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Saturday, December 26, 2015

Director Report Card: Quentin Tarantino (2015)

10. The Hateful Eight

Quentin Tarantino announcing that he was working on a new movie would be a bigger deal if he hadn’t announce about a hundred projects over the years he’s never made. When Tarantino is actually writing a movie, with an envisioned production date not far off, that’s exciting. When “The Hateful Eight” was first announced, another western assumed to be a variation on “men on a mission” flicks, the anticipation was already running high. Not long after the project’s announcement, it fell apart, Tarantino canning the whole thing because of a leaked draft. Yet it seems Quentin doesn’t let go of an idea once it grips him. Soon, “The Hateful Eight” was back on track. Seeing how the final film would vary from the leaked screenplay made “The Hateful Eight” enough of an event already. The director’s insistence upon releasing the movie on physical film, in an extra-widescreen roadshow edition, elevated “The Hateful Eight” even further. I drove two and a half hours - slightly less time then it would take to watch it - to see this movie. I have to say, it was worth it.

In the middle of a Wyoming blizzard, a few years after the Civil War, a man sits upon a pile of corpses. A bounty hunter and a former Union Major, he soon comes across a stage coach. Inside, another bounty hunter and his latest target sit. After picking up another stranger, who claims to be the sheriff-in-waiting of the near-by town, the stage coach stops at Minnie’s Haberdashery. Inside is a collection of characters with motivations all their own. As they wait out the storm, tension rises, rivalries are established, and blood is spilled.

“The Hateful Eight” has been described as Tarantino’s most political film. It’s not an incorrect assessment. In the lead-up to the film’s release, the director has attracted controversy for attending a Black Lives Matter rally. In this light, “The Hateful Eight” can’t help but seem like a comment on recent events. Racial tension plays a huge role in the film. The events of the Civil War loom large over the film. The lingering resentment between the North and the South, and the still palpable tension between the races, forms the movie’s backbone. Yet “The Hateful Eight” is about many types of hate. The black characters distrust the Mexican characters. A woman is brutally beaten throughout. An atmosphere of suspicion and loathing characterizes the entire movie. The title is well chosen, commenting on a culture boiling over with resentment between the races, the sexes, and humanity in general.

“The Hateful Eight” has also been compared to the director’s earliest film. The movie does have something in common with “Reservoir Dogs.” Both concern men with ambiguous loyalties stuck in a tight location together. However, there’s very little cutting away or extended flashbacks. Once “The Hateful Eight” arrives at Minnie’s Haberdashery, it rarely leaves it. Instead, the movie focuses on the rising tension among the men. Ordinary events, like boiling a pot of coffee, serving up some stew, playing a piano, or sitting in a chair, are laced with suspense. In its second half, “The Hateful Eight” also becomes something like a murder mystery. Either way, the script’s focus is on tightening the screws and keeping the audience guessing.

Throughout his entire career, Tarantino has had a relationship with violence. The director has attracted controversy for his treatment of bloodshed. There’s no doubt that the mayhem in Tarantino’s movies frequently cross over into the cartoonish or joyous. In “The Hateful Eight,” however, the violence is brutal, ugly and direct. Russell frequently cracks Leigh across the face, blackening her eye, bloodying her nose, and knocking out her teeth. Poisoned coffee results in two characters vomits torrents of blood, an extended and sickening moment. Each gunshot has a visceral effect, the bullets ripping through flesh and bone. At one point, a head is shot enough times it explodes into gore. By the end of the film, every character left alive is covered in blood, in agonizing pain as their bodies’ fail. There’s nothing glamorous or fun about the violence here. This is a vicious story about the wages of hate and the violence reflects that.

Even in the leaked first draft, Tarantino boasts how the film would be shot in “GLORIOUS 70MM!” In the months leading up to the film’s release, the plan to roll out a “road show” version in the aforementioned glorious 70mm was announced. The super-widescreen format has two affects on the film. The white, snow-choked Wyoming countryside becomes truly rolling and seemingly limitless. A carriage crossing the snow and ice or a small man marching over the hills appear like huge images. It’s all part of Tarantino’s plan to emulate the epic westerns of the sixties and seventies. Yet most of “The Hateful Eight” takes place inside a small building. Thus, the men’s faces become landscapes. The confines of Minnie’s Haberdashery become a country. The director foreshadows this decision in the movie’s first proper shot. The camera slowly zooms out of the face of a wooden statue of Christ, expanding from the very personal to the very wide.

When reading the leaked screenplay, part of the fun was imagining which actors would play which parts. We knew Tarantino had written roles for Bruce Dern, Tim Roth, and Michael Madsen. The corresponding characters weren’t too hard to figure out. Two of the leads weren’t announced but the script provided plenty of clues. Major Warren talked with a candor obviously inspired by Samuel L. Jackson. Chris Mannix, meanwhile, was described as wide-eyed and wiry, two attributes that brought Walter Goggins to mind. In the final film, Mannix and Warren begin as bitter enemies, veterans from opposite sides of the war. Yet of all the eight, they are the two with the clearest motivations, a shaky alliance eventually forming. Jackson is experienced at managing Tarantino’s dialogue. The Major is one of the filmmaker’s most vicious anti-heroes, cruel but skilled at manipulating those around him. Jackson brings the part to life with zeal. As for Goggins, he brings a lot of nervous, quirky energy to Mannix, generating humor during the film’s grimmest moments.

Two names I was surprised to hear announced were Kurt Russell and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Russell, sporting some magnificent facial hair, plays bounty hunter John Ruth. At first, Ruth appears to be the closest thing the film has to a traditional hero. However, the more time we spend with him, the clearer it becomes that Ruth is a sadistic and dangerous bastard. Russell plays the part as a variation on his usual John Wayne tough guy part, bringing that style’s nasty roots to the surface. Jennifer Jason Leigh gives a deeply unglamorous performance as Daisy Domergue. Becoming more and more deformed as the story goes on, Leigh spits back all the hatred the other characters give her. Though a victim, the script doesn’t deny that Domergue is as hateful as the rest. Hopefully, the part will launch the hard-working character actress to wider acclaim.

Though those four roles emerge as the leads, “The Hateful Eight” is still an ensemble film. Smaller but still notable parts are created for its other actors. As Oswaldo Mobray, Tim Roth gets to indulge in all his foppish fancies. Roth is also experienced at spouting the director’s twisted dialogue, turning it into poetry. A nice bit of acting comes when he drops his accent near the film’s end. Bruce Dern, as the old Confederate general, says a lot with a squinting stare or bits of short, barked dialogue. Michael Madsen plays probably the most mysterious of the eight. His character doesn’t say much but, when he does, his scratchy voice makes an impression. Demian Bichir probably gives the least showy of all the actors. He does, however, get to be one half of a great exchange of dialogue in a stable. I also loved Zoe Bell’s brief appearance, which she brings a lot of energy too.

Like many of Tarantino’s films, “The Hateful Eight” is presented as a novel. The film is broken up into six chapters. Only the fifth leaps around in time, Tarantino showing restraint by keeping the story mostly confined to one time and place. The film’s biggest excesses are two moments when the director himself narrates a sequences of events. Though surprising and somewhat funny, it also has the side effect of pulling the audience slightly out of the film. Yet the show reveal of the character’s backgrounds and motivation, the script slowly twisting the screws on the audience, feels like a great book. In its full presentation, “The Hateful Eight” runs 187 minutes long, over three hours. (This includes an intermission.) Yet it zips by very quickly, never feeling bloated or overdone.

Up until it’s sixth chapter, the film version of “The Hateful Eight” follows the first draft relatively closely. Tarantino promised, however, that the final movie would have an entirely different ending. Indeed it does. In the last forty minutes, the writer/director seems to intentionally be throwing right angles at the viewers. Characters previously assumed dead actually survive their wounds. Characters recently introduced die suddenly and violently. Long portions of the last act are devoted to characters debating their loyalties. Or trying to squirm their way out of this grim situation. It’s not exactly tiresome, as the film is still rolling along at a solid clip and the performances are still great to watch. However, the movie definitely looses a bit of steam during this part.

In “Django Unchained,” for the first time, the director worked with a composer to create music for one of his films, instead of solely sampling pre-existing songs and scores. Legendary composer Ennio Morricone contributed an original song. Much was made of Morricone coming aboard to create the score for “The Hateful Eight.” This hype was slightly misleading. Instead of composing an entirely new score, Morricone instead used excerpts from his rejected score for “The Thing.” I’m not necessarily complaining. Both films share a star, a snowy setting, and rising paranoia among a tight cast. Morricone’s music features foreboding, mounting strings which is a good fit for the material. Despite using original music, Quentin can’t resist inserting familiar songs or score snippets. Morricone’s own “Exorcist II” score is memorably sampled. One of David Hess’ songs from “Last House on the Left” makes a notable appearance, adding intensity to a flashback. A song from the Roy Orbison-starring western “The Fastest Guitar in the West” plays over the end credits, a fantastic deep cut.

“The Hateful Eight” has been called nihilistic. Its ending is bitterly ironic, two characters coming to an agreement with death all around them. An important line near the end, “We still have a long way to go,” suggests that relations between the races, genders, and humanity as a whole haven’t improved much since the Civil War era. It’s a powerful message to end on, further marking “The Hateful Eight” as the director’s most political work in years. It’s damn good, a beautifully shot film full of fantastic actors, making a powerful point about the world as it is. [Grade: A]

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