Friday, January 1, 2016

GREAT VENGEANCE AND FURIOUS ANGER: a review of "The Hateful Eight"

Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino
**** (four stars)

8 for 8!!

"The Hateful Eight," proudly and brazenly announced as the 8th film from Writer/Director Quentin Tarantino in the opening credits, continues the controversial filmmaker's cinematic winning streak and then some!

Uncommonly gifted as a writer, storyteller and filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino's track record is essentially nothing but peaks and absolutely no valleys--the only difference stemming from how high each particular artistic peak happens to be. For my personal tastes, his latest film sits at the very top, right alongside the brilliant "Pulp Fiction" (1994), the orgiastic "Kill Bill" (2003/2004), the revisionist history revenge fantasy of "Inglorious Basterds" (2009) and especially, the astounding howl of moral outrage that was "Django Unchained" (2012).

His own body of work is a seriously tall order to follow to be certain, and yet here is Tarantino, once again, defiantly marching unafraid (or is that a swagger?) to his own beat, creating one distinctly idiosyncratic feature after another and his latest film, another Western, filmed in stunning, glorious 70 millimeter Panavision and displaying a cast of all stars including the inimitable Samuel L. Jackson, is one of the very best films of 2015 hands down. Naysayers may complain about Tarantino's public persona, his devotion to his own skills which could be read as insufferably arrogant. But let's face it. If you could write and direct a film like Quentin Tarantino, you have more than earned the right to be a bit arrogant. And with "The Hateful Eight," Tarantino has written and directed the hell out of his movie.

Set a few years after (yet still dangerously close to) the end of the Civil War, "The Hateful Eight" opens on snowy day somewhere in Wyoming as we meet the stranded war veteran turned bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), adorned with three bodies of outlaws he plans to turn in upon arriving at Red Rock. After flagging down a horse drawn carriage occupied by bounty hunter John "The Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his captive, the feral, viscious and racist Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to whom he has handcuffed himself, Warren is trepidaciously welcomed aboard, as is also another stranded war veteran, this time a Confederate, and the supposed new Sheriff of Red Rock, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins).

Due to a rapidly approaching blizzard, the collective is forced to hunker down at Minnie's Haberdashery, a stagecoach lodge, for a few days, an obstacle that only increases the already powerful tension between the foursome. Yet, inside the haberdashery rest more individuals that complicate the proceedings. In addition to the surrogate proprietor Bob "The Mexican" (Demian Bechir), we meet the elderly Confederate veteran General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), the reserved writer Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), and the officious, British and new Red Rock hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth).

Over the course of one long, frigid night, stories are shared, suspicions are risen, and distrust is rampant before everything explodes into a voluminous bloodbath.

Quentin Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight" is a splendidly handsome production. Armed once again with his peerless dialogue and storytelling gifts, and stupendously aided by his stellar cast, longtime collaborator the legendary Cinematographer Robert Richardson, and even boasting Composer Ennio Morricone's first Western film score in 40 years, the film fully stakes its claim into your local cineplexes as a wide screen experience that demands to be first witnessed within a movie theater, not a flat screen television.

To that end, "The Hateful Eight," in actuality, is Tarantino's most theatrical production, something that could easily work upon the stage as so much of the film takes place within the haberdashery. To some, this decision may make the usage of 70mm film stock seem unnecessary, but on the contrary, the tactic works brilliantly as we are given the opportunity to study the complete span of space within the haberdashery, as Tarantino slyly wants us to watch what is happening in the background as well as the foreground, ratcheting up the intensity of his Agatha Christie/Alfred Hitchcock styled mystery which unfolds at a deliberate pace.

Yes, "The Hateful Eight" is a slow burn of a film. It is not in much of a hurry to get anywhere and for me, that was also a brilliant approach as we are then able to have as complete pictures of this multi-layered band of baddies as possible, to luxuriate ourselves within the stunning dialogue and also, as with the characters, we can embark upon the overall mystery as to what is or is not true, who is indeed who they claim to be or not. "The Hateful Eight" therefore is Tarantino's most interior film--even moreso than his calling card debut feature "Reservoir Dogs" (1992), the film to which this one mostly resembles. But, trust me, the interior nature is much grander that location, for within this film, Tarantino goes philosophically and psychologically deep, for his characters and frankly, the country itself.

Alongside "Inglorious Basterds" and "Django Unchained," I feel that with "The Hateful Eight," Quentin Tarantino has unleashed his largest, most wide-sweeping political statements to date. From the title, you already know that we will be dealing with a group of irredeemable characters. Yet, as we are subjected to the punishing verbal and physical brutality on display, the endless overt racial and sexual epithets hurled back and forth, and furthermore the fear of retaining some supposedly lost ideal of the United States plus the self-righteous and rage based idea of utilizing increasingly cruel vigilantism and vengeance as some sort of bastardized version of justice (labeled here as "frontier justice"), all of this sounds precisely like life in the 21st century doesn't it?

"The Hateful Eight" represents not only America's past but its precarious present and even exists as Tarantino's warning of its future should we continue to carry onwards from our current position, which as far as I am concerned is decidedly backwards from any progress that has been achieved over the 40 plus years that I have been in the world. In fact, I am wondering to some degree, if Tarantino himself is fearing that any progress made has actually been cancelled out due to the vitriol on display in our political discourse, the gun violence epidemic fueled by the (NRA financially backed) misreading of the 2nd Amendment, the consistent murders of African Americans at the hands of corrupt police officers and the institutionalized racism that offers no justice, the rampant racism that has pervaded our political speech from hopeful political leaders and especially, in the cowardly realms of social media where faceless individuals anonymously spout off the most inconceivable diatribes this side of the Nazi party's "Final Solution."

"The Hateful Eight" (with "Django Unchained" as its equal) offers Tarantino's most vehement cultural critique of America as well as a rightfully vulgar and merciless mirror to hold up to ourselves. In fact, both of the characters of Mannix and Warren utter perceptions that could easily be said today. For Mannix, he openly states that Whites are safest when Blacks are scared while Warren attests that Blacks are safest when Whites are disarmed, two views that represent the racial divide that has truly yet to be crossed, let alone healed. And returning to the metaphorical location of the haberdashery, we have to get deep and go downward into the basement, the ugliest basement to confront our country's darkest sins and monsters in order to have any hope of achieving some sense of release and ascension rather than endless retribution.

In fact, some of the film's greatest conflict is housed inside of Marquis Warren, the only Black character in the film, the one to whom I philosophically could understand the depth of his trauma and rage as being once a product of slavery, then a war veteran for the country that enslaved him and to then still confront the rampant racism of a country that never welcomed him. Armed with the intellectual brilliance of the finest detective and a letter that may or may not have been personally written to him by President Abraham Lincoln, Warren could be seen as a virtuous figure. But this is "The Hateful Eight" and no one is let off of the hook as Warren is also a man of pummeling cruelty (as especially witnessed during an especially nasty tale--that also may or may not be true--he weaves for the Old Confederate General) and he is indeed a figure consumed by blind retribution.

If you think back to "Pulp Fiction," and that climactic restaurant sequence set between hitman Jules Winnfield (beautifully played by Samuel L. Jackson) and would be criminal Pumpkin (also played by Tim Roth), where Jules, armed with a choice to murder in retaliation to Pumpkin's attempted robbery of him, ultimately relents. That is a level of personal evolution to which Warren has not even begun to find in himself, and frankly, how could he at a time so close to the literal end of a war that has only in fact, figuratively continued until this day.

There are charges of supposed sexism launched against "The Hateful Eight" as well regarding Jennifer Jason Leigh's manacled but no less ferocious character of Daisy Domergue. This woman certainly does take a severe beating throughout the course of the entire film but again Tarantino lets absolutely nobody off of the hook and the ironically named Daisy, in particular, is indeed profoundly reprehensible. She gives it even more than she takes it and Leigh goes full throttle, even in long stretches of the film where she has no dialogue. But, watch her body language at all times. She is as rabid as a caged wild badger.

Even so, I was curiously struck by audience reactions with the sexual and racial nature of the film. Whenever Daisy was punched or beaten by Kurt Russell's character, the audience often made audible gasps and recoiled in the horror of seeing a woman beaten so ruthlessly. Yet, whenever Samuel L. Jackson's character was forced to endure the stream of racist taunts and being addressed constantly as a "nigger" (which is again on massive display throughout the dialogue), there was silence throughout the audience.

To charges of Tarantino's perceived sexism, I reject those views as this is the man who gave us such full blooded heroines and anti-heroines in "Pulp Fiction," "Kill Bill," "Inglorious Basterds," "Jackie Brown" (1997) and "Death Proof" (2007). I think we can be able to handle a female villain as sadistically bloodthirsty as any of his male characters. But, you know, it was as if with "The Hateful Eight," Tarantino is playing a social game with all of us as to what we find acceptable or not. For if we are able to accept the humanity of a White woman regardless of how cold-blooded she is but not the humanity of a Black man no matter how cold-blooded he is, then how far have we really advanced as a society. Food for thought...

And now, we again come to the film's violence which is HARD R RATED extreme, such as it is for a Tarantino film. But trust me again, I found all of it, as gory as it becomes, to be as story driven as with any of his other films and he is a master of knowing what to display for effect, when to hold back and when to push hard. Frankly, I saw some trailers before this film that were more vulgar and recklessly violent than anything on display within "The Hateful Eight," because Tarantino takes the violence very seriously, and it is horrific to view...purposefully so.

That being said, this is a three hour film and it is nearly 80 minutes into the film before the first gunshot--to which there has been some of the criticism that we have essentially a 75 minute film elongated to an unjustifiable length. Yes, I guess it could be a 75 minute film--that is if you ejected all manner of story and character development just to get to the blood and bile. But this is a Quentin Tarantino experience, one that unfolds over six exquisite cinematic chapters and leaves no stones un-turned, giving you a film that is mesmerizing and explosive culminating in yet another towering achievement for this most unique filmmaker, who clearly  has much more on his mind than horses and bullets.

Saddle up, dear readers. For Quentin Tarantino's brilliant and brutal "The Hateful Eight" is one of 2015's very finest films.

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