Friday, December 25, 2015

THE HATEFUL EIGHT Is a Badass and Wild Western From Tarantino


- There are few singular storytellers left in film these days, and so there is a unique pleasure in watching a new movie from Quentin Tarantino. Knowing that we're watching a story written, shot, and delivered with all the quirks and artistic flourishes that its creator desires means that a Tarantino movie is a special sort of gift to unwrap. Most movies we dare to impress us. Tarantino movies, we can sit back and breathe in - knowing we're in good hands, and knowing that even if we don't love every aspect of the movie, well, you can be damn sure that it'll be a movie that we won't soon forget. Come to think of it, that's a good way to describe THE HATEFUL EIGHT - a movie - nay, a movie-going experience, that I won't soon forget. Badass, twisted, brutal, darkly hilarious, ostentatious, indulgent, verbose, stubbornly old-school yet undeniably of-the-moment ... THE HATEFUL EIGHT is nothing if not Tarantino at maximum Tarantino-ness. Love it or hate it, it's the exact opposite of most of the endlessly-tested, market-driven synthetic cinema that litters movie screens. For me? Movies like this one are why I love movies.

In many ways, THE HATEFUL EIGHT feels like a full-circle movie for Tarantino. It takes the Western setting of his previous film, Django Unchained - plus many of that movie's themes (race, revenge, frontier justice) - and combines them with the sort of claustrophobic, character-driven, limited-setting feel of his first film, Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino movies are always dialogue-heavy, but this one is all-dialogue. And because it mostly takes place in a single confined location - a ramshackle haberdashery in the Wyoming wilderness - the film, in many respects, has the feel of a stage play. I can see why that might be a turn-off to some - but when the dialogue is this rich, the characters this well-drawn and acted, and the storytelling this entertaining - you can't help but hang on every word and fully lose yourself in this rough-and-tumble black comedy.

The story, at least initially, centers around Kurt Russell's impressively-mustachioed bounty hunter John Ruth, who is transporting a wanted criminal - Jennifer Jason Leigh's Daisy Domergue - to Red Rock, Wyoming to see her hanged and collect the bounty on her head. Ruth - known as "The Hangman," has a policy of always bringing in his quarry alive - letting them die by the law rather than by his own bullet. Unfortunately for him, Domergue is a particularly ornery, feisty, rabid sort of woman - and so he's got to keep her handcuffed to himself for both of their protection. As the two journey through a fierce blizzard on their way to Red Rock, they pick up two additional passengers looking to escape from the deadly cold. The first is Samuel L. Jackson's Union soldier-turned-bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren - known far and wide as having been a friend of President Lincoln who carries in his pocket, always, a prized letter from the assassinated leader. The second is Walton Goggins' Chris Mannix, a former Confederate soldier - son of a Confederate General - who claims to be on his way to Red Rock to be installed as their new Sheriff, following the murder of the previous one. Already, there is tension between the former Union and Confederate soldiers (John Ruth was also on the Union side and sympathetic to the cause of emancipation). But things escalate even further when the group takes refuge from the storm at Minnie's Haberdashery. There, they find the usual proprietors mysteriously missing, and a group of suspect individuals occupying the place who each seems like they may have something to hide. Added to the mix are Bruce Dern as an aged Confederate General, Michael Madsen as an abrasive cowboy, Tim Roth as a talkative British hangman, and Demian Bechir as the immediately-suspect man who claims to be running the haberdashery in its owners' absence.

As you can see, the movie's cast is an all-star lineup of all-time badasses. And as tends to happen in a Tarantino film, every single one of 'em brings their absolute A-game. Let's talk for a second about Kurt Russell. These days, Russell takes roles somewhat selectively, and it's increasingly rare to see him play the sort of larger-than-life badass that the man was born to play. Tarantino himself helped remind everyone the ownage of Russell several years back when he cast him as Mike the Stuntman in Death Proof. But 2015 has been a full-blown Russennaissance (trademark: me), with the man-who-played-Snake-Plissken appearing in not one but two all-time great badass Western roles - first in the future cult classic cannibal Western Bone Tomahawk, and now here in THE HATEFUL EIGHT. Russell is so great here that you both forget he was ever gone and leave desperate for more of him in kickass roles. Suffice it to say, he rules as John Ruth - a gruff and at-times-vicious bounty hunter who nonetheless adheres to a particular code of justice.

Now let's talk about Walton Goggins. Some of you may not be familiar with Goggins, but you should be. For six seasons, he tore the house down as the chief antagonist of TV series Justified, the inimitable Boyd Crowder. Goggins' performance on Justified was so good and so iconic that you couldn't help but root for him to become a huge star following the show's end - or at the least, root for him to get the kind of star-making roles that he got here in THE HATEFUL EIGHT. Because here, finally, Goggins gets a movie role that allows him to go full Goggins - to be every bit the scene-stealing, ass-kicking, endlessly-quotable showstopper he was on Justified. Goggins' Mannix practically steals the movie away from his bigger-name co-stars, and it's because the actor has a knack for charismatic theatricality that is unmatched. As he did with Crowder, Goggins makes Mannix into a character who you're not sure whether to love or hate - but one thing's for sure: you can't wait to see what he does next.

I will also give a specific call-out to Samuel L. Jackson. The dude appears in so many movie roles, oftentimes in not-so-great movies, that it's easy to forget how downright awesome the guy can be when he's at the top of his game. He's most often at the top of his game when paired with Tarantino - and he's *damn sure* at the top of his game in THE HATEFUL EIGHT. Jackson gets the kind of monologues here that only Jackson can deliver, the kind of wrath-of-god stuff where you can practically hear Tarantino giggling with delight as Jackson preaches the good word of QT. In many ways, Jackson's Marquis Warren is a similar character to Jamie Foxx's Django - a man who has seen violence and has now become violence, but a man whose violence is colored by a righteous sense of vindication for a world that did him wrong. All that aside, Samuel L. is quite simply entertaining-as-hell in this movie.

One more specific call-out, and that's to Jennifer Jason Leigh. A journeywoman actress who has done it all, this may well be her finest (and bloodiest) moment. Leigh is a witchy delight as Daisy Domergue - a vile woman who you start to foster a grudging respect for thanks to her ability to take a lickin' and keep on tickin'. Leigh gets all-kinds-of-roughed-up by the men in this movie, and the violence against her can be hard to watch at times. But it's played for dark comedic effect by Tarantino, because in a room full of black-hearted men, Domergue's heart is the blackest of them all. A running joke of the film is how Domergue - who starts the movie with a grotesque black eye, only becomes increasingly grotesque as the movie progresses, to the point where she becomes a bruised, blood-covered, toothless wretch. But what spunk she has in the face of it all. This is a zero-vanity role for Leigh and she absolutely crushes it.

Tim Roth, Demian Bechir, Madsen, Bruce Dern - all excellent. Channing Tatum pops up in a surprise role that's a lot of fun. The cast is just top-notch top to bottom.

Tarantino, for his part, uses a lot of his usual tricks in terms of giving us a slow-burn build-up followed by moments of shocking violence and sudden twists of the narrative knife. The film looks amazing - in 70 MM, there's a richness and vividness that is utterly immersive. In many ways, the haberdashery is its own character - and QT does a brilliant job of familiarizing us with its geography and layout as a way of framing the action of each scene. There are all kinds of secrets in the haberdashery - guns hidden under tables, people hiding in unseen places - and Tarantino takes great relish in littering the place with an assortment of Chekhov's Guns, leaving us in anticipation as to when various other shoes will drop. The entire film carries with it a theme of truth vs. lies - the lies we tell others and the lies we tell ourselves - and the haberdashery with all its secrets is like a living embodiment of that. QT also does a great job of simply making us feel like we're trapped with these characters in the middle of a deadly blizzard. Whenever the barely-held-together door of the haberdashery swings open, releasing a torrent of snow and wind and cold, I had a visceral reaction to it. "Shut the damn door" I thought, right alongside the characters. The look and feel of the film is only enriched by the original score from the legendary Ennio Morricon, whose mood-setting Western melodies instantly create a feeling of danger and high-adventure. And of course, Tarantino's use of anachronistic yet perfectly-chosen songs inserted into the film is as spot-on as ever.

I used the word indulgent earlier, and I will say that the movie does at times get a little long-winded. In many of QT's best films, the extended diatribes and dialogue tangents are offset by thrilling action sequences and briskly-moving plotlines. Here, as in Death Proof, the action comes in short, self-contained bursts, and so there are very long and uninterrupted stretches of dialogue that can, at times, feel like QT milking character exchanges for all they're worth at the expense of the movie's pacing. In particular, a late-movie chapter that serves as an extended flashback feels like an overlong departure from the main story that could have been cut shorter.

Still, the indulgences are part of the fun of a Tarantino flick. Not just the slow-boiling dialogue, but the chapter divisions and names, the random snippets of coyly-delivered QT-provided narration, the digressions into politics and culture and random banter - all of this is what makes a QT film what it is (there's even an intermission in the 70 MM version!). But all of it adds up to accentuate that feeling that you're in the presence of a storyteller who's taking the utmost delight in the story that he's telling. This isn't a story told by a committee of hack writers or because of a corporate mandate. No, this is a story told by a guy who by-god loves telling stories.

THE HATEFUL EIGHT has its flaws - it's not the lightning-in-a-bottle of a Pulp Fiction of Kill Bill - but man, it's a one-of-a-kind sort of film that I had an absolute blast with. It's packed to the brim with the preeminent badasses of our time, and it's a hard-boiled meditation on truth, violence, justice, race, and revenge delivered with rock n' roll style that puts the "wild" back in Wild West. Bring on film #9.

My Grade: A-

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