Monday, January 4, 2016

The Hateful Eight

Alternate Title:  No More Heroes

One sentence synopsis:     Eight strangers find themselves stuck in a cabin together in 1870s Wyoming.

Things Havoc liked: I don't know if Quentin Tarantino has spent the last twenty-five years going increasingly insane, or if he was already raving mad and has simply been revealing that fact to us for a quarter-century. A lot of people look at him as screaming, indulgent egotist, who makes movies comprised entirely of style with no substance whatsoever. I understand that opinion, as the maddening unevenness of Tarantino's work can be frustrating as all hell given the generally high-level of cinemacraft he displays in producing it. The last half-hour of Django Unchained, for instance, came close to ruining the previous two hours, which were a veritable masterclass of restraint, pacing, and alternately rich and claustrophobic cinematography, while Inglorious Basterds was, in many ways, a highly-unfocused mess of a film elevated by a handful of standout scenes and actors. But for all of that, my view of Tarantino has always been a crazed, fanatical artiste filmmaker, whose obsessions are so prominent that they will not permit him to make anything but highly original movies, movies which sometimes overreach, but are always interesting to watch. All the paraphernalia he surrounded his latest film with, the touring pre-release roadshow, the intermission, the film brochure handed out to everyone on walking into the theater, from any other filmmaker, this would smack of unreasonable arrogance. But Tarantino has been operating at that precise level of arrogance since I was in High School, and alone among modern filmmakers I know of, he possesses both the willingness to engage in lunatic stunts like this, and the film pedigree to back it all up. Who else, after all, would I willingly sit through a three-hour, seventeen-minute film from after their last two movies had been underwhelming? With what other filmmaker's work could I convince someone else to come and do the same?

Maybe nobody. Maybe several. But all that matters is that I did these things, and boy am I ever glad I did.

The Hateful Eight is a masterpiece, of what I'm not entirely certain, but a staggering achievement in the realm of pacing, cinematography, and the firework potentials that can arise when you take a bunch of good actors and stick them in a room for a few hours. It is a relentless, bloody film about awful people doing terrible things to one another, delivered with all the grinning cocksureness that Tarantino is known for with far less of the over-indulgent twelve-year-old that we all know resides somewhere within his soul. It is a masterful work delivered by a masterful hand, whose flaws, of which there are quite a few, only serve to underlie just what surety guides Tarantino's directing, and what faith the actors who know him place within his ability to make anything, from subtle dialogues to quotidian acts like nailing a door shut, into tense, style-dripping setpieces. It is a very long film that doesn't feel very long, and one of the best movies that Tarantino has ever made, a movie where half of the moviegoing audience that exists out there will hate it, because they are intended to. Not being part of that half of the audience, I can only applaud the gall with which Tarantino has produced this awful, brutal, repellent thing, and praise it as is its due.

The Hateful Eight is in many ways a deceptively simple film. Eight people, two bounty hunters, a condemned murderess, a newly-minted sheriff, a confederate general, an English hangman, a cattle drover, and a Mexican hosteler are trapped by a blizzard at a large trail cabin in Wyoming. Many of these people know one another, often without admitting to it at first. Others have hidden secrets that they wish to divulge only at the proper time. All are armed, dangerous, and without exception, are terrible, awful, rancid human beings, bigots, murderers, sadists, killers of every stripe and every sort. If there's anything that his previous films have taught me, it's that Tarantino has a great affection for terrible people as characters, and indeed he spends much of the film getting to know them in their own words, finding out their idiosyncrasies, their self-justifications, the humanizing touches that enable us as an audience to empathize with this one or that one. Yet it is all a game, and Tarantino is the Game Master, as he plays with our modern conceptions of labels and the color-coded moralities that most films deal with to make the audience identify first this character as the hero, then that one as the villain, knowing all the time that there are no heroes in this film, no redeemed characters who can rise above their bitterly-regretted pasts for a cathartic third act, no sympathetic victims unjustly maligned by the designated bad guys. Only terrible people trapped in this cabin, and their allegiances and intentions shift and twist around one another like a nest of vipers.

And of course it's not just Tarantino playing us this way. The film boasts a wonderful cast full of excellent character actors who know just how to wring the right notes from Tarantino's ever-poetic dialogue. Front and center is Samuel L. Jackson, a man who needs no introduction from me, playing a Civil War cavalry officer-turned Bounty Hunter, who, if anyone, is the main character of this bloody drama. Jackson is, of course, a Tarantino regular from as far back as Pulp Fiction, and is in his element here, luxuriating in long, Poirot-style monologues in which he deduces the secrets of the rest of the cast or illustrates a lengthy, horrifying tale about his own past in terrible, graphic detail. Tarantino gets deserved flack for overindulging in his dialogue fetish, but Hateful Eight is set up specifically to permit such indulgences without interruption from plot elements or the requirements of taste. Jackson's character is as awful as everyone else's, but Tarantino has always known how to make Jackson look cool, regardless of the circumstances, and he takes full advantage of that, engaging in swift, horrific violence at the drop of a perfectly-phrased line. Not that everyone else suffers by comparison of course. Jennifer Jason Leigh, whom I've not seen in... well practically ever really, goes full Charlize Theron as a ignorant, murderous, monster of a woman being dragged off to hang. Her role involves getting punched in the face a lot and coming out spitting, something she is so good at you want to shower every time she's on the screen. Kurt Russell, who is awesome but manifestly not a great actor, manages to make his Jim Bridger-style Mountain Man into a raving pastiche of an invincible wilderness man, and Russell has always been better at pastiches than subtlety. Excellent turns by Demian Bechir (the best thing from Machete Kills), Tim Roth, and Bruce Dern all liven the film in their inimitable style, but the standout performance of the bunch comes from, of all people, character actor Walton Goggins, one of Robert Rodriguez' go-tos, playing a racist Confederate raider-turned-sheriff, who is both considerably smarter and considerably dumber than he passes himself off as being, and who winds up, over the course of the film, in some of the more surprising situations I've seen all year.

But then that fact itself shouldn't be much of a surprise, because Tarantino has stacked the deck with this one. Having eliminated all notions of conventional storytelling by ruthlessly exterminating any shred of heroism within our assembled cast (save for a few red herrings thrown in for fun), Tarantino is left free to do whatever he wants. His cinematography, shot on full, luscious 70mm celluloid, is rich and understated, drinking in the wide-open and yet claustrophobic confines of the cabin and lingering on evocative shots, such as that of snow swirling through the front door as the wind howls just beyond. The violence (and rest assured, there is violence) is equally luxurious, whether filmed in slow motion or with one sudden, gruesome shot. And what should underlie the entire affair, but a film score composed by the legendary Ennio Morricone, of spaghetti western fame and so much more, who just two years ago famously declared that he would never work with Tarantino ever again, and apparently was brought to change his mind. Morricone's score, his first western score since the 1970s, places the film precisely in the old-school context that Tarantino intends, and placing his work in a five-minute overture at the beginning of the movie probably did a lot to smooth over whatever feathers were ruffled after Django Unchained.

Things Havoc disliked: There's really no getting around the fact that a three-hour, seven-minute movie is a long goddamn movie, particularly when the movie in question features a bunch of actors trapped in a cabin together. The Lord of the Rings was long as well, but it, at least, spent its time on elaborate battle sequences and fantasy wars. I grant that I saw the "roadshow" version of the film, which is considerably longer than the theatrical cut, but most of that is due to the intermission that will presumably be cut out of the real film, and bear in mind that my version didn't come with the customary twenty minutes of ads and trailers. And for all the genius of Hateful Eight's framing, pace and writing, there are entire sequences I would have cut right out of the film. An elaborate flashback sequence detailing how several of the characters came to be at the cabin goes on roughly twice as long as it needs to, and most of the material relating to Michael Madsen (another Tarantino staple actor) and Eli Roth turns out to be artifice for the sake of artifice. There are also some questions that inevitably arise concerning why certain characters act as they do, given the ultimate goals that we discover them to have, which are natural when your movie is three hours of people lying to one another. To say more on that subject would be spoilery, so let's just say that plot has never been Tarantino's forte nor his area of interest, and this film is not the moment where he suddenly figured it out.

Final thoughts:   A great many people I know will despise the Hateful Eight as a ghoulish exercise in unremitting awfulness and bloodshed, and they will be right to do so. I, on the other hand, have chosen to praise the film for precisely these qualities, as it is one of the finest exercises in ghoulish bloodshed and general awfulness that I have seen in quite a long time, a movie worthy of being compared to Tarantino's great works of old such as Reservoir Dogs or Jackie Brown. It is a film that showcases a master of his craft executing precisely what he wishes to do, a movie that eschews our demands of Westerns or movies in general in favor of showcasing a concept that simply appealed to the deranged mind of one of the best filmmakers working. I'd be lying if I said I was in a hurry to see Hateful Eight again. A film that long needs to be prepared for. But in a year that had an awful lot of tentpole franchise-building and safe, pedestrian choices, it takes a movie like The Hateful Eight to remind us all just what the cinema is capable of being, once you have someone this good behind the camera.
Final Score:  8/10

Next Time:  Stop me if you've heard this one:  Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, and Bradley Cooper all star in a David O. Russell movie...

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