Friday, January 1, 2016

New movie review: The Hateful Eight

Kurt Russell and Samuel L. Jackson star in writer-director Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight.

Minnie’s Haberdashery sure is a fine place to stop over in a blizzard. It may not look like much from the outside, but inside, it is downright cavernous. Depending on your preferences, you could settle in by the fire for a game of chess, camp out in the far back corner and read or write, belly up to the bar and imbibe, grab yourself a pot of coffee over by the stove, or trade stories at the communal dinner table. Yes, anything that strikes your fancy, Minnie’s has got it, including jelly beans and peppermint sticks.

Only, you may not like the company you are forced to keep. See, right now, Minnie’s Haberdashery is playing home to a few angry, vengeful souls harboring, let’s just say, mutually exclusive goals. To get out of here alive, you are going to have to survive a beating, a poisoning, a stabbing, a gunfight, and probably a long-winded monologue or two. In this universe, that is just the nature of the beast, and when you find yourself in the hands of the beast master, you are more than likely to end up doused in blood.

Writer-director Quentin Tarantino, the bad boy of U.S. cinema himself, returns with his eighth film, The Hateful Eight, a chamber play masquerading as a bloody western saga. The movie has been billed as, what the residents of the Moulin Rouge might call, spectacular, spectacular – and if it is nothing else, it sure is that. If you are fortunate enough, as I was, to catch one of the film’s highly touted, much-discussed 70mm roadshow screenings, you will be treated to more than a movie. It is an experience, complete with overture, intermission, extended cut, and even a program.

The Hateful Eight roadshow program
The program is a neat little souvenir (see at right), the overture with that great Ennio Morricone score is tremendous, and the intermission is superfluous at best, but let’s be honest. The biggest selling point here is the 70mm, super-widescreen presentation. Your feelings on its success or failure will change based on what theater you attended and what showing you saw. My screening had a couple little hiccups and some things I would have changed, but I have to admit there is something oddly meditative about hearing that huge reel of film click through the projector.

Director of photography Robert Richardson captures some absolutely gorgeous images in the film’s first two chapters, set out in the snowy hills and mountains of Colorado, standing in for Wyoming. The vistas look great and undoubtedly benefit from the expanded field of vision, but then, for the last two-thirds of the movie, Tarantino locks up his characters in Minnie’s Haberdashery, and we rarely go outside again.

So far, reaction among critics and commenters has been sharply divided. Those in the pro camp suggest the 70mm presentation adds depth, nuance, and interest to the interiors, while those in the con camp think it is a wasted opportunity and an injudiciously employed gimmick. I fall somewhere in the middle, believing the wide frame adds to the suspense of watching the characters circle around one another in a single room but acknowledging how nice it would have been to get more of the film’s superb exterior photography.

Ultimately, though, this discussion is a distraction. Tarantino is clearly a fine director, and Richardson’s cinematography is obviously stellar. When you go to a Tarantino movie, though, you expect something else. Tarantino is one of the pre-eminent screenwriters of our time – if not exactly prolific – so those attending The Hateful Eight most likely are looking for the signature dialogue and intricate plotting that has defined most of his career. The disappointment of The Hateful Eight is that it does not quite deliver on that promise.

Frequent Tarantino collaborator Samuel L. Jackson plays Maj. Marquis Warren, a black Civil War officer turned bounty hunter on his way to the city of Red Rock with a fresh haul of bounties – their frozen corpses tied to the roof of a carriage provides one of the more delightfully macabre images in the film. Warren hitches a ride with fellow bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), who is taking prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock to collect the $10,000 bounty. In their travels, they pick up the new sheriff of Red Rock, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins).

Russell and Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hateful Eight.
Warren, Ruth, Domergue, and Mannix are our first four “hatefuls.” When they arrive at Minnie’s Haberdashery, hoping to wait out an approaching blizzard, we meet the other four: Gen. Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), Bob “The Mexican” (Demian Bichir), Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), and Joe Gage (Michael Madsen). Based on nothing but a hunch and on having a suspicious nature, Ruth becomes convinced one of these people is partnered up with Daisy and has come here with the intention of helping her break free. This conflict sets the rest of the plot in motion.

The cast of course is incredibly talented and totally game, and they have as much fun as one would hope chewing on Tarantino’s always inventive dialogue. Jackson, who starred in Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and Django Unchained and had bit parts in Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds, seems particularly at home in the Tarantino-verse. Leigh also delivers a knockout performance, spitting, snarling, and gnashing her way through the film. Though she is handcuffed and sidelined through most of the action, Domergue’s presence is felt even when she is not around, and that is a credit to Leigh’s performance.

It should surprise no one that Goggins, Dern, Roth, and Russell are also standouts, while Bichir and Madsen do the most they can with the thinnest characters in the script – at least as pertains to the central eight. The actors pretty much universally shine, but they are stranded – literally and metaphorically – in a story that sometimes strains credulity and is a little too amused by its contrivances for its own good.

Without wanting to spoil the events that take place after the intermission, suffice it to say there are two key plot developments that seem to exist for convenience rather than because they grew organically from the events that preceded them. Truth be told, this is unusual territory for one of Tarantino’s films, which generally are expertly plotted and carefully developed. It feels as though Tarantino was in such a hurry to get to the bloody, extended climax that he skipped laying some of the groundwork that might have carried us there.

Now, I do not want to misrepresent myself completely here. As with any Tarantino film, I had a hell of a lot of fun, but none of that fun seemed in service of anything. This certainly feels like the director’s emptiest film. There are some overtures to slavery and the Civil War and an attempt to draw parallels to the racial divide in the modern U.S., but by the second half, when the carnage kicks in, most of that is forgotten in favor of pools of blood and mounds of bodies. There is an entertaining movie in The Hateful Eight, but its flaws are many and glaring – and they sure do make a mess of ol’ Minnie’s Haberdashery.

See it? Yes.

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