is when the movie suffers a bit as it falls into a pit of exposition for practically each character; in essence there is too much telling and not enough showing. This is, for better or worse, the talkiest Tarantino film ever. There is unnecessary repetition of a "comic" scene involving the opening and shutting of the door. After an hour, we finally have all of our characters assembled in this room, and one of the most interesting to watch is Dern's fiery Confederate general and his feud with Warren. Dern is a master of acting and a joy to watch. Madsen is gruff, and yet his scene where he is humiliated by Ruth is actually rather touching. Roth is hyperbolic, but there's a point to it, revealed in the third act. Tarantino, rarely (if ever) is political, but when Roth's character tells Warren that slavery "was a long time ago," Tarantino makes it clear that he embraces #blacklivesmatter (and that he has been vocal in his criticism of police brutality). Finally, Tarantino's movies are not for everyone. His films have malicious characters spewing loads of vile lexis (for lack of a better word) out of their mouths. Speaking of spewing, there is a particularly memorable scene involving such a literal act, and it demonstrates perhaps Eli Roth's influence over Tarantino's recent works.

Channing Tatum shows up and there's still 45 minutes left in the movie. Indeed, the film sometimes feels more like we're reading a mystery novel than watching a western. And despite a less interesting second act, the final section of the The Hateful Eight really helps save it. Perhaps one day Tarantino will be thought of as one of the individuals who helped resurrect the western to excellence.         


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