Movie Review: The Hateful Eight (2015)

hateful8Filmmaker and cinephile Quentin Tarantino’s celluloid occupied brain seems to resist being encumbered by meticulously absorbed cinema history, always being able to refocus his influences beyond simplistic homage and into a refreshing expressive purpose. His unique brand of creativity—admired both by actual film lovers and wannabe movie fans who think liking Tarantino equals cinematic sophistication—is a mixture of regurgitated inspirations and is consistently accompanied with his own theatrical penchant for excess: florid dialogue-driven sequences, ponderous interruptions, extreme bouts of shockingly graphic violence, and a flamboyant use of politically-incorrect declarations. For seven films he has mostly succeeded in modernizing his foundational influences, including the 70s Blaxploitation films behind the creation of Jackie Brown (1997), the vengeance samurai thrillers like Lady Snowblood (1973) that defined his erratic and epic Kill Bill series, and especially the use of revisionist westerns that have guided his last two features, Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Django Unchained (2012). Continuing his fetishistic obsession with the western, the renowned cinematic impresario has created The Hateful Eight, which is introduced to us through typical self-indulgent proclamation in the opening credits as “the 8th film by Quentin Tarantino.” By opening with a silhouetted stagecoach and lengthy musical overture (by the subliminal Ennio Morricone), Tarantino is attempting to recall a time when films were the equivalent of cinematic events, and his complimentary roadshow to exalt his use of 70mm captured with the long-deserted Ultra Panavision 70 lenses gives a large hint to that very intention. But The Hateful Eight might be the first time his intended spectacle has worked against him, mostly because it’s a visual gimmick unsupported by its claustrophobic stagecoach and cabin interiors and it’s all centered around a sparse narrative that doesn’t justify its over three-hour running time. The film certainly spells out Tarantino oeuvre in the details—a self-contained environment of cinematic pastiche, colorfully vibrant characters who confidently chew on the writer’s often sharp and utterly profane dialogue, and a signature use of over-the-top cartoonish violence—but it’s a film that aspires to be more than it actually can be, which suggests that the godly praised film auteur might possess some semblance of creative mortality.

As usual, Tarantino’s western homage digs deep into previous pioneers of the genre in notable cinematic fashion. It all begins with a stagecoach ride reminiscent of John Ford’s seminal work Stagecoach (1939), it’s set in the callous and cold bounty hunter world of Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence (1968), it culminates within a claustrophobic cabin of psychological intrigue much like Delmer Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma (1957), and it’s all done with the Spaghetti western visual splendor of Sergio Leone. And yet, even though its influences are mostly cinematic, The Hateful Eight unfolds more like a theatrical stage play than it does a film. Its intimate encounters with secretive gaudy characters seem more fitting to the mystery world of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (based on the children’s rhyme Ten Little Indians) or even the existentialist unfolding of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. It’s all uniquely done according to Tarantino’s creative perversity, producing an exceptionally slow-burner mystery western that meanders in its deliberate pacing and eloquent dialogue repartees, but finds energetic vivacity within its distinctly written characters. It’s less of a “whodunit” like his first feature Reservoir Dogs (1992)—though its limited cast and intimate setting recall it in appropriate throwback fashion—and more of a who’s going to do something, building tension that almost sustains an overly expository first-half that exhaustingly parodies the caricature myth-making of the western genre. It’s a lot of suspended exposition in order to create a lingering sense of suspense for that inevitable propulsion into expected Tarantino chaos, which doesn’t even begin to unfold until well after the midway intermission. And unfortunately, The Hateful Eight struggles to entertain in those exhausting lulls, featuring some of Tarantino’s weakest dialogue exchanges in sometime, probably because the film is his most verbose since his Grindhouse half Death Proof (2007) and is dependent on it immensely (though weak for him could be considered brilliantly eloquent to most aspiring screenwriters). The film’s inevitable violent confrontations do provide that deliciously depraved entertainment we adore from Tarantino, but it’s the exceptionally long, self-indulgent journey to get there that makes you question whether it’s worthwhile.

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Fortunately, the ensemble of actors that Tarantino has accumulated for his crew of unlikable western scum makes most of the moments delectable to experience. Trapped in the snowed-in intimate confines of Minnie’s Haberdashery, the distinct cast of characters struggle to find a solid sense of decorum as they all represent the fractured animosities that defined post-Civil War America. This is all highlighted through Tarantino’s ability to utilize protracted dialogue to expose unreserved prejudices, personal resentments, and unsavory connections to approach what could be considered minor political commentary. But the film’s focus is on its mystery and its characters—all of whom are named after obscure directors, B-movie starlets, and supporting cast members from John Ford’s westerns—who all are part of the ten unsuspecting victims of this allegorical interpretation of the Ten Little Indians poem. Only eight of them are prominent in the unfolding mystery without giving anything away: the loquacious and imposing Maj. Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a bounty hunter who acts as the film’s Miss Marple sleuth to uncover the mystery; the affable and principled John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), another bounty hunter who is transporting a prisoner for execution; Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the aforementioned prisoner in transport who mocks her captor through a bloody Cheshire cat grin; ex-Confederate and unreconstructed Johnny Reb Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a soon-to-be-sheriff who thinks himself a master manipulator, but really only possesses utter stupidity; Bob “The Mexican” (Demian Bichir), a monosyllabic, piano-playing housekeeper charged with the upkeep of the Haberdashery; Englishman Oswaldo Molbray (Tim Roth), the actual hangman executioner on his way to a job; the menacingly quiet Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a stranger who stays idle in the corner; and irritable Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a lost soul of purpose now that the war has ended. Each of these fine actors—particularly Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, and Jennifer Jason Leigh—luckily ignite the drawn-out epicurean yet minimalist film of dynamite keg coincidence, mystery, and violence with savagery and humor, filling in the flimsy narrative wholes the script tries to slowly percolate over the course of three-hours.

But even if the narrative feels sparse, the point of its spectacle seems mute, or if it might be a stretch to the auteur’s cinematic sensibilities despite his confidence, The Hateful Eight still remains classic Tarantino phantasmagoria, filled with cinematic references, a stylish visual palette, and enough energy to last an exhausting period of time. In creating his hot-house drama juxtaposed with the cold and indifferent environment, Tarantino has collaborated again with cinematographer Robert Richardson to shoot in the advertised glorious 70mm Ultra Panavision, which is the new form of cinematic self-indulgence that Tarantino has adopted for this film. It almost seems unnecessary to utilize this dead format—which was only used in a select amount of films, such as William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959), Lewis Milestone’s Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), and Anthony Mann’s Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)—but the selective frigid exteriors of mountainous landscapes and snow-covered forests certainly pop with a visual density. Whenever they’re inside, whether it’s the interior of the stagecoach or the cabin itself for majority of the film, the gimmick loses its grandiose presence, but Richardson’s fluid camera performs some rather unnatural racking of focus, captures unflattering facial close-ups, and maneuvers through every known crevice of the cabin’s limited amount of space. This all certainly helps in the first-half development (which already has a running-time longer than Reservoir Dogs), but as the film settles into its slowly churning stride—always on the verge of exploding, violent confrontation—the camera’s visual focus expands and contracts the interior’s claustrophobic setting based solely on instinctual feeling. It’s an impressive technical feat that appropriately mesmerizes the audience into visual attention, aided by a haunting score of distant chimes and orchestral minimalism from the legendary Ennio Morricone. Despite its narrative simplicity, undercooked throwaways, and purposefully languid running-time that often times weighs the film down from truly soaring into cinematic greatness, The Hateful Eight at least makes for a visually and sonically hypnotic experience that finds humor in brutality and the savagery within us all.

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The unpredictability of Tarantino works often times as a creative benefit, often times alluding our restrained sensibilities and twisting our expectations with each impulsively chaotic moment to moment. Unfortunately, The Hateful Eight lingers in its unpredictable creation with an overly confident sense of overindulgence, never having enough ideas to ponder in its stretched out edifice. There’s always benefits to be found within creative brevity, a tightly formed narrative, and even subtlety, but these are elemental restrictions that Tarantino adamantly rejects and has gotten away with it until now. With growing autonomy over his creative process, Tarantino has become slightly unhinged, steadily transforming his filmmaking prowess into pure cinematic excess that features obtuse twists and uninhibited crudeness. His film about an antiquated time’s race relations and the developing conscious of the Civil War’s Reconstruction era could have had eloquent echoes for our modern contemplation. Instead, the cartoonish and inane bloodbath that unfolds in the finale turns a complex portrait of contrasting ideologies into a simple explosion of blood soaked fury. The Hateful Eight does persist in having some minor intriguing thoughts on how our devolved instinct towards violence and retribution has given birth to what one character refers to as, “dispassion is the essence of justice.” And with its enigmatic, paradoxical end—a blend of horrifying cynicism and the optimism of a potentially uniting future—two men of different race look giddily upon their final act, which just might be the defining future for America itself. This might not be Quentin Tarantino’s self-proclaimed “masterpiece,” as stated at the end of Inglourious Basterds (2009), but it’s a confident addition that entertains even if it doesn’t linger in the mind like his other pieces of dialogue-driven theater.

Grade: B-

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