THE HATEFUL EIGHT – The Review
For the last couple of decades film fans have been bemoaning the lack of flicks set in the old wild West. Many even remarked that the “horse opera” or “oater” was a dead genre, that its heydays were nearly twenty five years ago (Clint Eastwood’s UNFORGIVEN took Oscar gold in 1992). At the end of 2015, the corpse of the Western, seems to have been revived. And who are the “mad scientists”, well “mad movie makers” perhaps, shocking this corpse back to life via their electrifying talents? Well, Oscar winner Alejandro Inarritu, fresh off his BIRDMAN triumph, puts Leonardo DiCaprio through the wringer (emotional and physical) in THE REVENANT, which we’ll discuss in length when it gallops into theatres in a couple of weeks. The film that’s out on Christmas Day (in a very special limited release) comes from the ultimate movie fanatic turned film maker Quentin Tarantino. Now it was almost three years ago to the day that he first tried on his Stetson with DJANGO UNCHAINED, an ode to one of his beloved “grindhouse” staples, the “blackspoitation” action flick mixed with the old-fashioned “sagebrush” story. Now QT is hitting the trail once more, this time attempting to recreate the “road show” film releases of the 1950’s and 60’s with a “saddle saga” more epic in scope, eschewing digital projection and presenting it in select theatres in 70 mm (excuse me, Super Panavision 70 mm), even filming it with the same lenses that created many of those revered 60’s spectacles. And to give it the proper 60’s Western polish, he’s actually recruited the man responsible for the signature scores of that genre in that era, Ennio Morricone, to provide the music (including an overture prior to the opening titles). All this to accompany the thundering hoofbeats and exploding six guns of THE HATEFUL EIGHT. Giddyup!
As the strains of the “maestro’s” theme builds, the film opens up on the cold, snowy trails of Wyoming, not long after the end of the Civil War. A solitary figure waves down a lone stagecoach. Only two passengers are inside: bounty hunter John “the Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his prisoner, the notorious Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). After reminding Ruth of a previous meeting, the man who flagged them down, another bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson), is allowed to join them (after lots of negotiations). Soon the coach is full when Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) emerges from the woods and pleads for the last seat, telling the men that he is also headed to Red Rock to become the town’s new Sheriff (the men are very skeptical of this “wild card”). The coach’s driver soon realizes that they won’t outrun the approaching blizzard and must wait it out at the nearby “stage stop”, Minnie’s Haberdashery. Ruth and Warren are surprised to discover that owners Minnie and “Sweet Dave” are nowhere to be found. According to one of their new staff, Bob (Demian Bichir), the couple are visiting relatives, over the ridge. Once again, the bounty hunters are skeptical. But they’re not the only ones stranded. Trying to keep warm are the stoic cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), gregarious Englishman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), and former Confederate officer General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern). As the storm rages, Ruth and Warren soon believe that these men are not who they say they are. Could one of them, or all of them, be in “cahoots” with the dangerous, desperate Daisy?
Pretty impressive octet, eh? Actually there’s a few more cast members (including a very hot, young Hollywood hunk not seen ij the film’s ads) who are also very impressive. As you see, the majority of the eight are QT vets. The most frequent member, Jackson, really becomes the story’s main protagonist, deducing and dishing out justice. There’s more than a touch of Jules (his breakout role in PULP FICTION) in Warren, the man who must deftly manuever through the still wounded by war America. Jackson still projects that fierce determination and intelligence we’ve seen in his very best work, making him a most memorable Western hero. Closer to the usual “oater” lead “buckeroo” is Russell (nearly hidden beneath that walrus,Yosemite Sam ‘stache) as the swaggering man of action (said swagger almost channeling Western icon John Wayne), who and often succeeds at being the alpha male among this “wolf pack”. His boisterous performance at times turns Minnie’s into a private concert hall, entertaining and intimidating us with his outrageous bluster and behavior. Part of that behavior is his brutal treatment of Daisy, somewhat shifting our sympathies to her. That’s until her true, sinister nature kicks in. Leigh (making her astounding arrival into the “Tarantino-verse”) is a sullen, feral she-demon, spewing obscenities and racial epithets like a spitting cobra. With Leigh’s silent glare she tells us that she’s just as savage, if not more so, than any hombre.
Just as watchable is Goggins, who had a small role in DJANGO, as Mannix. His body language conveys a very malleable misfit, whose loyalties can switch in seconds, even as his somewhat think skull struggles to process each new curve thrown at him. After racking up a terrific TV career (from “The Shield” to “Justified”), he proves to be a great screen presence. Another vet from that earlier flick has been a screen star before the birth of Mr. Goggins. Dern as Smithers seems to be the stereotyped, docile old “coot” in a rocking chair, but when he’s verbally poked, he shows us that seething stare, warning his tormentor like a rattlesnake, that his fury will be unleashed. It’s a great follow-up to Dern’s award-worthy work a couple of years ago in NEBRASKA. Roth has a unique spin on the old cliché of the smiling, refined English “dandy” whose effete manners hides his motives. Madsen is surly and sullen as the tight-lipped, close-to-the-vest cowpoke, who is all squint-eyed, laid-back menace. Bichir gives a toned-down performance as the deferential Bob, who suffers ethnic slurs without blinking while trying to keep his “customers’ comfortable.
Much as with his earlier “horse opera”, Tarantino’s new film is a bit of a hybrid. His original screenplay and story is almost equal parts Zane Grey and Agatha Christie, reminiscent of her oft-filmed “Ten Little Indians” (some have even called it a “cowboy CLUE”). It’s a drama of observed looks and gestures that can suddenly erupt in bloody violence (often as over-the-top as any of George Romero’s zombie classics). Since so much of the story is set in Minnie’s roomy general store, many have speculated that this may have been conceived as a stage play. That’s not to infer that Tarantino has treated it as such. His camera swoops in to capture the gunplay, while his edits and cuts direct us right to the most drama and conflict. He even makes the weather a character, as the blizzard, like a howling beast, presses in the cracked door. This is particularly true with the visuals used during a flashback tale. You can almost feel the frigid air cutting through you right to the bone. It may seem an odd choice to shoot a mostly indoor story with “old school” 70mm, but the results are never “stagey” or claustrophobic. The superb, sweeping score by Morricone certainly aides in opening things up. Best of all may be that Tarantino dialogue, though peppered with “f-bombs’ and “n-words”, is gloriously “un-PC”, and often close to poetic. We can see the delight in the cast’s eyes has they savor each syllable like a fine wine. He’s been threatening a retirement from films, but hopefully this true cinema lover (it truly oozes out of every frame) will continue to keep us entertained with work as enthralling, outrageous, and ambitious as THE HATEFUL EIGHT. Whoa!
4.5 Out of 5
THE HATEFUL EIGHT opens in Super Panavision 70mm in select theatres (including Wehrenberg’s Ronnies 20 Cine in St. Louis) on Christmas Day. It opens in wide release on New Year’s Eve