Friday, January 1, 2016

THE HATEFUL EIGHT - Dead Men Tell no Tales

*Note - this pertains to the "Roadshow Version" of The Hateful Eight, which contains roughly 20 minutes of extra footage compared to the theatrical wide release (as well as an overture and intermission).

Quentin Tarantino is, not to mince words, one of the best filmmakers in the business. Not just because he can take genre hallmarks, aesthetics, and needle drops from various decades and combine them into a personal cinematic whole in a way most directors could only dream, but because he also imbues what could be dismissed as violent indulgence from most others with thematic resonance and surprising hilarity. In some of his most careful balancing acts, it's almost like Tarantino is daring the audience to enjoy what they might normally find reproachful, because he knows he can get away with it.

And with The Hateful Eight, Tarantino spends an entire film seeing exactly how far he can walk this very tightrope, while his film screams angrily at the current state of the country from the setting of a century and a half in our sordid past.

Tarantino's last two films, Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, both used the context of a "historical" film (if a very heightened and fictionalized history) to symbolically right the wrongs of events like the sin of slavery or the horrors of the holocaust. Both movies expose the underbellies of parts of history that tend to get glossed over in the books or ignored by our cultural conscience. But where they offered some measure of empowerment or retribution, the director's eight film is a very different beast altogether. Here, there are no escapes, no heroes, no victories. There's only hatred, bigotry, and death.

And no one makes it look as good while still feeling as bad as this guy.

The story follows the eponymous eight miscreants who are thrown together after a Wyoming blizzard traps them in a way station outside the town of Red Rock. Kurt Russell's John "The Hangman" Ruth is transporting his newest bounty (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh in a barn-burner of a turn) by coach when they run into Samuel L. Jackson as Marquis Warren - a Yankee Major and fellow bounty hunter - and Walton Goggins as Chris Mannix - the new sheriff of Red Rock. Tensions are already climbing when the four (along with their unlucky driver) show up at Minnie's Haberdashery and find it occupied by four other suspicious characters (Tim Roth, Bruce Dern, Michael Madsen, and Demian Bichir). Watching these actors play off each other is almost as enjoyable as watching them feast on the script, and the film is so visually dynamic that you almost forget that the majority of it takes place in a single room.

It's almost a cinephile's joke that Tarantino used the legendary 70 mm lenses used to shoot Ben-hur and then used them to stage a film that's largely a one-room play, but it's not long before the gorgeously-designed and masterfully-shot interiors make the use of the wider frame a surprising necessity. I use the term "stage" deliberately, because The Hateful Eight is a locked-room murder mystery play as much as it's a western, and part of the film's genius is how it traps the audience with the most horrible people imaginable. These are all actors of tremendous chemistry and talent (with Jackson, Leigh, and Goggins emerging as the MVPs, though Russell's riff on John Wayne is a sight to behold), and any one of them would make a great hero - or anti-hero - for this film. But that's not what Tarantino is interested in. The movie burns slowly until it erupts into a fountain of violence and horror, showing that each one of these titular people is a blight on humanity.

And this is where the movie makes its real move. The characters may be living in the aftermath of the Civil War, but they're speaking the thoughts and prejudices that face our country today. Tarantino makes these compelling enough to be alluring, distracting, or even entertaining at times, but only to swerve and hit the audience with a revelation of monstrosity at the person they might be tempted to cheer for or laugh at. It's a movie that takes slow, deliberate care in crafting a twisting narrative with hilarious punctuation that delights in making you question how and why you enjoy watching these people. It's like the ending of John Carpenter's The Thing (a reference the film itself almost directly name-drops) extended to 3 hours with the certainty not resting in the question of whether or not one of those involved is the monster, but asking how could anyone ever trust these monsters to begin with.

The Hateful Eight is an easy film to dislike and a hard film to easily categorize, but it's impossible to forget. Tarantino has lost none of his talent for writing crackling dialogue or staging shocking violence, but here the film feels more than ever like a personal statement made by the director, furious about the bedrock upon which we've built our nation. The film asserts that the country's ideals stand upon a foundation of lies and whitewashed  atrocities, and that we should never be allowed to forget the sins that birthed our future.

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