70mm, auteur theory, Best of 2015, bounty hunters, Bruce Dern, Channing Tatum, cinema, Dana Gourrier, Demian Bichir, Ennio Morricone, Film auteurs, film reviews, films, Fred Raskin, Gene Jones, isolation, James Parks, Jennifer Jason Leigh, John Ford, Kurt Russell, Lee Horsely, Michael Madsen, Movies, mystery, paranoia, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Richardson, Samuel L. Jackson, suspense, The Hateful Eight, Tim Roth, Walton Goggins, Western, writer-director, Zoe Bell
Since the dawning of the ’90s, few filmmakers have so ably embodied the “love ’em or hate ’em” aesthetic as Quentin Tarantino has. If you’re in Camp QT, you consider him to be a bona fide auteur, a stubborn iconoclast whose complete love of everything under the sun has led to some of the most unforgettable, indelible films of the last 20-some years, films which have burrowed their way into the very fabric of pop culture in ways that few other films have. If you’re a fan, there are few things in life quite like getting the next Tarantino flick: his unique blend of ultra-violence, cutting dialogue and fractured narratives are the rare “art” films that play to all four walls of the multiplex, immersing viewers in an almost overpowering sense of watching films that are vitally, potently, alive. That’s one side of the coin.
If you’re not a fan, however, you’ll tend to lean a different way towards QT. On the flip side of the coin, Tarantino is a ridiculously self-indulgent enfant terrible who confuses style for substance (or, worse, doesn’t care) and is, at best, ruthlessly unaware of the problematic nature of some of his material. At worst, critics can call QT racist, misogynistic, homophobic (in Tarantino’s cinematic universe, male-on-male sexual assault is still the scariest thing that can happen to a guy), vain, a windbag, a thief or, worse yet, the luckiest hack in the biz. That’s the other side of the coin.
The thing is, Tarantino is both sides of the coin: the artist and the ego-maniac; the wish-fulfiller who appropriates cultural elements as needed, yet gives avenue for satisfying revenge, in return; the misogynist who creates fascinating, three-dimensional female characters only to put them through hell and back; the gore-hound who understands restraint. He’s a guy who loves movies, all kinds of movies: the good and the bad, the forward-thinking and the repulsively backwards, the trash and the art…this ability to bring absolutely everything to the table, for better or worse, is what makes Tarantino films actual events. In a world where everything is carefully crafted to reach the widest possible paying audience, QT feels like one of the few who’s willing to say “Fuck it” and just do what he feels like.
This exceptionally long-winded preamble is by means of bringing us to Tarantino’s newest film (his eighth, overall), the star-studded, ultra-violent, relentlessly grim and audaciously funny old-school Western, The Hateful Eight (2015). Coming on the heels of another film with a decidedly Western setting, Django Unchained (2012), Tarantino’s current offering couldn’t be further from his previous one. This is a huge, sweeping film (shot and screened in 70mm, for the first time in 40 years), that kind that looks to John Ford for inspiration even as it utilizes legendary Spaghetti Western composer Ennio Morricone for the exquisite score. It’s a film that trades in the hard-edged wish-fulfillment of Django and Inglorious Basterds (2009) for the kind of weary fatalism more associated with Cormac McCarthy. It’s a film that takes an awful lot of chances, many of which fall flat as a bad souffle. It’s also a minor masterpiece and proof positive that Tarantino remains one of our most interesting, surprising and uncompromising cinematic voices. Love it or hate it, there’s no way to ignore (or deny) The Hateful Eight.
Encompassing six chapters and some three-hours of run-time, The Hateful Eight takes its time in the early stretches, yet pays off patient viewers by the final third. Beginning with a stage-coach racing across the pristine, snow-covered desolation of Wyoming, ahead of a crippling blizzard, the film wastes no time in blowing minds with Robert Richardson’s jaw-dropping, wide-screen cinematography. From the very first shot, this is a film that announces its epic intentions and then (for the most part) fulfills them: you have to admire that sort of conviction.
The stagecoach contains two of the titular Eight, along with the driver, OB (James Parks), who’s probably the least hateful person in the entire film. The passengers, however, are a different story: John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell, channeling latter-day John Wayne) is transporting vicious murderer/casually-virulent racist Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh, absolutely feral and quite wonderful) to the town of Red Rocks so she can hang. Ruth is a bounty hunter and pretty much the antithesis of every Russell role ever: he’s mean, has a hair trigger, revels in watching his wards hang and genuinely enjoys smacking the shit out of Daisy, which he does as frequently as possible. Daisy, for her part, is pretty much just an awful human being, spitting, cussing and hocking loogies (and nasty insults) at anyone within easy reach.
Along the way, the merry company picks up another couple members of that illustrious Eight: Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson, in the apex of his history with Tarantino) and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins, simply phenomenal). Warren (a former slave-turned-Union soldier-turned bounty hunter) and Mannix (a former Confederate raider/outlaw supposedly turned sheriff of Red Rocks) are seeking shelter from the impending storm and the stagecoach presents a much better option than freezing to death.
Arriving at renowned half-way spot Minnie’s Haberdashery, the five uneasy companions find the place all but vacant, save for an additional four individuals: foppish, smarmy, Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth, having a blast); surly, silent cow-poke, Joe Gage (Michael Madsen, with a ridiculous hairpiece); aging, nasty former-Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern, impish as ever); and “Mexican” Bob (Demian Bichir, completely surprising and consistently wonderful), the guys who’s in charge of the way-station.
Snowed in, the eight strangers (plus poor OB), must strike up an increasingly unsteady live-and-let-live arrangement, as they wait for the blizzard to pass and the road to Red Rocks to reopen. As several characters make a point of saying, however, transporting a live, desperate criminal is a lot more dangerous than transporting a dead one. Will Ruth’s insistence on seeing Daisy swing prove his downfall? Are these various varmints and rascals really strangers or is there more going on here than meets the eye? As suspicions grow and lies begin to surface with disturbing regularity, one thing becomes quite clear: there will be blood…lots of it.
Posited as a bracing combination of John Ford and Agatha Christie, The Hateful Eight definitely stands as Tarantino’s most straight-forward (barring a few customary flourishes) narrative, a film that’s more mystery than fractured narrative, ala Pulp Fiction (1994). It’s also his most accomplished, fully realized film, a work that displaces the aforementioned Pulp Fiction as the pinnacle of his career (at least to this humble reviewer). It’s by no means a perfect film, as I’ve mentioned earlier. In fact, let’s address those issues right now.
Many of Tarantino’s stylistic quirks fall flat: the narrator is completely ill-advised (for many reasons) and manages to change the tone instantly, while some of the effects (the slo-mo on Jackson during one scene, for example) just don’t work: they pull us out of the story completely rather than accentuating what’s going on.
The constant racial slurs and casual misogyny become all but unbearable, over time. Unlike the “necessary evils” of Django Unchained or Death Proof (2007), the virulence in The Hateful Eight seems to exist only as shorthand for how awful these people are. These are “hateful” individuals, ergo it’s only understandable that they’re all racist (pretty much to a person). Likewise, Daisy is a really shithead, so no harm/no foul when Ruth constantly clocks in her in the face. One can make the case that Tarantino is just presenting these aspects and letting the audiences decide but why did Daisy’s truly awful racial slurs and subsequent beatings always produce the biggest crowd reactions? Hateful people deserve to get beat down, obviously…but you have to show how hateful they are first, right?
The film is slightly too long. Not drastically too long, mind you (even at three hours) but slightly too long: there are pacing issues, late in the film, that make it seem longer than it is and the finale features more false endings than a Terminator film. This wouldn’t really be a problem except that it’s obvious Tarantino would rather sacrifice flow and pacing instead of trimming any of his goodies.
And now, to reference the dear, departed Roger Ebert: let me find my other list. The Hateful Eight is a beautiful, exquisitely made film, maybe one of the loveliest of the last few decades. There’s an art and poetry to Richardson’s imagery that is, to beat a dead horse, simply stunning. When viewed in the theater, in glorious 70mm, The Hateful Eight feels more cinematic and epic than anything I’ve seen in my three-decades of going to theaters. Toss in the “Overture” and the “Intermission” and it’s clear this isn’t just something to have on in the background: this is an honest to god event.
Ennio Morricone’s score is simply amazing, possibly his single best work since The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. When that impossibly epic theme kicked in, blasting out of the surround speakers, I actually teared up. This is what films should feel like: they should rattle every one of your senses, smack around in your skull like a pinball and rocket out of your over-loaded brain cavity like a gilded rainbow.
The performances, to a tee, are sheer perfection. Even though several of the characters are nothing more than broad stereotypes (Bichir’s take on Bob is so ridiculously, sublimely cliched that he was able to bring the packed crowd to a road by nothing more than his intense pronunciation of Spanish swearwords, while Roth’s Oswaldo is one feathered-cap away from a Musketeer), every single actor commits to their roles with a dedication that borders on the psychotic.
To be frank, The Hateful Eight has one of the most fascinating groups of characters since…well…since Pulp Fiction. From Kurt Russell’s “John Wayne as a wife-beater” impersonation to Jackson’s stellar, multi-facted turn as Major Warren (Jackson finally gets to lead a Tarantino flick AND play Sherlock Holmes…a two for one!) to Leigh’s spiteful Daisy, these are characters that either Ford or Peckinpah would have killed for.
Chief among greats, however? Walton Goggins knockout portrayal of the former rebel/current (maybe?) sheriff is a study in contradictions that actually works, leading to one of the great “odd couple” match-ups of recent years. Goggins has been proving himself, more and more, over the years but The Hateful Eight should stand as proof that he need prove himself no more: Goggins has fully arrived and it’s glorious to behold.
Biggest surprise here? The Hateful Eight is genuinely, subversively funny, maybe Tarantino’s most inherently humorous film since Basterds. Going in, I expected this to be a fairly grim, relatively po-faced film: nothing could be further from the truth. Whether indulging in some of that patented “talk about nothing” that Tarantino revels in or setting up sight-gags that pay off outrageous returns (never before has one filmmaker wrung so much merriment out of people being shot in the face), this is primo, tongue-in-cheek Tarantino all the way.
Ultimately, how does QT’s newest stack up with what came before? Obviously, individual results may vary but I honestly think this is his best film yet. While there’s plenty of room for continued discussion here (folks can and should continue to examine Tarantino’s insistence on racist characters, particularly in light of this film), there should be no debate as to the actual merits of the film: this is a modern classic, from start to finish. All one has to do is take a look at the film’s disparate elements (that iconic score, the groundbreaking cinematography, all-in performances, intricately-plotted storyline) that so that: whether judged on its parts or as a whole, The Hateful Eight is as rock-solid as the icy ground its characters trod.
Love him or hate him, one thing is abundantly clear: The Hateful Eight is not a film that you’ll forget anytime soon. Is it the best film of 2015? I think it might be. As mentioned before, however: individual results may vary.