Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Review: The Hateful Eight

Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
Only Quentin Tarantino could get away with and successfully pull off a gory, three-hour western that is mostly dialogue-driven, screened in 70 mm and complete with a roadshow presentation that includes an overture and intermission.

The filmmaker - whose love for cinema history, especially spaghetti westerns and a variety of less reputable genres, has been well documented in his previous seven features - really goes for broke with "The Hateful Eight," which is simultaneously one of his darkest, most violent, disturbing and socially conscious.

The setup is fairly simple: a group of eight strangers find themselves snowed in at a tavern in the middle of nowhere in post-Civil War Wyoming and more than a few of them have something to hide. In the style of Agatha Christie's "Ten Little Indians," the characters begin to unveil their nefarious purposes and the body count stacks up.

Although the setup is familiar, the influence of spaghetti westerns obvious and the scenario inspired somewhat by John Carpenter's creepy 1982 remake of "The Thing," Tarantino's latest is the first in a while that does not overtly reference other movies. And although Ennio Morricone's haunting notes can be heard throughout the proceedings, the director has not sampled the maestro's previous works as he has done in the past, but rather convinced the iconic composer to create a new score for his film.

The cast is pretty terrific. Kurt Russell plays John Ruth, a bounty hunter known as the Hangman, who displays the valiant traits you'd expect in a western hero, that is, until he repeatedly punches and slaps around the prisoner - one Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) - he is hauling to Red Rock to be executed. On the road to Minnie's Haberdashery, he picks up two passengers - the racist Sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), the son of a marauder who terrorized blacks in South Carolina during the Civil War, and Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a bounty hunter who had also enlisted in the war, but to kill racist whites.

Once they reach the tavern, they find a who's who of potentially dangerous characters - Bob the Mexican (Demian Bichir), former Confederate general and bigot Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), actual hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) and Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a soft spoken cowboy who claims to be writing a biography. Other characters pop up during the course of "The Hateful Eight," but saying anything more about them could give away the film's secrets.

Tarantino revisits some tropes those familiar with his oeuvre might recognize - there's an extended flashback halfway through the film, the picture is divided up into amusingly titled chapters and long stretches of the picture involve lengthy monologues, the most outlandish and wildly inventive of which involves Jackson's taunting another character with a speech about how white men are intimidated by the loins of black men.

But there's also some profundity to be found in the film's dialogue, especially in regards to matters of race relations. Goggins' racist sheriff notes at one point that whites feel safe when blacks are afraid, which is later countered by Jackson's assertion that blacks are safe when whites are unarmed, which is prescient considering that the script, written several years ago, seems not only to foreshadow the numerous shootings of young black males by white police officers, but also is ironic considering that police unions have vowed to boycott Tarantino's film after he marched in a protest against said shootings. However, Jackson's Warren notes that he unarms - or, makes comfortable - white folks with a letter he carries around written to him by President Abraham Lincoln.

The film also - and not surprisingly - looks great. It is the first picture to be shot on 65 mm film using Ultra Panavision 70 - which is the ultra-wide aspect ratio used on films in the 1950s and 1960s such as "Ben-Hur" and "Battle of the Bulge" - in 23 years and the result is a gorgeous looking film, despite most of the story being set in a one-room bar, although the movie also includes one of the year's best shots involving a cross bearing Jesus in the snow.

The violence in "The Hateful Eight" is a little unnerving, especially some extremely gory and brutal use of physical force against women, however, similar to the sinister characters in "Django Unchained" and "Reservoir Dogs," the characters behave in ways that would seem true to their natures. Then again, most of the characters - both men and women - whose number is up die particularly violent deaths in "The Hateful Eight."

Tarantino is one of American film's most unique and talented voices and "The Hateful Eight" proves once again that he can deftly blend genre riffs with provocative material. There's a concept on display in the film that - at least, in the case of this narrative - hatred and bigotry can be overcome when people unite to fight against other kinds of evil. Tarantino's film is dark, violent, button-pushing and one of the year's best.

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