THE HATEFUL EIGHT (Movie Review)

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*** out of ****
Rated R
for strong bloody violence, a scene of violent sexual content, strong language, and some graphic nudity
Released: December 25, 2015 limited; December 31st nationwide
Runtime: 168 minutes
 Digital; 187 minutes 70mm film “Roadshow” Edition (only 100 screens nationwide)
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Bruce Dern, Michael Madsen, Demian Bichir

Quentin Tarantino is up to his old indulgent tricks again in The Hateful Eight, a sprawling if less ambitious effort for the always-vital filmmaker. Cinematically it’s among his best, shot on the gloriously rich canvas of 70mm film, but it also rides along with only a modicum of thematic firepower in its arsenal.

This is a savage and brutal Western, with a climactic hour that may be the bloodiest and most grotesque of Quentin’s career (which is really saying something), as if pushing the limits of even his most ardent defenders – and hard-edged gore geeks – to see just how far down the slaughter hole they’ll go with him before vomiting, leaving, or both. A B-movie throwback at A-level artistry, with little if anything to say (despite endless, energized talking), The Hateful Eight may be arthouse in scope but its grindhouse in spirit.

Discussing a Tarantino movie is inevitably an exercise in evaluating its context with the man’s entire filmography; it’s impossible not to, and The Hateful Eight is a fusion of it all. After an early career that was as spectacular as any in the history of the movies, Tarantino took his much-deserved Instant Auteur status and went bonkers with it. Suddenly his work – while still important and dynamic – was intemperate and unwieldy (the Kill Bill volumes were particularly bogged down by Q’s “everything and the kitchen sink” excess).

Then came along Inglorious Bastards, arguably his masterpiece, that boasted a controlled, mature director at the height of his powers and discipline. Django Unchained continued that impressive precision, if to a nitpickingly lesser degree. And now we have The Hateful Eight, which finds that recent self-possessed director letting himself go completely bonkers again. That is to say, Tarantino’s 8th Film is not one type of Quentin more than the other; it’s equally both.

The setting is post-Civil War Western Frontier, and Q has cooked up a story that traps a posse of disparate miscreants from that 19th Century American milieu into an outpost during an unrelenting snowstorm. We come to find that there’s six degrees of separation (or less) between them, and as connections are revealed (and still other secrets kept), The Hateful Eight unravels in riveting, revolting fashion.

Throwing discipline to the outhouse, Quentin gives into every whim he has over this three-hour stretch. Lucky for us, some of those whims are pushing himself to new heights, capturing his most epic frames yet – in cold, ruthless conditions, no less. But that “screw it, I’m doing everything” attitude also gives us at least a half-hour’s worth (or more) of unnecessarily extended scenes confined to tight interiors. Clever as it all may be (and it is), less of it would go a much longer way. Quentin’s too much in love with all of his babies, and directs like a parent who thinks everyone else is in love with them as much as he is.

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In the first hour, with the exception of some snowy, sweeping mountain vistas and occasional double-barrel standoffs, we’re inside a stagecoach as three (and eventually four) characters ramble on and on. There’s a point to it all, as we eventually learn, but the conversations are about other exploits done at other places at other times. They’re interesting tales, even mythic, all told by pulpy raconteurs – but they’re just told, not shown. When we do finally see one depicted, however, it comes much later, at the film’s turning point, and visualizing its lurid nature makes quite an impact. But until then, it’s a lot of sitting, talking, and some occasional punching.

This continues in the second hour, once the stagecoach of bounty hunters (Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell), prisoner (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and would-be lawman (Walton Goggins) arrive at the outpost en route to their destination. There, trapped in the middle of a blizzard, they meet up with the film’s other titular half (including Tarantino vets Tim Roth and Michael Madsen, as well as a grisly confederate Bruce Dern and Demian Bichir), each feeling the others out, keeping their own motives and intents close to the vest.

Then, in that climactic third hour, The Hateful Eight becomes like one of those outrageous yarns we heard told in the first – except now we actually see it, in all its sadistic, facetously-gratuitous particulars. The thrill (if you’re not entirely repulsed by it, that is) is in discovering who, if any, will live to tell this tale.

Tarantino is still an elite when it comes to plotting and dialogue (and arguably peerless, although some of Aaron Sorkin’s screenplays can match), but alas, more than ever before, his characters aren’t so much people as they are just archetypes. Colorfully alive archetypes, mind you, but they primarily work as pawns in an elaborately devised chess match, serving their purpose but with little dimension. In films of Tarantino past, his characters would reveal perceptive, challenging truths about our most base impulses. Here, they’re limited to revealing plot twists.

But oh, the twists. The Hateful Eight is like Sergio Leone by way of Agatha Christie, a pulpy potboiler that simmers, boils, and then explodes in a brilliantly intricate plot machine. Those machinations are subtle at first as Quentin patiently builds the bomb over the first 60 minutes, lets it tick for another 60, and then lights the fuse for the last 60. As the puzzle pieces lock in through a timeline-jumping assembly, you find yourself eagerly anticipating a second viewing even as your first continues to unfold. Along with the sheer visual scope of the whole thing, this dizzying, dazzling story is the movie’s strength. It’s a blindsiding whodunit.

Without that masterful construct, though, the equally remarkable cast (who, to our benefit, seem to be in competition for who’s having the most fun) would be just jabbering on and on to no point or purpose. Because whatever The Hateful Eight has to say about the human condition – which is basically that we sure can be a racist, sexist, greedy, violent lot – isn’t anything particularly revelatory. A richer film would be able to indict its audience with the very sins of its characters, challenging us to see how, in our own ways, we’re not so dissimilar from these scoundrels and sociopaths.

But these eight (and more) are just one really bad crew of lowlifes who have little to do with – or reflect – the modern person’s values, actions, or moral compromises. Today, you’d only find their kind on the farthest fringes. Tarantino can still make his characters speak with a profane eloquence like he always has; he’s just not saying anything terribly insightful through them. But boy howdy are they a hoot.

The Weinstein Company is releasing two versions of the film. The first is the 168-minute digital projection that most of the nation will see. The second, in a select 100 locations nationwide, will be showing The Roadshow Edition (which I was able to screen), an actual Old School 70mm film projection that runs 187 minutes, including the classic Hollywood additions of a pre-show Overture (set to spaghetti Western composer Ennio Morricone’s inspired throwback score), as well as a 10-minute intermission.

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The actual narrative cut is essentially the same in both, with the 70mm boasting a few wider frames than its digital counterpart; it’s stunning, honestly, to see just how much landscape can be crammed into that scope. For cinephile diehards the Roadshow is worth seeking out, and if a participating theatre is halfway convenient to access then it should definitely be your choice. But for most others, your local digital projection will more than suffice (and depending on how your stomach and psyche feel after its over, you may be grateful you didn’t go out of your way).

Quentin has always made, broken, rewritten, and played by his own rules, but he’s at his best – his most creative and formidable – when he employs some restraint. Now he’s back to that phase where he just doesn’t know when to stop, or doesn’t care to, exercising zero ability to rein himself in. It’s brilliant and bloated all at the same time, proving that there really can be too much of a good thing. In the case of Tarantino, it can get pretty ugly too.

And like Tarantino I’ve gone way past my welcome, even though there’s so much more I could still say (violent misogyny, anyone?!). But also like Tarantino, you probably got my point at least 800 words ago.