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The Hateful Eight : A Review

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****THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS. THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW****

MY RATING : SKIP IT IN THE THEATRE*, SEE IT ON CABLE/NETFLIX

*(unless you are an avid lover of lush cinematography, in that case go see it in anamorphic 70mm in the theatre)

The Hateful Eight is enigmatic writer and director Quentin Tarantino's eighth feature film. It is the story of eight seeming strangers seeking refuge from a blizzard in a stagecoach stopover in post-civil war Wyoming. The film boasts an all-star cast of Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Damien Bashir, Walter Goggins and Bruce Dern.

The Hateful Eight has been distributed in two different versions, one version, the "general", runs 167 minutes and is shown in regular 35 mm. The other version is the "Roadshow" version, which has a running time of 187 minutes, and is shown in theaters specially equipped with anamorphic 70mm projectors, in order to show the film "as it was intended" by Tarantino, in 70mm, widescreen format. I saw the "Roadshow" version, which actually runs 210 minutes due to an overture to open the film and a twelve minute intermission. Like many of Tarantino's films, this story is told in chapters. There are six chapters, and the intermission came between chapters 3 and 4.

While I have loved some of his films, I am not one of those fan boys who worships Tarantino. I find his work to be at times brilliant and at other times appalling, sometimes within the same film. I loved Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction but thought Jackie Brown was one of the sloppiest and worst films I had seen in years. I was stunned by the audacious genius of the two masterful Kill Bill films. I was repulsed by the brazen pandering and artistic imbalance of Inglorious Basterds, even while being mesmerized by two scenes in it which were two of the best scenes I'd seen in recent memory. I thought Django Unchained was, minus a clumsy cameo by its director, a masterpiece. 

The Hateful Eight is a frustrating and sometimes infuriating film. The first half of the film, where we meet the eight characters, is well done and accentuates Tarantino's strength as a writer and a director. The first half wonderfully builds characters and a story that leave the viewer in a heightened state of anticipation as they walk out for intermission. Sadly, after the intermission, the film never lives up to its premise, promise and set-up. The second half of the film devolves into a tangled and uneven mess of Tarantino's worst, unfocused impulses.

Without getting into specifics or divulging any 'spoilers', the second half of the film feels lost and rushed, like Tarantino is attempting to cover the holes in his own storytelling. He uses a voice-over for the first time in the film right after the intermission to fill in the gaps of his narrative and it is jarring for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that Tarantino does the voice over himself. The voice-over signals we are transitioning to not only a different (and lesser) film, but also a different type of film. The confidence, subtlety, and deft touch on display in the first half of the film vanish and we are left with a writer/director struggling and failing to come up with something interesting to say and do. The film flails around trying to be daring and bold but it only stumbles over it's own self-satisfying and delusional narcissism.

What the film is really about is not the intrigue of eight people stuck in a cabin to ride out a blizzard wondering who among them are the good guys and who the bad, but rather it is about race in America. This is a noble and complicated theme for any film maker to tackle, but in the hands of Tarantino this time out, it is like a gun in the hands of a toddler. The examination of race is shallow and sophomoric at best and repugnant at worst. The racial theme, like everything else in the script, seems to be a rushed add on used to fill in space and add the illusion of depth rather than a genuine topic of examination and exploration.

The Hateful Eight also contains some very basic storytelling and myth making errors. There is one monologue in particular, by Sam Jackson's character Major Marquis Warren, that is so repulsive it ends up working at cross purposes with the films narrative structure, which requires the audience to attach themselves to Major Warren and to root for him. This monologue is well done by Jackson the actor, but poorly done by Tarantino the writer and director, who intersperses visuals throughout Jackson's speech which end up undermining it, much like the speech itself undermines the viewers empathy with Major Warren. The monologue, like much of the script, feels like a first draft that was written by a freshman film student at a second rate community college.

A large part of Tarantino's filmmaking style is to pay tribute to other films and filmmakers in his own films. It is bizarre, but in The Hateful Eight it seems Tarantino is paying homage to himself and his own work. If Reservoir Dogs, Django Unchained and Inglorious Basterds had a prematurely born, bastard-child which only inherited the very worst traits of its' parents, then that enfent terrible would be The Hateful Eight.  The most obvious form of this homage is in the casting and in the characters. For instance, Samuel L. Jackson seems to be reprising his iconic Pulp Fiction character Jules Winnfield, only this time in a Union civil war uniform as bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren. Put a Jheri curl afro wig on Major Warren and he is Jules. In a convoluted way, Tim Roth does the same thing by reprising his Reservoir Dogs character Mr. Orange, this time as a British hangman named Oswaldo Mobray. The matching details between Mr. Orange and Mr. Mobray are uncanny. The problem with this sort of masturbatorial, self-referential naval gazing is that it borders on directorial self parody.

In terms of the performances, all of the actors do as well as they can. These are quality, top-notch actors and they all do solid and captivating work with the flawed script given them. 

Jennifer Jason-Leigh is a fabulous and terribly overlooked and under-appreciated actress, and she does the best with what she is given here as the prisoner Daisy Domergue, but when the story goes off the rails in the second half, any interest in her character goes right with it.

Michael Madsen is one of my favorite actors, but he seems like an add-on here in order to make the cast round out to the number eight (a tribute to Tarantino himself and the fact that this is his eight feature film, which is made very clear in the opening credits). Much like Madsen's under written and under used Joe Gage, Bruce Dern's General Sanford Smithers seems thrown in only for monologue convenience purposes. 

Kurt Russell plays John Ruth, a.k.a. The Hangman. Tarantino has occasionally tried to reignite once successful actor's careers by casting them in his films. He gave John Travolta a career renaissance by putting him in Pulp Fiction, and attempted to do the same with Pam Grier and Robert Forster in Jackie Brown, David Carradine in Kill Bill, Don Johnson in Django Unchained and now he does the same with Kurt Russell. Russell does a very good job in the role, so much so that one can't help but wish he wasn't more the focus of the story. Russell creates a brutal character but one with an intriguing internal life to him that draws the viewer in deeper and deeper the more you see of him. I have never been much of a Kurt Russell fan but there is no doubt that this film needed more Kurt Russell and not less. The Hateful Eight would have been much better served if the John Ruth character had the opportunity to be more fully fleshed out.

As underwhelming as The Hateful Eight was, it is not without some greatness. Robert Richardson's cinematography is sublime. The opening shot of the film is both visually and narratively exquisite in every way. Richardson takes full advantage of the beautiful natural setting and expanse in the Rockies and of the sharp contrasts of the blizzard raging around the story. If you are someone who loves great cinematography, then definitely see the film in the theaters and see it in anamorphic 70mm. It is well worth the time just as a piece of visual art.

Famed composer Ennio Morricone's(The Good, The Bad and The Ugly) soundtrack is pretty fantastic as well. When they told us that their would be an overture, I rolled my eyes, wanting to just get to the film, but the overture was glorious. And having an overture and an intermission was actually pretty cool and made going to the theatre seem like a grandiose event and a 'special', worthwhile experience. It is all too easy to see films in the comfort of our own homes instead of the theatre nowadays, so having a throw back overture takes the viewer out of the routine of movie watching and puts an element of grandeur and mysticism back into the experience.

In the final analysis, I think Quentin Tarantino shot a much much too early draft of the script with The Hateful Eight. I believe with many more rewrites the script could have given greater depth to the characters and themes explored, and given more clarity and precision to the narrative. I consider The Hateful Eight to have been a lost opportunity for Quentin Tarantino as all of the pieces were there for this film to have been great. A superb cast of terrific actors, the glorious cinematography of Robert Richardson, a world-class soundtrack from Ennio Morricone, and the blueprint for an interesting and intriguing story…but due to a script that wasn't done marinating or cooking, and was shot prematurely, all of these elements never had a chance to come together and achieve the cinematic greatness that could have been within reach. 

If you are a big fan of Tarantino, you will enjoy the film as it is a very "Tarantino" film, meaning it has a lot of violence and innumerable uses of the word "nigger". But if you are simply a lover of great cinema, this is not the film for you. At the end of the day, The Hateful Eight is in the bottom half of Quentin Tarantino's impressive filmography, probably just above Jackie Brown and just below or tied with Inglorious Basterds.

With that said, if you love transcendent cinematography, I would implore you to go see the film in the theatre in anamorphic 70mm. Robert Richardson is a master craftsman of the highest order and his visual artistry is well worth the price of admission if you are into that sort of thing.

 

****WARNING: THIS SECTION CONTAINS SPOILERS!! PLEASE SKIP IT IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE FILM YET!!!***

 

Ok, just a brief little write up with a little more detail for those of you who have seen the film.

The Major Marquis/Sam Jackson monologue I wrote about above is the monologue that ends the first half of the film where he tells the story of how he mouth raped the confederate general's grown son. It is such an over the top speech that it breaks the spell that the film had so carefully cultivated in the lead up to it. Another point about it is that we are meant to root for Major Marquis, he is really the mythic hero of the film. While we can hear "bad" things about him from other characters, Sheriff Mannix telling the story of Marquis' burning of the prison for instance, it totally undermines the mythic and psychological power of the narrative if Major Marquis himself tells the story of mouth raping a desperate man for purely sadistic purposes. This is such an egregious act that Major Marquis can no longer be relied upon to carry the audience's positive projections. No one watching the film who sides with Major Marquis, namely people that consider themselves non-racist and would be against slavery and the confederacy (in other words, self-identifying "good" people), could ever imagine themselves wanting to rape another man just to make him suffer and degrade him.

Tarantino has used male on male rape and the threat of it before in his films, most notably in Pulp Fiction where Zed rapes Marsellus and tries to rape Butch. The difference there though is that Zed is, from the moment we meet him on screen, a loathsome character. He is a horrific obstacle to be overcome by Butch on his hero's journey. Zed represents the threat of Butch losing his manhood and masculinity. When Zed is finally overcome by Butch, Marsellus tells Butch to keep the knowledge of the rape to himself, as it is the most shameful thing that can happen to a man, and he also tells Butch that he is going to "get medieval" on Zed, administering divine justice and vengeance for this most heinous of acts.

So it is established in the world of Tarantino, and frankly, in the real world too, that a man raping another man, with all of the mythic and psychological power that goes along with it, is the most despicable thing a man can do to another man. And yet, we are supposed to empathize with Major Marquis after learning of this? We are supposed to root for him and project ourselves onto him? It is an impossibility for any viewer to do so. A rapist, whether they rape men or woman, is as deplorable and despicable a person as one can imagine. So it is absurd to expect audiences who have been set up by the first half of the story to empathize with Marquis, to not feel betrayed by the film and to tune out and turn away from the rest of the story. Simply put, an unrepentant, dare I say gloating rapist, can never be the hero in a story. And if they are the hero, no one will care whether they survive their journey or not. While Marquis gets "some" divine justice for his heinous act in the form of castration, he is never held to account for his deeds or made to repent, quite the opposite actually….he wins at the end.

The Major Marquis rape monologue is also mishandled by Tarantino when he keeps cutting away to show the viewer what Marquis is describing. Then Marquis asks the General "You're seeing pictures aren't you?" Why not have the confidence in the actor Sam Jackson to tell the story and carry the viewer through it. Jackson is as compelling an actor as you'll find, and his monologues are legendary. Cutting away from the monologue undermines it's power and its mystery…as we are left with no doubt that Marquis is telling the truth, since we've seen it ourselves. If we are left wondering if Marquis is lying just to get under the General's skin, then we can continue to root for him as the story goes forward. But we aren't, and we don't.

Another issue I have with the film is the finale is terribly bungled. Why not have the Sheriff turn on Marquis and take Domergue's offer? That is the more interesting choice. And then have him think he is home-free only to hear the rumble of horses coming up to the cabin, signifying that he made the wrong choice and that Domergue's gang will kill him. The ending is a shockingly weak one for a director who usually defies convention and the easy way out. Tarantino was trying to fit a nice ending into his racial exploration. It comes across as little more than wishful thinking. It is also a complete contradiction to the nature of the Sheriff's character to side with Marquis at the most important moment. Why side with a man who raped one of your compatriots? That is inconceivable. 

Also, we have no reason to feel that Daisy Domergue is a villain. We've not seen her do anything terrible. We've been told she is a criminal, but we're not shown it. We have only seen her be beaten and mistreated by John Ruth and Marquis. We actually like her much more than anyone else in the film. Yet the glee the men show at her hanging feels disproportionate to the evil we may or may not have seen her commit. This is just one more in a long line of storytelling mis-steps that emotionally and psychologically disconnect the viewer form the film. 

And finally, the idea that anyone had enough of a connection to the John Ruth character that they would make a huge, life and death decision, based on what John Ruth would have wanted, is ridiculous and unsupported by the entirety of the film. Doing something for John Ruth's sake is a very very cheap way to give an unrealistic motivation to the characters in order to find a way out of the story.

And in order to end on a more positive note…the opening shot where Richardson excruciatingly slowly pulls out and holds on the frozen crucifix, with it's painfully tortured and contorted snow-framed face, and then the stage coach comes into view in the distance, was a cinematically powerful way to not just open the film, but also start the story. That shot is so artistically impeccable and mythically precise that I could hardly contain myself. In hindsight, that transcendent shot set up an expectation that the rest of the film was unable to live up to…but that doesn't make it any less glorious.

That is all I have to say on the film for now. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section. 

©2016