- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 23, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION

So here now is “The Hateful Eight,” Quentin Tarantino’s Western that is neither homage nor antithesis of the genre. Similar to Mr. Tarantino’s previous films, it is unclassifiable and belongs in in its own category of movies that exist solely within the Tarantino universe. And that is fine, up to a certain point.

Mr. Tarantino has made some of the most singular works of the past quarter-century, from “Reservoir Dogs” to “Django Unchained,” each with a vibrancy and love for cinema that bleeds from every frame. His postmodernist chic aesthetic is indeed part of the appeal of his films, a way to create stories that are as much captured on film — and yes, in “Hateful Eight” he sticks to celluloid over digital mediums — as they are reflections on the format and its multifaceted past.

Mr. Tarantino made two of his best films in the last decade, “Inglorious Basterds” and “Django Unchained.” Although I am here to report that “The Hateful Eight” — not coincidentally, Mr. Tarantino’s eighth film as director — is a step down from both of those previous efforts, it is more a love letter to cinema and its permutations across genre conventions than a solidly told tale. In fact, clocking in at just over three hours in the “roadshow” version, replete with overture and intermission, Mr. Tarantino stretches out a rather conventional, uncomplicated story and does something I was heretofore convinced of which he was incapable: bored me a little bit.

We’ll get back to my reactions shortly, but first, the briefest of plot outlines. In latter-19th century Wyoming — pinch-hit for by Colorado, magnificently photographed by cinematographer Ralph Richardson — a bounty hunter named Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) is picked up by a stagecoach bearing fellow mercenary John “the Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his prize, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), condemned to hang for murder. The coach makes its way to a remote haberdashery, populated by a rogue’s gallery of strangers, many of whom are not what they seem.

Such is all you need have of the story going in. This being a Tarantino film, you already know the bloodletting will be gruesome and the language especially colorful. And as in “Django Unchained,” because a main character is black, and because it portrays a less-enlightened time in America’s past, the N-word is flung around as both noun and various other parts of speech. Mr. Tarantino has often been the target of accusations of racism, and contemporary audience discomfort with that particular ethnic slur shows, well, some progress, I suppose, in recognition of many of our past sins, but such umbrage also misses the point that real-life people, white and black, used that word for quite some time before ever fearing someone would capture it on Twitter. Yes, it remains an ugly word, especially when used by whites against blacks, but it is correct for this film, for both the setting and the characters, just as in “Django.”

Indeed, racial politics — augmented by the then-recent Civil War — even lead to arguably the film’s single best scene.

Regarding the formal elements of “The Hateful Eight,” I have nothing but praise. As mentioned, DOP Mr. Richardson paints with a master’s eye, bringing vibrant life to the American West landscapes in glorious 70 mm, recalling to mind an era of cinema long gone, when huge events like “Ben-Hur,” “Spartacus” and “Lawrence of Arabia” dragged audiences away from their televisions and back into the movie house for larger-than-life adventure. “Hateful” is the best-shot film of 2015, hands down, and will almost certainly take home this year’s Oscar for such.

Additionally, Mr. Tarantino has recruited the great composer Ennio Morricone, still churning out movie scores at 87, for the Italian’s first Western assignment in decades. It is the right choice, and Mr. Morricone’s elegant score cannot help but bring back to mind his collaborations with Sergio Leone that starred Clint Eastwood. It’s the exact right choice for the material, and Mr. Morricone adds yet one more notch to his extensive catalogue of grandly hummable themes.

I’ve purposely said little of the story itself, for as with most of Mr. Tarantino’s other films, it the way he spins his yarns that is more instructive that the plots themselves. “The Hateful Eight” is a lengthy endeavor, replete with a 10-minute intermission to stretch and decompress before the final bloody showdowns commence. Yet the first two hours of the film consist almost exclusively of unhurried conversing among characters. My colleague and friend Craig Hammill wisely observed that “Tarantino is a director of ‘moments.’” In his previous works, Mr. Tarantino ratcheted up the tensions to breaking point before unleashing sudden, shocking violence at appropriate intervals, but in his latest film he keeps the explosions at bay until rather late in the story. However, when the first major act of plot-propelling violence occurs at the two-hour mark, it is a virtuoso, intense staging that sets up the gruesome finale.

That said, it must be noted that it is Miss Leigh who bears the bulk of the film’s violence, which may make many uncomfortable. As the only major female character, she is constantly called a “lying bitch,” always told to shut up by her captors and, when words of warning don’t suffice, struck forcefully, rupturing her nose, teeth, eye — even at one point being horribly bathed in the gore of another character’s innards. Make of that what you will as plot device or commentary on gender politics, but it left me with a sour feeling.

Miss Leigh provides the strongest acting in the film, but her Daisy is largely a passive player in the actions set forth by the men around her. She’s saved from being little more than a MacGuffin thanks to Miss Leigh’s tremendous range of emotion and intelligence with which she imbues her character, spiting and ranting and screaming at her fetters with singular invective.

Mr. Tarantino rounds out his talented cast with stock company regulars from his previous movies. In addition to Mr. Jackson — marking his sixth collaboration with the director — there’s Tarantino repertoire players Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern and Walton Goggins, so slimily perfect as racist gunslinger Billy Crash in “Django.”

In the end, it seems somewhat of an odd choice that Mr. Tarantino would paint such an intimate, claustrophobic tale of eight strangers at a cabin during a blizzard with such a large brush. It’s a languorous setup for rather minimal payoff, and as the minutes continued ticking by, I found myself wishing the film had lost an hour or more. Absolutely no minutes of “Django,” “Basterds,” “Pulp Fiction” or “Reservoir Dogs” are wasted or unnecessary, and not one of those films feels a minute too lengthy. Sadly, “The Hateful Eight” is too often a yawner, with long passages of relative stillness punctuated by moments of adrenaline. The cabin adventure becomes part detective thriller and part domestic melodrama, but there’s really not enough story to justify the movie’s length. It’s a shame given the incredible talent involved.

“The Hateful Eight” is ultimately an extremely well made film about other films, specifically Westerns, 1950s and ‘60s roadshow productions and even science fiction. It is no coincidence that Mr. Russell is cast in this story about paranoia and claustrophobia, recalling to mind, of course, his starring role in John Carpenter’s “The Thing” in 1982 — right down to the snowy setting and Mr. Russell’s bearded visage.

My impression remains, however, “The Hateful Eight” is a relative miss for Mr. Tarantino, as static and underwhelming as his “Jackie Brown,” “Death Proof” and even “Kill Bill: Vol. 1.” That he is one of our most tremendously gifted filmmakers and has refined his talent over 25 years in the business remains evident in his new work, but “Hateful” also shows a reverence for style over substance rather than a marriage of the two, which propelled “Django Unchained,” “Inglorious Basterds,” “Pulp Fiction” and “Reservoir Dogs” into the cinematic stratosphere.

Not so this time out, Quentin.

Rated R: Contains extensive profanity and ethnic slurs, stark violence and woman-beating, plus a scene of full nudity that is anything but sexual.


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