The Hateful Eight
The credits for The Hateful Eight proudly proclaim this to be the "Eighth Film" from writer/director Quentin Tarantino. Since catching the movie world unawares with his powerhouse debut, Reservoir Dogs, some 23 years ago, he has worked on his own schedule, refusing to be rushed into churning out product just to keep his name in the conversation. As a result, Tarantino hasn't made a genuine dud yet. Even his less successful efforts (like the bifurcated Kill Bill Volume 1 and Volume 2) have at least been interesting. Of directors working today, perhaps only Scorsese and Nolan can match him for consistency.
Of course, Tarantino doesn't appeal to everyone and, when considering his body of work, that has to be acknowledged. His movies are hard-R: replete with profanity and graphic violence. Those who can't stomach that sort of thing will find The Hateful Eight, like its seven feature length predecessors, to be nearly unwatchable. For everyone else, however, this is a high-wire thriller, full of masterfully executed twists, captivating dialogue, and a wildly entertaining narrative that gallops along at a pace to make three hours evaporate in an instant. Best film of the year? Yes.
The Hateful Eight is an homage to the Westerns of the '60s. Shot in 70 mm with an orchestral score by Ennio Morricone, a full overture, and an intermission, the structure resembles some of the greatest studio productions of the mid-20th century. Similarities end there, however, since the content of The Hateful Eight is too extreme for anything produced during that era even when adherence to the Hays Code was falling by the wayside. As is Tarantino's wont, the movie wallows in blood, gore, violence, and profanity. It's not a nice film but it is wildly entertaining. Gallows humor abounds - so much so that some critics circles and awards ceremonies are considering this a "comedy." I wouldn't go that far but there are instances when Tarantino's tongue is planted in his cheek.
The Hateful Eight is divided into six chapters. The film begins with the meeting of two famous late 19th century bounty hunters on a Wyoming road. Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), whose preference is to favor the first option of the "dead or alive" label, is looking for a lift to escape an approaching blizzard. He stops the coach hired by John "Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell) and negotiates passage. Ruth isn't alone. He has a prisoner with him: Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who has a $10,000 bounty on her head. Unlike Warren, Ruth prefers to bring in his prisoners alive. His reason: to keep the hangman employed. Before reaching their stopover at Minnie's Haberdashery, the coach gains a fourth passenger: former rebel soldier and frontier lawman-to-be Sherriff Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins), who's none-too-thrilled about sharing a ride with a black man.
At Minnie's, the newcomers encounter the other four members of the hateful eight: Bob the Mexican (Demian Bichir), who is "temporarily" running the place; (genuine) hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth); Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a man of few words; and Confederate war hero General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern). With the inclement weather trapping these people in a confined space, tensions are bound to flare. The majority of The Hateful Eight chronicles the interaction among this octet, not all of whom are representing themselves truthfully.
If there's one thing a viewer can expect from a Tarantino film, it's that nothing will happen as anticipated. Unpredictability is the single most important asset evident in the director's oeuvre. It doesn't matter how many movies you have seen or how familiar you may be with the tropes of the genre, Tarantino never fails to surprise, and it happens more than once in The Hateful Eight. The film presents the appearance of a Western, incorporates elements of post-Civil War racism (and its consequences), offers instances of violence delivered with Tarantino's signature dark humor, and uses quirky and sometimes unexpectedly erudite dialogue to tie everything together. There's a betrayal, a whodunit, and suspense thicker than pea soup.
As is typical of Tarantino, the actors deliver high energy performances. The cast is eclectic - a mixture of first-timers and returning members of the director's repertoire company. Samuel L. Jackson leads the pack, marking the sixth time he has made a contribution to a Tarantino film (the only absences being Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill Volume 1). His performance is intense and profane, although not as deliciously overbearing as in Pulp Fiction. Kurt Russell, offering his best John Wayne impersonation, makes his second appearance for Tarantino, having previously starred in the "Death Proof" segment of Grindhouse. Veteran Bruce Dern adds some old-school appeal. Jennifer Jason Leigh is the only female, although no one would make the mistake of calling Daisy "feminine." Channing Tatum has a small but memorable role as someone who, despite not being one of the eight, shouldn't be discounted.
Tarantino made The Hateful Eight with the widescreen Westerns of a bygone era in mind. The "roadshow" version, available only in 70 mm during the film's two-week early engagement, showcases the director's love for sweeping landscape shots and makes the most effective use of Morricone's evocative score (which recalls his own work for Sergio Leone and Elmer Bernstein's classic The Magnificent Seven). The general release edit of The Hateful Eight is more fast-paced and claustrophobic, eliminating some of the grand vista shots and removing the intermission.
In terms of its overall tone and approach, The Hateful Eight is closer to Django Unchained than anything else Tarantino has made. The level of violence, however, and the gallows humor is closer to Pulp Fiction. And, while no Tarantino movie is likely to top Inglourious Basterds for sheer audacity, The Hateful Eight comes close. Just when you think you've figured out where it's going you're probably wrong. No 2015 film has energized me to the degree that The Hateful Eight did and, although I'll acknowledge the movie's extremes may put it beyond the comfort level of some viewers, those who have enjoyed Tarantino's past efforts will find that the year ends with a treat.
© 2015 James Berardinelli