Movie Review: Hateful Eight
Quentin Tarantino is one of the few directors whose work I always get excited about. The man's work is almost always excellent and - for better or worse - his work is always interesting. Even Death Proof (a film I enjoy but understand if others don't) was a unique experiment. The films Tarantino has only had screenwriting credit on - True Romance, Natural Born Killers - have been superb as well. Tarantino's last film was Django Unchained, my favorite film of 2012. So how does this film rank?
Hateful Eight is ostensibly about a group of various characters who are trapped in a cabin during a blizzard shortly after the Civil War. They landed in this situation when a black bounty hunter - who claims to have a letter from Abraham Lincoln - tags along with a white bounty hunter who is carrying a female criminal to town to have her hanged. On the way, they pick up the sheriff of said town and make their way to a haberdashery. There, they meet up with a few more unsavory characters including a racist Confederate soldier, a British hangman, and other men with shady histories. There is little trust among the lead characters. Despite needing to make due, in order to survive, friction develops between the men and woman as skeletons from their past return. As more of these people's history is revealed, more violence occurs between the characters.
I might as well begin by addressing the film's main and only flaw because it is a doozy - this film draaaaags at parts - mostly the beginning. The first act of this film is almost entirely dialogue, establishing characters, delving into their histories, and delivering a lot of exposition. I love Tarantino's dialogue, but these scenes are a little too much of a good thing. These early scenes go and on. In many of these early scenes, characters are not even doing anything - they are just sitting in the stagecoach talking to each other. Tarantino could have cut a half hour from this movie and it would have been stronger for it. However, fear not, once the film overcomes this hump, the rest of the movie is excellent.
To begin with, the atmosphere is amazing. For a movie with this premise, atmosphere is crucial. as it helps the audience understand how dire the characters' situation is. Hateful 8 begins with beautiful cinematography. The use of winter colors is certainly pleasing to eye. Whether it was technique, good location scouting or luck, there are scenes that beautifully contrast perfectly white snow with perfectly blue sky. Sound design does its share too. In addition to the blizzard scenes, the film has almost non-stop wind, reminding the viewer the weather is not going away.
The cabin itself is pretty ramshackle, with plenty of holes in the walls. The door is so weak that it has to be nailed shut to remain closed. Most of the movie is seeped in darkness with a perfect balance - dark enough to create a mood, but light enough that the movie is visible. Hateful is partly worth seeing in theaters for this. The darkness of the theater helps heighten the atmosphere. If you can't (or won't) catch this in theaters, at least watch this with the lights turned out. This atmosphere combined with the characters' conflicting personalities - many of which have a history with each other - creates an uncomfortable mood where something bad can happen at any moment (and usually does).
Tarantino is known for mixing genres, and Hateful 8 is no exception. For starters, the ominous atmosphere creates a tension that anything could go wrong at any minute, creating a tone similar to horror movies. It should be no surprise that a Tarantino film received a Hard R. However, this one is violent even by Tarantino standards. Some of the imagery - especially toward the end of the film - is so gruesome that it may top some actual horror films. Of course, this is contrasted with scenes and lines that are fall down funny - usually or black humor, but funny nonetheless.
The usual staples of Tarantino's genre-hopping are present too: Grindhouse-style title cards, out of time music, dialogue that sounds a smidgen too modern. All of these conflicting ideas are meshed together without once conflicting with each other. Tarantino himself even chimes in with some droll narration that sounds like something out of Arrested Development. Even this feels in tone with the film's sardonic nature.
Some of the allusions can be pretty obscure. Channing Tatum has a small role as one of the villains (relax. that is not a spoiler), which according to IMDB is possibly an homage to Once Upon a Time in the West where perennial good guy actor Henry Fonda played a villain. With sparse use of location and dialogue-heavy scenes, Hateful 8 almost feels like an R-rated version of a film that could have been made during the 40's or 50's, possibly even a stage play set to film. Then again, with the chapter framing device and the film's excruciating detail, Hateful 8 also feels like a book come to life.
Performances can make or break this kind of film. Most of the film's cast is comprised of actors from other Tarantino movies. The man may be sticking within his comfort zone, but Tarantino knows how to utilize these actors. This may not be Jackson's first rodeo as a tough guy character, but it is always fun to watch the man. Playing a charismatic bounty hunter, there are scenes that only Samuel L. Jackson could have pulled off (and yes, they are too good to give away). Kurt Russell and Michael Madsen are enjoyably smarmy in their roles. Tim Roth disappears into his performance posing as a posh British man with hidden secrets, and Bruce Dern is perfectly believable as a withered, racist confederate general.
However, the scene stealer is Jennifer Jason Leigh as Daisy Domergue. At first she comes off as merely an obnoxious who is forced to come with John Ruth (Russel) so he can collect the bounty on her. However, as the film progresses, she shows her more viscous - almost feral animal - side to her. Even before her darker intentions/actions are revealed, as Daisy, Leigh is able to grab the audience's attention - even away from the charismatic Jackson - with just a coy facial expression. Leigh has always been a talented actress. In his autobiography, Bruce Campbell described her as an acting machine (referring to her underrated Hepburn-like performance in The Hudsucker Proxy), and this performance truly drives that home. Leigh has already received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance, and hopefully this translates to an Oscar nod. In a sea of towering performances, Leigh's stands above them all.
Overall, Hateful Eight is a superb piece of cinema. Unfortunately, the parts that drag hold this film back from being a five star masterpiece - or one of Tarantino's best. For fans of Tarantino, this is still a must see. For anyone who finds the runtime a little daunting, this should still be seen once it arrives on DVD/Blu Ray.
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