The Hateful Eight (2017)
Quentin Tarantino is such a fan of cinema that often his devotion to the art overcomes some of the better aspects of his early films, like story telling. The dialogue is always there, for better or worse (sometimes the latter since he's been listening to critics praise him for the last quarter century) and he has learned to film in a way that would make John Houston or Sergio Leone proud.
That has caused a bit of consternation, as Tarantino knows how to use the widescreen format to every advantage, making sure action occurs in all parts of the screen. He films landscapes as beautifully and lovingly as he films outrageous, over-the-top violence. It's a grand arena just set for the action-packed themes his films promise after all his influences are ground up, assembled into something new and splashed, in amazing, action-packed detail across the screen.
Or so we are usually promised. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction (and True Romance, for that matter, which was still enough of a Tarantino film to count) were all actual movies, with characters, plot, snappy scriptwriting and, generally, everything that was promised. However, with Jackie Brown, we got what would be a Tarantino pattern. With the emphasis on Pam Grier returning to a starring role, we were promised some good old blaxploitation fun. Instead, we got an overlong, self-indulgent mess.
Although Death Proof comes close (it's basically a whole lot of nothing with an awesome car chase tacked on), his movies have not been that bad since. The first half of Kill Bill is quite good, even if it is heavy with so many references to other movies that it feels more like the cinematic equivalent of collage art. The second, again, promised more action - and was all talk. Same with most of Inglorious Basterds. The long dramatic portions, which seemed almost tailor-made for a stage production, seemed jarring with the action scenes that were the film's main promise. That is why I was happy when Django Unchained ended up being more or less what it promised, as well as being a somewhat original work.
That brings us to The Hateful Eight. I was afraid from the previews I saw that it was going to either try to re-tread Django or be just as frustratingly disjointed as Inglorious Basterds. Instead, it turned out to be something surprisingly fresh, at least as far as Tarantino is concerned.
John "Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell) is on his way to the town of Red Rocks, Wyoming, to claim the bounty for Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). While his driver O.B. (James Parks) tries to get to shelter ahead of a blizzard, they encounter another bounty hunter - Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a former Union soldier that lead a Black regiment and also was responsible for so many Southern deaths that he still has a price on his head years after the Civil War. He has his own three room temperature bounties that he is also hauling into Red Rocks, and circumstances have left him needing a ride.
Ruth eventually agrees, and the coach gets even more crowded with the addition of Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins), the son of the leader of a renegade Southern contingent that refused to lay down arms after the war came to an end. He is supposedly the new sheriff of Red Rocks, so he talks himself into a ride, despite the obvious tension between him and the Major. Knowing they will not make Red Rocks before the blizzard overtakes them, they instead take refuge at Minnie's Haberdashery, a popular stage stop.
Only problem is, Minnie (Dana Gourrier) and her partner Sweet Dave (Gene Jones) are not there. Instead, a Mexican stablehand named Bob (Demián Bichir) is looking after the place, while another group of stranded stagecoach riders have taken shelter: Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), Red Rocks's new hangman; General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a former Confederate soldier that Major Warren knows all too well; and Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a cowboy on the way home to visit his mother for Christmas.
Ruth, wisely, doesn't believe a word of it. As it becomes obvious that the group will be stuck with each other for the next few days, and that at some point some of them will need to sleep, he starts to take precautions, knowing that at least one, or all, of the guests at Minnie's are there to help free Daisy. As the bodies start to pile up he is proven right, and far from finding safety from a blizzard everyone soon realizes that the danger dwells within the warm confines of the cabin itself.
An early rule of stage drama, and one that has been abandoned over the years, is that all action should occur within 24 hours. With everything that occurs in Oedipus Rex, for example, it is hard to forget that that all the events the drive the play happen within a short span; even though it is mentioned throughout, one is expected to know the background that led to the events, so that exposition is kept to a minimum, and action to a maximum. The Hateful Eight expects the audience to at least have some passing notion of the Civil War, and the tensions that followed down the years as a result, as most of the characters involved are on the older side and either fought or were directly affected by the war. Even Mannix, one of the youngest, had his life influenced heavily by the actions of his father after the war.
The actual motivations of many of the characters are revealed when we meet them, or in due time as the plot allows. Many of the Greek plays, to which this movie owes a major debt, deal with the idea that everything in our lives is predestined. The Gods have arranged the major events in our lives, and the drama comes from the hubris of man in his efforts to outsmart the Gods and escape their fate. Although they do not recognize each other at first, almost everyone that ends up at Minnie's is in some way tangentially connected, either by association or reputation. In that way, all their actions throughout their lives, no matter how much they thought they were their own, have led to this one place, as if some unknown force has been playing with them the whole time.
The other element, though not so blatant in the movie itself, was made clear by Tarantino himself. The ideas of paranoia and isolation are heavily influenced by John Carpenter's version of The Thing. Instead of a shapshifting alien monster we instead are introduced to a more human situation in which no one can be trusted. The sense of isolation also allows for Tarantino to not have to mix action and staged drama, but to largely produce a bloody stage play for the screen. Since most of the sweeping vistas and outside action is for framing only, this never seems like a clash of styles.
Also, without having to blend the two, the cast of the movie gets to stand out. Wisely, for once, Tarantino himself largely keeps out of it except for some awkward off-screen narration, so his acting does not become a distraction. Unsurprisingly, Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell play their parts well. The sign of a good actor is that no matter how much you know them from all the roles in their long career is that you still become invested in the characters they are playing, and that is the situation here. Jennifer Jason Leigh largely plays Domergue as an enigma, as it seems the only person, other than whoever may be trying to free her, that knows her is Ruth.
As I have grown older I have noticed something, and it seems to be backed up by some research: it takes a lot to excite me over music, books and movies now than it did when I was younger. It's not just that Dark Side of the Moon or Rocket to Russia comes about rarely, or that music has changed, it's that I have changed and, like with almost anything, to achieve the same high as the first time is nigh impossible. I remember the feeling I got watching The Godfather or Silence of the Lambs the first time in a way that almost eclipses the movies themselves.
This is a long-winded way of saying that, despite some obvious goofs (who plowed that road to Minnie's?) and Tarantino's attempt at narration with his weak voice taking me out of the action whenever it comes on, The Hateful Eight was as near to perfect a movie I have seen in years. The only movies that almost came close were Donnie Darko or L.A. Story. I see many, many great movies, as well as a lot of absolute trash, and many of them strike me emotionally, but it is such a rare occurrence that I feel like I am looking at a work of true art. And, like the best art, it is often difficult to look at directly or take in all at once, even if on the surface it appears to be quite obvious in its subject matter.
I understand that this is a personal feeling when watching this film, and it is for me the first time Tarantino has achieved the promise he showed with Pulp Fiction all those years ago. For many just seeing the name Weinstein Company will be enough to turn their stomach (it did for me more than any of the graphic violence in the film). It is also unlikely to change the minds of anyone who simply hates Quentin Tarantino for being the arrogant, wannabe gangster fanboy that he comes across as, and probably in truth is. It's that very arrogance that allows for a movie like this to come to fruition, and I am quite glad it did despite his early misgivings. Flaws and all it is the best movie I have seen that was made in this decade.
The Hateful Eight (2017)
Time: 167 minutes
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walter Goggins
Director: Quentin Tarantino