Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Tarantino Entertains with Darkly Funny Western "The Hateful Eight"

Samuel L. Jackson and Walton Goggins lead an amazing cast in
Quentin Tarantino's latest, The Hateful Eight.
And so the pattern repeats.

Three years ago, I wrote a review comparing Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino that discussed how each director had plowed through mid-career criticisms by taking a hard left into the idiosyncratic approaches that were supposedly holding them back, only to emerge once again as critical darlings.

A year later, Anderson continued to prove my point with Grand Budapest Hotel, and it seems Tarantino has followed suit with The Hateful Eight, a western that revolves around a collection of nasty sorts trapped together at a secluded stopover during a blizzard not long after the conclusion of the Civil War.

Intoxicating in the way that only great Tarantino can be, The Hateful Eight is the quickest three hours I’ve ever spent in a theater. And that's the case even though I saw the film in its glorious 70mm Roadshow Exhibition, which ran with an introductory musical overture and an intermission between acts, while also providing wider, more detailed images... because, you know, Tarantino.

Like many of the director’s films, The Hateful Eight is told in chapters, some of which are out of order, and built around a series of long, tense and often side-splitting conversations that eventually boil over into violence. For all the pomp and circumstance that came with the roadshow experience, the film is basically a talky chamber piece with the attitude and accoutrements of a mean-spirited western.

More specifically, The Hateful Eight is a western-flavored dark comedy mash up of And Then There Were None, Tarantino’s own Reservoir Dogs, and any number of plays by Sartre or Pinter with the racial tensions of post Civil-War Americans hanging over every moment. It's thought-provoking, titillating and, above all, entertaining as hell.

Other than a win for the eerily foreboding score from the legendary Ennio Morricone and a nomination for Jennifer Jason Leigh's hilariously gnarly performance, the Oscars stayed away from The Hateful Eight, which makes quite a bit of sense given the content. However, this is a master class in acting, writing, directing, editing and costuming, with Goggins and the underrated Jackson (who easily could've been included in my piece on #OscarSoWhite) providing standout work.

Having said all of that, I have some issues with the film, all of which are built around character motivation and plotting. To talk about them, I kind of need to spoil the movie a bit, so, spoiler warning. Enroute to Red Rock to deliver the fugitive Daisy Domergue (Leigh) for hanging, bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) encounters Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a black bounty hunter and former Union solider in possession of three dead bounties, and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a former Lost-Causer militiamen who now claims to be the new sheriff of Red Rock. Ruth allows both men aboard his stage coach, and they set out for Minnie's Habadashery to seek refuge from the storm.

Upon arriving at the habadashery, they meet hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), former Confederate general Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), and Bob (Demián Bichir), a Mexican watching over the place while Minnie visits her mother. Tensions escalate on multiple fronts. Suspicious that any of this lot could be in cahoots with Domergue, Ruth forcefully disarms all but Warren since they have met before and have agreed to protect one another's bounties. Meanwhile, Warren feuds with both Smithers and Mannix over race and doubts the legitimacy of Bob's standing as the operator of the habadashery, an establishment he has frequented many times.

A third act flashback reveals Mobray, Gage and Bob are all members of the Jody Domergue gang and that they, along with Jody (Channing Tatum), arrived at the habadashery ahead of Ruth’s party so that they could kill him and free Jody’s sister. They kill Minnie and all other inhabitants of the habadashery except Smithers (they reason another occupant will add to their cover), hide several guns around the place, and then Jody hides beneath the floor boards just before the rest of the lead characters arrive.

During an argument between Warren and Smithers in which Warren arms Smithers and then baits him to draw on him so Warren can kill the older man, Gage secretly poisons the coffee, ultimately leading to the very gruesome poisoning of Ruth and his driver OB. Ruth almost kills Daisy before he dies while her brother remains in hiding and the his conspirators simply watch instead recovering their hidden weapons and taking advantage of the fact that Warren and Mannix are completely distracted. This is particularly problematic for Gage. He may have acted on his own in poisoning the coffee and thus surprised his compatriots, but then why is he also so unprepared to react to the aftermath?

Instead, they stand around like innocents allowing Warren to take control, arm Mannix and kill Bob. Only then does Jody fire upon Warren from below the floor boards, but once again he and his gang fail to act decisively (something made even more annoying by the later revelation that Mobray has already armed himself off screen) allowing Mannix and Warren to gather themselves and regroup. Although this development sets up a dynamic Mexican standoff and leads to a strong ending that unites Warren and Mannix against these outlaws, it also stretches credulity. What was the point of lying in wait and having a cover if you were just going to act like total fools at every opportunity? Sure they could’ve never anticipated that Warren and Mannix would show up with Ruth, and they absolutely never would’ve known about the dynamic between those men and Smithers, but those surprises still don’t explain their awful play here.

I think it would be foolish to suggest I have a better idea how to craft a script than Tarintino, but I’ll give it a go anyhow. I think the whole sequence would’ve played a lot better if Gage wasn’t one of the Domergue gang, but rather just another inhabitant of the haberdashery like Smithers and another wrinkle in their plan. Maybe he shows up in between when Jody goes down below the floor and Ruth’s arrival or maybe they just opt to keep him alive too, but what if he was just a cowboy visiting his mom just like he says, one that made the isolated decision to poison Ruth, not because he wanted to free Daisy, but because he was enraged that Ruth took his gun. That would certainly explain why the gang wasn't prepared to take advantage of Ruth's poisoning, while adding an extra level of chaos to the proceedings. Obviously, I’m just spit balling here, but I think something should’ve been done to diminish this narrative annoyance, which seems to be one of those "the plot required it" situations.

Regardless, even though this element of the film bothered me, it’s really just a problem that keeps me from viewing the film as perfect, because otherwise that’s what it is. Like the best of Tarantino, the film is shot beautifully and populated with great actors cutting loose with a well-observed and irreverent script filled to the brim with long, tense moments that seem tailor-made for the stage. And the ending, oh boy that ending -- it's some kind of perfect.