Movie review: “The Hateful Eight” (2015)

hateful

“Move a little strange, and you’re gonna get a bullet. Not a warning, not a question…a bullet!”

The first one-sheet poster I recall seeing for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight was wondrous in its stark, throwback simplicity. It depicted a lonely stagecoach being drawn by a team of six horses across a forbidding, bone white landscape, scrubbed clean of any other hint of terrain save a cabin in the distance. Instead of wagon treads in the presumed snow, the coach trailed a great wash of fresh blood behind it. The end. Interested? I sure was. The mercurial director has, of course, long exercised a singular gift for turning the straightforward into the convoluted, and, by the same token, for instilling sense, order, and gravity onto the hopelessly labyrinthine. It all depends on your perspective. To those ends, The Hateful Eight stands as arguably the purest distillation of his supreme filmmaking and storytelling instincts, and his most personal achievement to date. That it is also simultaneously the worst of the eight films to bear his imprimatur as writer/director doesn’t turn out to be nearly as surprising as the fact that such a designation is of little to no consequence. Eight is a steady boiling tale told by a film stylist operating at a near fever pitch creatively, stocked to its drafty rafters with combative, oversized personalities, and set against an unforgiving winter’s backdrop so vast, bleak, and grand that it required 70-millimeter photography to be properly captured. It is not an easy ride in any sense of the phrase. This is especially lawless country – godless, merciless – and, despite the hasty formation of various convenient, and, almost inevitably, temporary alliances along the way, it’s every human for him or herself.

hateful eight posterTarantino dispenses with even the most rudimentary hand-holding in framing his story of eight unsavory old-West archetypes and digressions – a hard, cold, and embittered lot – whose forced coexistence waiting out a snowstorm in a cramped, remote, wilderness cabin turns into a pitched and desperate battle for survival. We know the white wilderness is Wyoming only because a character mentions it in passing, in reference to a town that is both everyone’s destination and might as well be a world away. We have only a rough idea of the year because of scraps of information we are able to gather and infer. Abraham Lincoln is dead and the Civil War is over, though the lingering wounds of each transition inform and poison the popular psyche. The aforementioned stagecoach, engaged in an increasingly desperate attempt to outpace the oncoming blizzard, is a private charter by “Hangman” John Ruth (Kurt Russell, affable, and direct as a heart attack), a no-nonsense bounty hunter notable for his custom of bringing in wanted criminals alive so they might face the hangman’s noose, when to kill them first would be ever more efficient. Shackled to Ruth’s wrist is his latest quarry, the foul-mouthed murderess Daisy Domergue (a jaw-dropping, near unrecognizable Jennifer Jason Leigh), scheduled to hang in the town of Red Rock a few days hence. On its way to Minnie’s Haberdashery – a ramshackle mountain cabin that, as the only outpost of civilization (such as it is) for countless miles, serves as a beacon for travelers of every description – the stagecoach makes two sudden, unscheduled stops, quite against Ruth’s better judgment, to take on a pair of pedestrians seeking shelter from the elements. These are former Union Major and fellow bounty hunter Marques Warren, played by Samuel L. Jackson in a grittier, lower-key variation of his typical high style, and the convivial but shifty Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who surprises everyone with the news that he is, in fact, the duly, and newly, elected sheriff of Red Rock. Four additional surprises await the travelers upon their arrival at Minnie’s, and come in the person of retired Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), disagreeable cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), Mexican store-hand Bob (Demian Bichir), and Tim Roth as the delightfully named Oswaldo Mobray, the sort of chatty English commentator that always seems to pop up in modern Westerns. Perhaps his sort just get hopelessly lost in their no doubt dogged pursuit of some ocean – any ocean – and have to settle for being unsolicited cultural critics to the dusty and barely refined.

One (or more) of these shadowy figures almost certainly isn’t what he purports to be. Everybody sing along. Russell, of course, gave a paraphrased version of that precise speech/warning under somehow even more dire circumstances in John Carpenter’s masterful 1982 remake of ’50s horror classic The Thing, and that film, in which a malevolent, shape-shifting alien stalks a research team marooned in the Antarctic, turns out to be a surprising and enduring point of comparison with Tarantino’s blood-soaked whodunnit. Tarantino, of course, has never been shy about including subtle or overt homages to past loves, or, indeed, his own past works, in his present obsessions, and Eight, as much as anything, plays as an extended treatise on duplicity and hidden identity, sort of a mash-up of his Reservoir Dogs and Django Unchained. QT fans fond of, and proficient at, playing subconscious games of “spot the reference” as the movie runs will find much to chew on here. Almost as if to subtly accentuate such similarities, Eight‘s mythic composer Ennio Morricone – a five-time Oscar nominee* and basically the John Williams of the Spaghetti Western, among other notable pieces – augments his jumpy, propulsive, treat-laden original score with selections drawn from previous films like Exorcist II and, yes, The Thing. What seems at first coincidental can’t help but feel telling once the snow has settled and the blood has dried. Traditionally, outright horror has been a card often held within Tarantino’s deck but seldom ever played. The Hateful Eight’s explosive climax and even more harrowing aftermath edges him closer than ever to the brink separating bloody action from something more.** I’d love to see him tackle the genre in earnest.

*Like Hitchcock, Morricone was eventually awarded an honorary Oscar to make up for the Academy’s decades of negligence.

**Noted effects outfit KNB (“The Walking Dead”, “Hostel I/II”, “The Hills Have Eyes”, among many others) was brought in to ensure the carnage at Minnie’s would translate to the biggest screen possible in appropriately gruesome fashion. I couldn’t help but smile when I read that credit.

Whereas Django Unchained took viewers on an often upsetting, regularly unsettling, defiantly un-P.C. trip through the antebellum south, The Hateful Eight deposits them, without ceremony, in an altogether harsher environment: the Reconstruction-era western frontier, where white men were basically anthropomorphic trigger fingers, where women were demure and deferential or else, and where emancipated blacks were persona non grata, give or take the “persona” part. There’s nary a hint of revisionist romanticism here. Tarantino undertakes to make Django‘s tale of a runaway slave’s comprehensive, bloody vengeance feel like a children’s story, stoking the flames with enough repetitions, within the free-wheeling, openly venomous context of the nation’s extended post-Civil War hangover, to make the “N-word” Merriam-Webster’s “Word of the Year” for 1870. Some viewers are likely to find Eight morally repugnant, or, at any rate, so unrelentingly coarse that the effort to endure before long becomes more trouble than it’s worth. I saw a bevy of those sorts of knee (and, occasionally, gut)-jerk responses on social media, and those people have my sympathies, if not my agreement. I’m not here to serve as some grand arbiter uniting the tribes of people who think Tarantino is a film savant and near-peerless producer of pure, dynamic cinema with those that consider him an overhyped, vulgar, terminally self-indulgent hack. I can only report what I thought of the movie – that it pushed me to the brink and that I ended up loving it – and suggest that potential viewers consider their own choices very carefully. Whatever your disposition going in, it will be challenged mightily before it is finally reinforced (assuming that’s even the case). Some viewers, however, will allow no equivocation and simply proclaim the film an ugly, pointless, violent slog, a position to which I’m even less amenable. The Hateful Eight may be a good many things, chief among them long, but it is also dazzling in scope and acted fairly beautifully. I never found it boring.

The film’s focus doesn’t settle eventually on Jackson’s Union Major Warren so much as he seizes it by force of character and performance and holds it in a hammerlock. Warren – a free black bounty hunter so secure in both his skin and his apparently justifiable infamy that he can openly operate as an instrument of law despite a massive bounty on his own head, and in full contact with a society that utterly despises him – is a particularly mysterious customer, even in a room where an excess of secrets, lies, or legend is a base requirement for admittance. Jackson brings little unnecessary flamboyance to the role, instead making Warren a cool, confident operator with an aura that both precedes and protects him, understated verbal flair and wicked tricks up his sleeve. After so many times around the block, Jackson’s facility with Tarantino’s colorful dialogue is second to none – watch him casually defuse the hysterics around him with a well-placed profanity like a horse swatting flies with its tail – and in a roll call of heavy hitters, featuring terrific turns by basically everyone but the underdeveloped Madsen, Bichir***, and, maybe, Roth, his presence alone is worth twice the admission price. Later on, when he unexpectedly joins the lunatic’s chorus, let’s just say Jackson makes that into supreme entertainment as well. The other breakout role belongs to serial TV MVP Goggins. In a locked, uncomfortably close room teeming with enigmatic desperados, his Chris Mannix is the digger, the questioner, the spoon that stirs the drink, so to speak, brimming with gee-whiz enthusiasm and even untoward joy during the most inappropriate moments possible. He supplies all the acting flair we expected from Jackson and then some, channeling his two iconic small screen antiheroes, Justified’s Boyd Crowder and The Shield’s Shane Vendrell, and crossing the pompous bluster of the former with the frenzied unpredictability of the latter, to riveting effect.

***(MILD SPOILERS) Bichir, so magnetic and relatable as the last honest cop in Tijuana, Mexico in FX’s fascinating “The Bridge”, does what he can with a patently underwritten part, though there always exists the possibility that the Mexican shopkeep is only germane to the plot at all because he qualifies as an eighth member for our merry band. As with fellow recent FX ratings casualty “The Bastard Executioner”, I get the distinct feeling that Tarantino thought of, and fell in unreasonable love with, his project’s name first, then lumbered, with a fair greater amount of success, admittedly, to build a story around it. Kurt Sutter’s story had to last an entire season of television, and it sunk him.

If this whole scenario, especially once the Eight are assembled and, hopelessly snowbound, at each other’s throats, sounds to you like an off-Broadway stage play, your assessment is sound. More than even Reservoir Dogs, which also largely took place in a uncomfortably confined space stuffed to the gills with trigger-happy malcontents, The Hateful Eight feels like a single location play unnaturally blown up to motion picture size. The 70-mm photography is gorgeous throughout, just shy of breathtaking (particularly the larger the screen), and effectively communicates both the scale and heartlessness of the wintry expanses outside, though inside the film unfolds like a classic Agatha Christie drawing room mystery, only set in a virtual abattoir. Much of the initial interaction seems forced, if not completely unnatural, explained away by the inability of Russell’s Ruth, who is understandably paranoid over and protective of his high profile bounty, to cohabitate with anyone he doesn’t know. Rarely, if ever, has such a “murderer’s row” of acting talent been enlisted to portray murderers either actual, potential, or both, and Tarantino fits each part to its player expertly, with the actors’ performance investment and established cache ensuring that scorecards will not be necessary to follow the action. Ruth trusts no one, while Mobray and Mannix are somehow a bit too forthcoming to be fully trusted. The Union major and Confederate general both have grave business in the area, and nurse long-simmering personal grudges that they exorcise and/or pursue in different ways. Bob and Gage are unknowable, hence unpredictable, strong, silent types. Domergue is the default wild card in a room full of them, crafty and deadly, with a ticking clock in her head and a crystal clear motive of self-preservation. Tarantino sets the scene, sketches each character deftly and then has them repeatedly bounce off one another until someone flinches.

Though Tarantino returns to the “chapter” structure first introduced with his Kill Bill movies, this is classic ensemble play construction, applied science in the service of art. For example, Roth’s loquacious English dandy and Goggins’ histrionic plains peacock are both at severe tonal odds with Russell’s clipped, forceful bounty hunter and Jackson’s smoother, more expressive variation, to say nothing of the cow puncher Joe Gage, who Madsen plays as an odd, simmering non-entity apparently spoiling for a fight but little else. The diverse and divergent performances surely add texture and tension to an already highly disagreeable situation, but some of the acting choices seem, to put it politely, a bit much, and Tarantino, historically an unabashed lover of actors, is neither equipped nor inclined to reign them in. As ever, it falls to the audience to trust Tarantino’s instincts as much as he obviously does, and the footing, though uneven, remains more or less sure. The movie represents a mishmash of disparate approaches and a successful tightrope act, with high stakes interpersonal drama so harsh and cutting that it often veers directly into black comedy as a tension release method. The Hateful Eight is also one of the most overtly sensuous, tactile entries in Tarantino’s already vivid filmography, with its black eyes and bloody lips, grizzled close-ups and gravity-defying facial hair, lumpy stew and awful coffee, blinding blizzards howling outside as spent shells clink in succession against the floor. Most of all, it is a cold you feel down to the marrow of your bones, mingled with mistrust that is, shockingly, just as strong. Again, it’s never an easy road, nor a conventionally rewarding one, but it does surprise, provoke both thought and feeling, and, as is forever the bottom line with Tarantino’s work, it is fiercely entertaining.

The Hateful Eight both reliably grabs and rewards audience attention, and, for a film pushing three hours, is pleasantly brisk in its pace, with very little time – excepting a 15-minute swath specifically referenced as the clean-up period following the first deadly twist – appearing to pass off-screen. Indeed, with the first two chapters invested in the stagecoach ride, it seems altogether plausible that this situation, once the Eight are snowed in and cabin-bound, would deteriorate and then disintegrate just as fast as it does. A cast this large in a space this limited would appear to be a recipe for disaster, but, even if the dialogue occasionally flatlines, Tarantino the writer is canny in how he continually combines, recombines, and segregates his actors, pushing one or two new voices to the forefront as the others more or less organically recede into beady-eyed, silent speculation just out of frame. Meanwhile, Tarantino the director continues to successfully test his own limits. Unlike other films that more or less establish themselves in a viewer’s consciousness in short order, I spent at least ninety minutes oscillating among multiple viewpoints, determined to like The Hateful Eight on its considerable technical and acting merits (and, let’s face facts, because I’m a Tarantino fan) but finding myself, by turns, frustrated and exhilarated. I can’t remember the last movie that took me so long to figure out emotionally, though, once I did, all I wanted was to see how it could possibly end. With that accomplished, I immediately wanted to see it again. I required more time for study and quiet consideration. Red Rock, after all, was the topic of so much conversation among the Eight that, on some level, it’s a damned shame few of them ever had any hope to see it alive.

“The Hateful Eight” (2015) 3.5/4 stars                                                                                     dae3.5

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