Saturday, January 2, 2016

In Theaters: THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015)

(US - 2015)

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demian Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, Channing Tatum, James Parks, Zoe Bell, Lee Horsley, Gene Jones, Dana Gourrier, Keith Jefferson, Craig Stark, Belinda Owino. (R, 168 mins)

Quentin Tarantino's second consecutive western (after 2012's spaghetti tribute DJANGO UNCHAINED) is a three-hour epic that's equal parts classic western, Agatha Christie mystery, Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, bitterly misanthropic screed, and a horrific, splatter-filled gorefest. It has everything you'd want in a Tarantino film--quotable dialogue, vividly-detailed characters, a spirited love of all cinematic genres, and some truly inspired creative violence. But it's also Tarantino at his most self-indulgent. THE HATEFUL EIGHT is a very good movie that could've been a great one if there was less of it. For the first time since the 107-minute European cut of DEATH PROOF, the shorter version of which was his contribution to GRINDHOUSE, a Tarantino film has moments of rambling, florid overwriting. Tarantino characters have a lot to say, but in THE HATEFUL EIGHT, they simply talk too much. And then they talk some more. It's the stagiest Tarantino film--even more so than his 1992 debut RESERVOIR DOGS, which had a lot more cutaways and flashbacks and was an hour shorter--but that's by design. For about 90 minutes, THE HATEFUL EIGHT is top-tier Tarantino, with a deliberate buildup that brings a group of wildly disparate characters together during a blizzard and the audience can just lean back and watch a great filmmaker get great performances out of his cast, letting the story gradually build into a stomach-knotting powderkeg of suspense and tension. But then Tarantino loses focus, a couple of major characters are Janet Leigh'd out of the film far earlier than you'd expect, and then it becomes a bit of an unwieldy mess, complete with the requisite Tarantino flashbacking, fractured timelines that bring both plot threads together. To call Tarantino self-indulgent is like calling water wet, but as a director, he's growing too enamored of the words of his favorite writer--Quentin Tarantino--to remain objective. DJANGO UNCHAINED ran a little long, but THE HATEFUL EIGHT starts to feel oppressive after a while, its story not nearly substantive enough to justify its bloated run time. It may sound like I didn't care for it, but I liked it quite a bit. I just would've preferred less of it.

Set several years after the end of the Civil War, THE HATEFUL EIGHT opens during a Wyoming blizzard as a stagecoach heads toward the mountain town of Red Rock. Bounty hunter and former Union Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), with the corpses of three outlaws in tow, hitches a ride on the coach transporting legendary bounty hunter John Ruth, aka "The Hangman" (Kurt Russell), who's taking his latest capture, outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to hang in Red Rock (she's wanted dead or alive, but as Ruth says, "I don't like to cheat the hangman"). As the blizzard gets closer and travel becomes more treacherous, they decide they'll have to wait it out at a lodge called Minnie's Haberdashery. Warren and Ruth form a Leone-esque unholy alliance to have one another's backs with their respective bounties, and on the way to Minnie's, they're joined by another traveler, new Red Rock sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), on his way to being sworn in and whose horse broke a leg in the storm and had to be killed. Mannix is the son of a legendary Confederate officer and tensions flare with Warren over old North and South grudges. Coach driver O.B. (James Parks) gets them to Minnie's to find others stranded: former Confederate General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern); cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), who's penning his memoirs; the very British Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), Red Rock's hangman; and Bob (Demian Bichir), a Mexican employee of Minnie's. Owners Minnie and Sweet Dave are nowhere to be found and Bob claims they went to visit Minnie's mother on the other side of the mountain and left him in charge. Warren is suspicious of their absence (Bob: "Are you calling me a liar?" Warren: "Not yet") and Ruth doesn't trust anyone in the group, remaining shackled to Daisy in the event anyone plans on collecting the $10,000 reward for her capture. Words are exchanged, war-era grievances exhumed, and alliances shift as it becomes clear that at least one person in the room isn't who they claim to be.

Though it doesn't involve an alien creature, the scenario should sound familiar to any Kurt Russell fan who's seen John Carpenter's 1982 version of THE THING. That's one of the most obvious homages in THE HATEFUL EIGHT, right down to the film's use of unused cues from the legendary Ennio Morricone's THING soundtrack (one of the very few times a Carpenter film was scored by someone other than Carpenter). Though Tarantino uses his usual mix-tape approach to scoring the film, throwing in some Roy Orbison and The White Stripes as well as a memorable borrowing of Morricone's "Regan's Theme" from EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC, the film also contains some original Morricone music written specifically for it. Tarantino's grandiose vision for THE HATEFUL EIGHT borders on hubris at times--who else would stage an overlong drawing-room mystery taking place mostly on one set while shooting in Ultra Panavision 70, a 65mm format that hasn't been used since 1966 (in keeping with that, a roadshow edition running 175 minutes (plus an intermission and an overture with some new Morricone music, debuted on 100 screens a week earlier than this general release version)? The snowy exteriors look incredible on a big screen, and Tarantino's the kind of gifted filmmaker who can make such lofty ambitions work in such a claustrophobic setting, also tossing in a few unmistakably De Palma split diopter shots to make the really hardcore movie nerds trickle a little with giddy excitement (guilty as charged).

From Tarantino's ego (the opening credits declare "The 8th Film by Quentin Tarantino," and midway through, he can't resist giving himself the role of narrator) to the inflated length to the use of Ultra Panavision for what's mostly a single-set production, everything about THE HATEFUL EIGHT is grandiosely overblown, including--intentionally so--the performances. Russell fans will be delighted to see him resurrecting the John Wayne swagger he used as Jack Burton in 1986's BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, though his better--and more restrained--2015 western performance can be seen in BONE TOMAHAWK. Jackson does his furious indignation schtick that no one does better, and no one drops an enraged "motherfucker" quite like him (and he gets to spit out his most vile Tarantino monologue yet with a story he tells Dern's Smithers about crossing paths with his son), and Leigh is positively feral at times, especially once she's missing some teeth and covered in blood and brain matter, looking like a possession victim in a '70s EXORCIST ripoff by the end. THE HATEFUL EIGHT is a film that's unmistakably the work of its mad scientist auteur creator, showcasing both his strengths and weaknesses, and operating at an estimated rate of 75% riveting to 25% tedious. Tarantino is one of the very few major directors whose new films constitute a legitimate event, but he could really stand to start taking a "less is more" approach.

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