Wednesday, January 6, 2016

A bounty hunter picnic


It's a real, painful shame that it's not much, much better than it actually is—but Tarantino's new nihilistic Western surely remains entertaining enough to while away three hours with.

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
With Samuel Jackson (Maj. Marquis Warren), Kurt Russel (John "The Hangman" Ruth), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Daisy Domergue), Walton Goggins (Sheriff Chris Mannix), Demian Bichir (Bob the Mexican), Tim Roth (Oswaldo Mobray), Michael Madsen (Joe Gage), Bruce Dern (Gen. Sandy Smithers), and James Parks (O.B. Jackson)

Spoiler alert: moderate

First, a note on the presentation: the 70mm (the first such projection I've ever seen) is tolerably swell.  Between the absurdly high aspect ratio (2.76:1) and the clarity of the textures on every wood surface, every costume, and every actor, The Hateful Eight is certainly an interesting visual experience.  Of course, insofar as the larger part of Hateful Eight takes place within a suspiciously large (verging on TARDIS-like) roadside watering hole, and Quentin Tarantino seems the happiest when devoting his encompassing Ultra Panavision frame to cyclopean close-ups, the upshot is that it looks awesome, while being demonstrably indulgent... and, as it turns out, this is something of a perfect match of the film's form and its function.

But!  Since we're currently on the subject of how Eight looks, rather than what Eight achieves as a narrative, let's just drive this stagecoach right on home: given the severe limitations placed upon its spectacle, it's positively gorgeous in nearly every single frame, and most of all when it has occasion to open itself up to the baleful Montana winter that serves as the setting of the film as well as the exigence for its tale.  Human objects often create little more that white-speckled silhouettes against Eight's boundless white, and cinematographer Robert Richardson has discovered something very close to the platonic ideal of what being snowbound looks like, on the exact same kind of rarefied level occupied by such magnificently frigid pictures as Dr. Zhivago, The Thing, and Fargo.  But as noted, most of the film actually takes place indoors—forty minutes in a stagecoach, a little over two hours in a roadhouse.  Even within such claustrophobic environs, however, Tarantino and Richardson still find a lot of use for the format, managing some artful (and seriously atypical) ultra-widescreen compositions.  Not to say that every visual choice is a masterstroke, even on the level of pure cinema: there's a singularly obnoxious piece of racking focus that seems to have gotten away from the director and the cinematographer entirely, leaving Jennifer Jason Leigh a heap of fuzz in the foreground for many long moments while the focal plane unnecessarily shifts back and forth to take stock of the action in the background.  (Someone needs to rewatch Hallowen.)

But sixty seconds out of a three hour movie don't amount to much, when just about everything else is beautiful, or at least beautifully grotesque: Courtney Hoffman's costume design; Yohei Taneda's production design (such as it is, anyway); and let's mention Ennio Morricone, sooner rather than later, since Eight gives the old master a chance to do one more Western score, and while it's not even close to his best—indeed, it's not even trying to be his best, more The Thing than The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly—it's effectively menacing and, when it wants to be, lovely.

I mean, I'll admit it.  I sort of thought he was dead.

Now, it's hardly surprising that with his eighth feature, Tarantino hasn't suddenly decided to make a movie lacking in some brand of formal ambition.  That doesn't mean we have to be happy that it's also in service to what is, easily, the worst film he ever directed.

But a statement like that leaves a lot of room for interpretation, doesn't it?  Tarantino, probably my fourth favorite living director, has essentially never made a wrong turn in his whole career.  So let's be crystal clear: The Hateful Eight is absolutely good—maybe it's even very good, though I find myself awfully hesitant to commit to a recommendation that strong.

The issue, then, isn't that Eight is merely a disappointment in the context of a Quentin Tarantino film—though it is—it's that it's a disappointment, full stop.  Eight takes as its premise a paranoid, tension-dripping thriller which—when combined with Tarantino's own acumen as both a writer and a director of dialogue scenes—ought never have been anything less than perfect.  Unfortunately, Eight ends up in about the single least interesting place it could possibly go (taken as a metaphor, it's all kinds of fucked-up).  And it does this while evincing surprisingly little of Tarantino's flair for either character or conversation.  Yes, it manages to shock the senses in its guignol finale—but even on this count, it's only because there just aren't enough movies with exploding heads these days.

The plot: a few years after the Civil War, we find ourselves in a snow-blasted Montana hellscape, as a stagecoach makes its way through a blizzard toward the town of Red Rock, which is where bounty hunter John Ruth intends to introduce his $10,000 prize, Daisy Domergue, to the town's hangman.  But on the way, their coach is stopped by Ruth's acquaintance, a fellow bounty hunter named Marquis Warren, formerly of the Union Army—and, importantly, a freed slave made a cavalry officer, and suspected of bloody crimes against humanity in the way he fought his part of the Civil War.  With his horse dead by misadventure, Warren needs a ride.  Very reluctantly, Ruth extends him an invitation.  In this same fashion do they meet the man claiming to be the new sheriff of Red Rock, Chris Mannix, another veteran, and another man with a questionable approach to warfare—although in Mannix' case, we're dealing with an ex-Confederate instead.  Presently numbering only four (we are, I presume, not intended to count the stage driver), these hateful individuals finally make eight once they seek shelter from the worsening storm at Minnie's Haberdashery, an ironically-named inn.  There, they meet Oswaldo Mobley (Red Rock's hangman), Joe Gage (some species of cowboy poet), Bob the Mexican (who alleges that he's looking after the place while Minnie's away), and General Sandy Smithers (also formerly of the Confederate Army, and still wearing the filthy paraphernalia of his treason).  Ruth lays it on the table: he's got a bounty worth a lot of money, and if they intend on taking her from him, he'll kill them without hesitation or mercy.  And since it looks an awful lot like at least one of these men plan on doing just that, Ruth forges an uneasy alliance with Warren—whom he at least knows, even if he cannot trust.  But as tensions come to a boil and plans unfurl, events soon escalate beyond the pair's ability to easily handle.

Turns out they're all vampires!  (Not really.)

Where Eight succeeds is in its doomy mood and its surprisingly good sense of pace—the general consensus seems to be that the death of Tarantino's indefatigable editor Sally Menke was a major blow to his ability to cut his movies with the same sense of comic punch and smooth flow that previously defined his work.  Personally, I've not found this to be the case, and whatever story issues it might have, Eight moves with startling speed through its three hours—even managing to plow through numerous redundancies, including wholly-repeated lines of dialogue and enigmatic close-ups that go on forever, that (I happily concede) beg to have been left on the cutting room floor.  This isn't, principally, a technical issue: the rot at Eight's core is that there's just not a lick of sense in a runtime this exaggerated for a scenario that's also this dreadfully simple.  (Indeed, simpler than it ever should've been.)

You see, title and epic length notwithstanding, only three of these eight ever rise much beyond the level of a cardboard cutout.  (Madsen is all but completely wasted.)  The film winds up concerned almost exclusively with Warren, Ruth, and Mannix—with some shrift given to Domergue, too, although this is far, far more the result of Leigh's performance than it is in the repetitive things Tarantino gives her do, mainly reacting with crazed whimsy to the beatings Ruth doles out for misbehavior.  The tantalizing promise of individuals plotting and scheming to relieve Ruth of his bounty goes largely unfulfilled; instead, the first half of the film is more interested in refighting the Civil War—territory which Tarantino trod already, no more than three years ago, and to much better effect, in Django Unchained.

And, okay.  This leads us directly into That Scene, the one Tarantino wants us to talk about, and so talk about it we shall.  It's expertly performed and terribly written, and is intercut with the only flashback in a three hour movie that is nominally about eight or nine separate characters.  Above all, it's the single most childishly provocative thing in a career that often seems almost exclusively based upon childish provocation.  Filled with jarring (and unfunny) anachronism, this centerpiece sequence is effectively film-breaking.  (It's therefore a stroke of good luck that Tarantino put it before the intermission in the roadshow version, since this gives the audience a chance to decompress.)  In its essentials, it's a scene straight out of No Name On the Bullet: Warren, in the Audie Murphy role, talks his way right into his opponent's head—and the general idea is sound.  But as it takes on a sexually sadistic bent, it couldn't be clearer what the real goals of this scene were if Tarantino leaped bodily through the screen himself, and whipped his own dick out.  It's not the content, as such—I've seen nastier things in my time—it's the sheer smugness of the hard cock tenting up the curtain that makes it so intolerable.  (Indeed, it's transparent enough within the story, as well, that it's rather hard to believe the victim actually falls for it.)  Although this might be the most salient expression of Tarantino's vanity, however, the same kind of masturbatory edginess is naturally evident throughout the proceedings—it's never been more clear how juvenile Tarantino's relationship to the n-bomb is, to the extent that Eight makes Pulp Fiction worse.  And Tarantino might manage to go without showing his face this time; but this only means we get to focus exclusively upon his voice, which enters the picture at the end of that intermission in the form of an omniscient, nasal narrator.  I wouldn't make fun, except the only reason this exists is in order to wedge in one of the clumsiest "show the bomb" set-ups ever attempted by a thriller.  For Eight is, in many respects, a remarkably poorly-made vehicle for Hitchcockian suspense—brandy reference or not.

Still, this overlooks the good parts—the best of which is the glorious gore of the closing act, precisely the kind of thing you'd go to a Tarantino picture to see.  (Hell, there's an argument to be made that Eight is the most gruesome Tarantino movie in his canon; I'd raise you Death Proof, but reasonable minds could easily differ.)  There are more subtle things, though.  We all know that Tarantino's been uniquely sensitive to issues of race in his films.  (And "uniquely sensitive" is the best way to describe it, I think, without writing a term paper on the subject.)  Eight is absolutely no exception to this rule.  While most of Tarantino's dialogue here is sadly unmemorable, the way he handles one conversation, regarding a certain letter from Abraham Lincoln, might well be one of the most insightful things—or, if you wish, one of the least tone-deaf things—the man ever put on the screen.

This all leaves us with a problem film, in an otherwise spotless catalog.  It's actually somewhat frustrating: much of what's wrong with The Hateful Eight is simply the outcome of a script that thought it was better than it was, and Tarantino makes mistakes here that come damnably close to appearing like deliberate attempts to sabotage his own project.  But we shouldn't just throw the baby with the bathwater, no matter how dirty his bathwater might be.  I suppose that when there are still great filmmakers whose every third film is practically worthless, we can't overreact when one of the best in the business gives us one that's simply fine.

Score:  7/10


  1. I thought that SLJ's explanation of his letter from Abraham Lincoln was brilliant

    1. Hi Tim! Yeah, that's maybe my favorite non-exploding head, non-landscape-related part of the movie.

  2. I found the 70mm trope to be distracting. I kept waiting for some amazing visual(s) to come along to justify the expense of carting out this old celluloid format. Sure, it's beautiful, but 70mm would have been more useful for Kill Bill. The Hateful Eight could just as well have been shot on a Red One.

    1. It uses the compositional space well enough--there's some frames with people put into the edges that I really like--but it's certainly not the best use that Ultra Panavision has ever been put to. (I mean, just to name one example completely at random, it's no Ben-Hur...)