Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Hateful Eight

Just a Liar's Promise
Tarantino's Wasteland

The tag line says it all: "The 8th Film by Quentin Tarantino." And in the cackling obviousness that now seems to be part and parcel of what passes for the film output of Quentin Tarantino (except when he's doing in-jokes that are only discernible to the slavish) the title of it is The Hateful Eight. Hateful it is, a movie dominated by good actors playing the worst people in the world in what can only be called a Western torture porn with delusions of drawing-room-detection. Every one in it is the lowest of the low with pretensionss of forthrightness that only serve as fodder for the other characters to stick pins in or blow away with more shots than necessary. Oh, there are good people (and by that I mean non-desperate socio-pathic characters) in it, in but one chapter of the six that the writer-director segments his movie into, but their screen-time is the bare minimum. Like the blacklist in the speech that finalizes Trumbo, The Hateful Eight has no heroes or villains, only victims. 

And an audience member could easily identify with the victimization.

Look, I've always been on the fence about Tarantino. His early films I found flashy, but forced, the dialogue clever in a sophomoric and frequently irrelevant way. He was a kid showing off, usually at the expense of the talents of others as he would "borrow" from the cob-webbed end of the video aisle for his ideas. Nothing wrong with that. There's a lot of "cribbing" going on in the first films of directors. And sometimes, he does something surprising—I'm a big admirer of Jackie Brown and Inglourious Basterds. I thought his half of the double-bill, Grindhouse, Death Car, was a wickedly conceived—if drawn out—feminist tract. Those and pieces of Pulp Fiction, that's all I like. Two and half, maybe three films. The rest of them?

"Got room for one more?"
There's not much to enjoy or admire here, save for a few performances that stand out—Samuel L. Jackson's best acting in years, the return of Jennifer Jason Leigh who has always been a fearless actor, Kurt Russell's bravura performance, and a slippery, inconsistent one by Walter Goggins. The rest is Tarantino writing dialogue that goes on forever, punctuated by gun-fire and blood-spatter by the gallon, often with the intention of comic effect.
And to photograph this thing in 70 MM is the highest form of pretense.
The 70 mm format was designed for wide open spaces and vast vistas-(as well as snakes, trains, and funeral corteges). But more importantly, for horizons (and the more majestic the better) to take advantage of the sharpness and clarity of image the larger format provides. It's ideal for nature in the raw, less so for cities that strain and grow on the wrong axis out of frame. It is certainly a waste of format for a set-bound movie that does it's best to invoke cabin fever for 90% of it's nearly 3 hour length. Using 70 MM for this type of film is like using a SCUD to shoot down a duck. It's less a good artistic choice than a case of "Master"-envy on Tarantino's part.
The opening (and it's shot by the eccentric, but extraordinarily talented Robert Richardson, who Tarantino's been using for a while now) tries to cram as much scenic beauty as it can to last, but it is then followed up by such unremitting ugliness in image and spirit, that the effect is like putting a bow on a tarantula.
It's all downhill from the first line: "Room for one more?" says Major Marquis Warren (Jackson), the first of many characters to be revealed by the upturning of a hat-brim—wide-screen is good for that, too—as he echoes the line of the hearse-coach in Dead of Night
The Major is a bounty-hunter and he's sitting on some work as he's approached by a stagecoach bearing two passengers, John "The Hangman" Ruth (Russell) a shaggy-dog of a bounty hunter hand-cuffed to Daisey Domergue (Leigh) the spitfire sister of outlaw Jody Domergue. He's taking her to the town of Red Rock to be hanged for her crimes—that is, if she survives the trip. One of the running gags of The Hateful Eight is that Daisey is such a disagreeable little cuss that Ruth regularly punches, pistol-whips and clobbers her at every snarling offense (At one point, Ruth says: "Now, Daisey, I want us to work out a signal system of communication. When I elbow you real hard in the face, that means: shut up" as if he hasn't already worked out this system by example earlier than the movie began). Our first sight of her takes in a busted lip and a black-eye. Over the course of the movie, she suffers every non-lethal injury associated with the movie until, by the end, she bears a striking resemblance to Carrie at the prom, caked in blood acquired from all manner of splatters from nearly every member of the cast. If they had pattern analysis back in the day, all investigators would need for a thorough study of the crime scene would be her.
The coach acquires another passenger as a mountain blizzard starts to impede its progress, forcing it to stop at a "in-the-middle-of-nowhere" way station called Minnie's Haberdashery. That would be Chris Mannix (Goggins), caught wandering in the snow, who claims to be the new Sheriff of Red Rock. What he's doing in the middle of a blizzard in the highlands of Wyoming does look a little suspicious. Mannix was a Southern soldier in the Civil War, and that sets up a splintering dynamic on the coach. The Hangman and Major Warren fought for the North, so there's immediate animosity that is constantly brought up throughout the movie and allowed to simmer before it is acted on.
But, like the lousy coffee the coach-passengers find at Minnie's, it's been on the boil a little too long. Ten minutes can't go by without the War between the States being brought up, and then add four other characters to the mix—played by Bruce Dern, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, and Demi├ín Bichir (as Bob)—and it turns into a four-walled circle jerk in which precious little is discussed besides The War and "what are YOU doing here?" Those long dialogues are then snapped by gunfire, so much of which happens inside Minnie's four walls it's amazing that anyone could even hear what anyone's saying after so many indoor concussive sound-waves.
It's tedious, eventually. Tedious to the point where Tarantino must toss in a mystery that he plays out like a Hercule Poirot "j'accuse" monologue, a voice-over narration (voiced by Tarantino himself) that tries to bridge some gaps in the narrative—it's eight people in a room by this point, so why is he incapable of showing it?—and a flashback sequence to throw in some fore-shadowing after he has made the "Big Surprise" that he telegraphs seconds before he unleashes it. It's confusing, clumsy and more than a bit ham-fisted, as if he shot the sequences, but couldn't figure out where it would go in the movie until he had to, by means of explanation.
You wonder exactly what might have happened to the guy, who despite his promise, wasted so much of his time on hack-work that merely sought to recreate the junk he used to like (in his painful DGA interview with Christopher Nolan, he reveals that the inspiration for The Hateful Eight was television westerns—what would happen if you tossed together the suspicious-acting guest-stars that would show up and disappear every week? That may be the shortest reach for any film-maker who ever did more than just turn on a camera and let it run).
It's disappointing. And tedious. Not entertaining, and, in fact, maddening. This is Tarantino running on fumes and desperately trying to make a 70 MM silk purse out of a sow's ear. Perhaps it's time to walk away and not encourage him anymore. He's an abject lesson in what can happen to a director who becomes a media darling to the point where he thinks he pisses perfume. It's time to point out that the Emperor has no clothes, and that Quentin Tarantino has nothing to say.
I left The Hateful Eight wondering whether Quentin Tarantino is/was a talented filmmaker or the gibbering little troll with a knife in Don't Look Now.



  1. This was a classic, old-school, newspaper-style bad review. I loved it for the great writing in it.