Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Bad, the Badder and the Talky: "Hateful Eight" delightfully appalling and expectedly indulgent

The Hateful Eight (2015)
187 min., rated R.

Quentin Tarantino (2012's "Django Unchained") has cornered the market on motion pictures that have become a thing of the past, whether it be blaxploitation or Spaghetti Westerns. With "The Hateful Eight"the director's eighth film—he resurrects the special "roadshow" engagement, three hours complete with an overture and a 15-minute intermission. Never one to temper his style of filmmaking in terms of shock value and Chatty Cathy dialogue, Tarantino takes his level of daring beyond a daunting, sprawling running time to the entire presentation in which one experiences a night out at the cinema, as well as transcending all expectations in which the narrative unfolds. A Western written and directed with Tarantino's auteurism is never going to be a traditionally panoramic Western. "The Hateful Eight," while not without its gunslinging character types and vista shots of the great outdoors, is more of a claustrophobic chamber piece. Shot in Ultra Panavision 70mm but mostly snowed-in, the film is a locked-room Agatha Christie whodunit-mystery delivered with verve and a gallows sense of humor. And, if one can expect anything from a Tarantino joint, it's that the dialogue will sing.

Divided into six chapters, the film sets up the frigid scene in post-Civil War Wyoming with a snowstorm approaching. Former union soldier Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) hitches a stagecoach ride to the town of Red Rock with bounty hunter John "The Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell) and handcuffed criminal Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). They also pick up Red Rock's cocky sheriff, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), but when the blizzard begins to brew, the group stops halfway at Minnie's Haberdashery, a lodge temporarily run by Bob "Marco the Mexican" (Demián Bichir) and already occupied by racist Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), genteel hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), and quiet, mysterious cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen). They want to stay cozy for the new few days, but someone is in cahoots and someone poisons the coffee. Whodunit?

A few too many of Quentin Tarantino's indulgent instincts keep "The Hateful Eight" from being one of his masterpieces. Then again, if the worst can be said that it's not quite a masterpiece, it's still damn good. Writing delicious, inimitable dialogue has always been the filmmaker's greatest strength, but tension is initially undermined by his unruly stretches before Major Warren, John Ruth, Daisy, Chris, and the stagecoach driver make it to Minnie's Haberdashery. Tarantino likes his characters loquacious and likes to hear them talk, although one wishes the pacing in the first half had a bit more giddy-up or that twenty minutes of conversation were tightened to twelve. After the intermission, the second half is even better. The brains-popping violence gets ratcheted up, the tone remains dangerous but grows more playful with a narration by Tarantino himself, and the situation becomes a genuine powder keg. 

With a title like "The Hateful Eight," the film doesn't ask the viewer to root for characters who are devious, despicable and capably violent outlaws. They're also vivid with color and nuances and the performances juicy as ever. Samuel L. Jackson is incendiary as Major Warren whose letter written to him by Abraham Lincoln causes a furor. As John Ruth, an excellent Kurt Russell pulls off every syllable of Tarantino's tricky dialogue as if he were John Wayne rocking some wild facial hair. It's a thrill to watch acting veteran Bruce Dern receiving direction from Tarantino, and Tim Roth, Walton Goggins, and (though not one of the eight) Channing Tatum are standouts in particular. In playing a prisoner who's as crass as the men, a frequently bloodied Jennifer Jason Leigh is a startling gem as Daisy Domergue. Her not-very-ladylike vulgarity and rampant use of the "N-word" balance out the many times she receives elbows and fists in the face.

Tarantino makes movies his signature way, and if audiences don't like that way, "The Hateful Eight" is not the film to start with. Once the film finds its footing, the mystery unfolds with a palpable disquiet and doom courtesy of Ennio Morricone's menacing orchestral score (coupled with anachronistic tracks) and Robert Richardson's cinematography that uses the expanded frame even when so much of the film takes place inside. The film is politically loaded and verbally erudite but also blackly comic. There is a particularly inspired running gag involving something so simple: anytime someone slams open the front door, coming out of the blustery cold and into Minnie's Haberdashery, they are forced to nail it shut with boards of wood and be yelled at by those already inside and keeping warm by the fire. A sojourn into the blackest, coldest, meanest of hearts, "The Hateful Eight" is a richly chatty, shockingly demented, and just plain unpredictable piece of work and as much of an event as any tentpole.

Grade: B +

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