Review: The Hateful Eight

Tim-Roth-Kurt-Russel-og-Jennifer-Jason-Leigh-i-The-Hateful-Eight

It may be one of the most cozy of holiday tunes, but it could also very well be a morbid setup for the latest Quentin Tarantino genre bending venture. In The Hateful Eight, the weather outside is certainly frightful, and yet the fire is the furthest thing from delightful. With eight strangers who definitely have places to go, the last thing they want is to, well, let it snow. It seems that with each new film, there is no possible way for Tarantino to further distill himself into his purest form, but The Hateful Eight is his deepest exploration of both genre and his own style. Indeed, Tarantino’s eighth film carries all of the hallmarks of brilliance and occasional frustration that characterizes his approach.

The Hateful Eight commences with one of Tarantino’s most cinematic openings. While the verbose nature of his style will come in full force, he first chooses to open on the snowy landscapes of post-Civil War Wyoming. Before long, we meet the first three of the film’s fearsome octuplets. Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) is an infamous bounty hunter ready to collect on an $8,000 reward for three heads, but he’s stranded in the wilderness. He happens to cross paths with onetime acquaintance and equally fearsome bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell), who is bringing in a live bounty, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock for a $10,000 reward via stagecoach. After an exchange of both pleasantries and unpleasantries, Warren boards the stagecoach as the trio make their way to Minnie’s Haberdashery, a lodge in the Wyoming mountains to take refuge from an oncoming blizzard. En route, they happen across another man by the name of Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who is ostensibly set to become the new sheriff of Red Rock. They begrudgingly bring him along and finally arrive the lodge right as the blizzard swoops in. There they meet four other strangers, a Mexican named Bob (Demian Bichir), the colorfully named British man Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), the subdued Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), and an old Confederate general, Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern). Over the course of this night, allegiances will be formed and destroyed, as it becomes clear that one or more of these men may have nefarious intentions in liberating John Ruth’s captive.

Quentin Tarantino has displayed an abundance of talents over the course of his filmmaking career, but above all, he is most refined and abundant trait is dialogue. When he is at his peak, the length of a scene need not matter, but in other stretches, tedium can set in. The first half of The Hateful Eight carries a great deal of setup, and the slow burn approach is something of a mixed bag. It’s understandable that relationships between characters should be established, and certain passages carry wit and intelligence to match backstory. Other times, however, a bit more brevity could have expedited the narrative without diminishing the intent. One must simply accept that Tarantino’s verbose indulgences are part and parcel with his cinematic worldview. Granted, once the second half of the film kicks into gear with shockingly bloody and gruesome violence, then Tarantino’s filmmaking instincts take over, often in terrific fashion.

Of course, any film’s dialogue can only be as good as the actors delivering it, and The Hateful Eight is populated with a host of Tarantino veterans. Kurt Russell, fashioning the finest handlebar mustache in human history, adopts a faux John Wayne accent, playing against that iconic actor’s archetype. Tim Roth chews upon the Tarantino dialogue most readily, but it fits his persnickety character’s attitude. Walton Goggins’ character might be the least well defined, but the actor still ably fits within the fabric of the ensemble. Michael Madsen once again wears the mold of the quiet but dangerous outsider, and Bruce Dern harbors a prejudiced core masked by solemnity. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Demian Bichir are the newcomers to the Tarantino stage, and both make the most of their roles, especially as Jason Leigh’s role carries greater import in the second half. Best of all is longtime Tarantino collaborator Samuel L. Jackson, who gives one of his most memorable performances here. More than any other actor in all of Tarantino’s films, Jackson always manages to find a distinctly human center at the core of his characters, no matter how outlandish they might be. As one central monologue will undoubtedly attest, Major Marquis Warren is no angel, but Jackson resists milking Tarantino’s words, fully realizing Warren as a human, not merely a character.

More than any other Tarantino film to date, The Hateful Eight is an aesthetic throwback that mixes in his contemporary sensibilities. Westerns are no longer the dominant American genre that they once were in the 1950’s and 1960’s, but they continue to have relevance in the cinematic culture. The Hateful Eight is the first film in decades to utilize the highly panoramic Ultra Panavision lenses with 70mm film. The irony, however, is that well over half of the film takes place indoors, and so while director of photography Robert Richardson captures some stunningly desolate vistas, they don’t dominate the picture. Fortunately, the interior photography doesn’t diminish the film by any stretch either, as Tarantino finds a few interesting avenues in blocking his scenes. Paradoxically, The Hateful Eight has both some of Tarantino’s strongest cinematic moments despite the fact much of its design is theatrical. If there is one outstanding element to the film beyond the actors, it is without question composer Ennio Morricone. Providing his first western score in decades is no small feat for Morricone, and his foreboding yet playful pieces fit beautifully within the Tarantino juxtaposition of comedy and intense violence.

If the narrative of revenge and bloodshed is all too familiar in his canon, then there is a newer texture Tarantino explores in The Hateful Eight. It’s easy to imagine that the end of the Civil War brought about peace in the United States, but in truth, it spawned some if this nation’s very worst prejudices and racism. This thematic idea of post Civil War tensions isn’t quite a through line in The Hateful Eight, but when it crops up at key moments, it feels resonant. If nothing else, Tarantino sparks meaningful conversation without ever turning didactic. He certainly may take his own protracted, digressive time in arriving at his points, but when he does, he clarifies himself as one of the few instantly definable modern filmmakers.

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~ by romancinema on December 27, 2015.

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