Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Hateful Eight

THE HATEFUL EIGHT                    B+                  
USA  (168 mi, 70mm version 187 mi)  2015  ‘Scope  d:  Quentin Tarantino           

It’s less inspired by one Western movie than by Bonanza, The Virginian, High Chaparral,” Tarantino said. “Twice per season, those shows would have an episode where a bunch of outlaws would take the lead characters hostage. They would come to the Ponderosa and hold everybody hostage, or to go Judge Garth’s place — Lee J. Cobb played him — in The Virginian and take hostages. There would be a guest star like David Carradine, Darren McGavin, Claude Akins, Robert Culp, Charles Bronson or James Coburn. I don’t like that storyline in a modern context, but I love it in a Western, where you would pass halfway through the show to find out if they were good or bad guys, and they all had a past that was revealed. “I thought, ‘What if I did a movie starring nothing but those characters? No heroes, no Michael Landons. Just a bunch of nefarious guys in a room, all telling backstories that may or may not be true. Trap those guys together in a room with a blizzard outside, give them guns, and see what happens.’”

—Tarantino quote by Mike Fleming Jr. from Deadline, November 10, 2014, "Quentin Tarantino On Retirement, Grand 70 MM Intl Plans For ‘The Hateful Eight" 

Outside of Pulp Fiction (1994), this is easily the most fun film in Tarantino’s career, and the reason is largely the towering performance from Samuel L. Jackson, where this is something that only he could have pulled off, a perfect mix of intelligence and outlandish humor, where he’s like an eloquent spokesperson for the times who literally grabs our attention before he walks us through this movie like our own personal guide.  While he’s only one of several well-defined characters, curiously he’s not even the man in charge, as that would be Kurt Russell’s John “The Hangman” Ruth, doing his very best John Wayne imitation as a notorious rifle-toting bounty hunter who always brings his wanted outlaws in alive so they can have a proper hanging, which in the era of the American West is the closest thing to defining justice.  Part of the attraction to the film is that it was released in two versions, one a 187-minute “roadshow” that includes an opening overture and intermission, shot on 70mm which can only play in selected theaters equipped with appropriate reel projectors, where this resembles the glorious spectacle of the golden age of Hollywood, while an alternate digital cut will be shown in regular theaters without an overture and intermission, where the film itself is about 6-minutes shorter, using alternate takes of earlier scenes shot on 70 mm that might look distorted on smaller screens.  Of note, this is the first western scored by Ennio Morricone, the music behind the Sergio Leone westerns, in 40 years, the 6th collaboration between Tarantino and Samuel L. Jackson, while it is the third film in a row where someone is shot in the testicles.  Imagine an entire movie resembling the extraordinary opening sequence from INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009), one of the most unique examples of protracted storytelling, where the extensive lead-up to whatever happens next is a film in itself, filled with its own plot twists and dramatic crescendos, where the audience is drawn into a different time frame, as patience is a virtue.  Tarantino seems to be saying “Stick with me, and I won’t let you down.”  The resolution of these scenes, at least to some, have always been a disappointment, as a fury of violence always prevails, where it just becomes a bit too predictable.  But no one can deny the power of Tarantino’s theatrically-inclined, dramatic construction of a scene, building tension throughout, with peaks and valleys, where he slowly and patiently builds up to that momentous edge that he eventually crosses.   

Opening on a lone stagecoach led by a six-horse team driving its way through a snowy blizzard in Wyoming, set sometime after the end of the Civil War, the nation has not exactly mended its wounds, as a good deal of lingering resentment hovers over the country like a festering wound, but all that is kept tightly under the vest as a wicked storm approaches.  The mountainous landscapes are put to good use as the audience gets a whiff of the widescreen Ultra Panavision 70 format, where the last Cinerama film to be shot in a similar format was KHARTOUM (1966) a half century ago.  But as Tarantino is one of the last remaining holdouts insisting upon shooting his movies on celluloid, compared to everything else that we see in theaters today, the look is spectacularly vivid and crisp.  John Ruth is transporting his prisoner, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to Red Rock in order to watch her hang, while also collecting the $10,000 reward, but he picks up two stragglers along the way, Samuel L. Jackson as Major Marquis Warren, a particularly successful black military leader in the Civil War, whose claim to fame is carrying around with him at all times a genuine letter written by Abraham Lincoln, while also transporting 3 dead bodies worth an $8000 bounty, but also Walton Goggins as Sheriff Chris Mannix, the newly appointed sheriff of Red Rock who once rode with his notoriously racist father‘s Confederate renegades, developing a reputation as a degenerate killer.  The political divide between these two decorated war veterans on opposite sides increases the racial tensions, creating immediate antagonism, with John Ruth ready to bust heads if there’s any trouble, though Mannix warns them both they’ll have a difficult time collecting their bounties if something happens to him, as the sheriff pays out the reward money.  The worsening weather forces them to stop at Minnie’s Haberdashery to wait out the storm, though Minnie and her loyal sidekick Sweet Dave are both mysteriously missing, with Cowboy Bob (Demián Bichir) supposedly left in charge, along with a motley group of criminally inclined outcasts sidelined by the raging blizzard outside.  Sizing up the situation, including a broken front door that needs to be hammered shut after each opening, the two bounty hunters suspect something is up and form a pact protecting their property from the others, as each one of the guests looks eminently suspicious. 

Divided by chapter headings, we are slowly introduced to the twisted group of unsavory characters trapped inside a single room with no way out, where their pasts and secret motives are revealed, while their notorious reputations curiously precede them, as they all get acquainted waiting for the first one to blink before they make their move.  Spanning around the room, along with the stagecoach driver, O.B. (James Parks), we meet Tim Roth in a bowler hat as Oswaldo Mobray, who contends he’s the hangman at Red Rock, Michael Madsen as Joe Cage, an irritant and lowlife, and Confederate General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), an unrepentant racist idolized by Mannix, but despised by Major Warren, particularly for his gruesome treatment of black Union soldiers during the war.  While John Ruth and Major Warren suspect there is someone working against them in the room, perhaps more than one aligned with the prisoner, they maintain their pact of working together as they don’t know who it is, but taking no chances, they do disarm all the suspects, creating an uneasy tension that suffocatingly chokes on its own inherent, claustrophobic cabin fever atmosphere.  As prejudices and resentments are revealed, it’s surprising how these few men coincidentally brought together by a storm have already heard of all the others and developed opinions about what kind of men they are, with all manner of trash talking taking place, but none more venomous than Major Warren’s contempt for General Smithers, which leads to the most grandiose and extraordinary story of the film, an extended soliloquy by Jackson, whose performance dominates the film, none more memorable than his provocative comments and personal insults reserved for the General, taking great pleasure in cornering the man into a position of weakness and disadvantage, then slowly tightening the screws, literally stripping away any pretense of manhood, leaving him disarmed and completely exposed, offering him a firearm within an arm’s reach, goading the man, literally toying with him until he has no other alternative but to reach for the gun, only to be shot down in cold blood, yet presumably deemed self-defense under the circumstances.  This theatrical display reveals Tarantino at his best, as it’s an extremely well-written scene, set up by such antagonistic character extremes, embellished by the most vulgar and detestable humor imaginable, yet somehow it’s an exceptional and memorable moment leading into the intermission, where viewers will have plenty to talk about. 

On the other side of the intermission, Tarantino himself indulges in a little narration, offering unseen clues the audience may have missed, turning this into a variation on Agatha Christie’s best-selling 1939 novel And Then There Were None, a murderous chamber drama where ten people have been invited to a remote location by a mysterious stranger, where each of the guests holds a secret leading to someone else’s innocent death, and then one-by-one, the guests themselves start dying.  First published under the name Ten Little Niggers, the book went through a series of title changes, including Ten Little Indians (The History of 'Ten Little Indians' - ICTMN.com) before settling on the words drawn from a nursery rhyme.  While it’s not nearly as simplistic as that, the film instead moves in a more circuitous path, where each of the characters has a major scene, with each one revealing themselves to be abhorrent and revolting, with Daisy Domergue, the object throughout of nonstop abuse, outshining all the other men for the dubious honors of the most vile character of them all, where Major Warren is the closest thing to a protagonist.  As they weave their way to unraveling the underlying mystery, complete with a flashback sequence with the delightfully plump Dana Gourrier as Minnie, Zoë Bell as Six-Horse Judy, and Gene Jones as Sweet Dave, the stage is reset with different implications, yet a good deal of the film is an appropriate commentary on xenophobia and the racial divide in America, exposing the roots of the race hatred, and showing how little progress has been made in the last 150 years, as we are still dealing with the same visceral anger that has plagued America throughout its contentious history, perhaps best expressed by the seemingly neverending sentiments from the Civil War.  When Major Warren suggests, “Let’s slow it down.  Let’s slow it way down,” it allows the audience to reevaluate our own history but also enjoy the art of storytelling, where Tarantino is simply having a blast with this film, returning to his own roots, as the one-room structure certainly resembles his own existential Reservoir Dogs (1992), which recalls the hopeless futility of Sartre’s No Exit, a portrait of eternal damnation, where the ultimate realization is “Hell is other people.”  While it’s often brutal and excessively violent, and once more there are grotesque uses of the n-word, this is the one Tarantino film that seems designed for a theatrical stage, as even the flashback sequences are set in the same location, so expect to see possible variations in the future, yet this original casting is sublime, as the fun on the set cannot be denied, as they are all in complete synch with the director’s sick humor and tendency for tastelessness, where it’s not lost on the viewer that the director ironically heralds this spectacular 70mm widescreen “Ultra Panavision,” and then sets a 3-hour film in the suffocating confines of a single room.  Nonetheless, through a witty structure of endless dialogue, politics makes strange bedfellows, and the final alliance in the film is perhaps the strangest of them all, where the Lincoln letter, in all its ambiguous implications, figures prominently.   

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