Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Review: "The Hateful Eight" is Like a Great Dinner Mystery Show, With Bloody Results

Scene from The Hateful Eight
It's easy to forget the impact that director Quentin Tarantino made back in 1992 with Reservoir Dogs. While Pulp Fiction would take most of the credit, the film introduced an American voice that mixed stylized violence, witty dialogue, and movie references into a blender and produced an impressive heist drama that featured none of the heist. It was a small ingenuity that made him the talk of the town, causing him to get even more high concept with each passing film. However, one cannot help but think of Reservoir Dogs when watching The Hateful Eight; being reminded of how powerful Tarantino could be with limited locations. Even if his latest structurally feels like it owes some debt to his debut, it's possibly his most ambitious attempt to make a real movie with real messages beyond the blood and guts.

In 2013, Tarantino got flack for encouraging gun violence with his western homage Django Unchained. It didn't help that the Sandy Hook shooting was a coinciding event. It didn't help that the film in question had some of the director's most graphic moments, as fleeting as they were. While that film was itself commenting on racism, it feels like Tarantino took this backlash to heart, choosing to make his next film more of a direct social commentary. He participated in an activist march that turned the police against him. Clearly The Hateful Eight was the work of a director who had something to say about the violent world around him. He didn't encourage violence. He was intending to show its futility.

If there's any fault to find in The Hateful Eight, it is how deliberately eccentric it is to Tarantino's quirks. If you hate his strange line readings or ill tempered actions, this film will be a difficult sit, especially on a borderline three hours. If this isn't a problem, prepare to sit down in the snowy hills of Wyoming in Minnie's Haberdashery with eight of the most offensive archetypes possible. Don't listen to their defenses, they all are in some ways despicable liars who only intend to provoke anger. As a whole, they feel like Tarantino's attempt to condense the American population into eight types in an era following the Civil War. There's women, blacks, whites, and even Mexicans who coincide. Some are racist and bitter about the changing environment while others simply convince themselves otherwise.

One of the advantages of ripping off Reservoir Dogs is that the limited sets allow for the goodness of Tarantino's dialogue to echo off the walls. While his work feels oddly more expository than normal (coming off more as a very hostile form of dinner theater), the actors chew it up brilliantly and spit it out in memorable ways. Definitely topping out the list is Jennifer Jason Leigh as Daisy: a criminal set to be hung by John (Kurt Russell in what must be the best John Wayne impersonation in decades). She's probably even more vile than the male counterpoints, which is something given Major Warren's (Samuel L. Jackson) need to portray himself as a boogeyman akin to something out of The Birth of a Nation

The film itself largely resides in these quarters, playing a trust game with the audience. The first half is extremely bloodless and perhaps on the edge of dull towards the end. It's a testament to Tarantino's writing that he throws in tension at the last minute in a manner that ratchets up the film in exhilarating ways. Suddenly the average, predictable film becomes something far more unique. It isn't just the hateful characters on display. Tarantino has secretly been setting up the microcosm of America and its relationship with deceit, choosing to slowly unveil his craft to present his final thesis, which is perfectly summarized in the final moments of the film where Roy Orbison sings "There won't be many coming home." over an image of the futility of these eight people's paranoia. Was it all worth it? Even if Tarantino's violence is reliably over the top, it feels more purposeful this time - packing subtext that feels prescient to contemporary society.

In a way, this is Tarantino's first real "film." For most of his career, he has done his best to incorporate other films and culture into his work to make a "Quentin Tarantino film." You get a sense of his style, sometimes distracting from any thorough narrative or point (as good as they may be). However, there's a lot more focus on tonal consistency this time around, and this may be the first time that his social commentary feels like more than pandering (Django Unchained was too reliant on idiot white guys). Yes, there are still those references on display to other films (Russell goes so far as to quote The Searchers' most famous line), but they don't feel as distracting this time around. Even the absence of a jukebox soundtrack is itself a sign that Tarantino wants this to have more emphasis. It helps that he replaced it with composer maestro Ennio Morricone, who is as great as ever. 

The Hateful Eight is pretty much what Reservoir Dogs would look like if made later in his career, when he knew more of what he was doing. The limited sets actually add gravitas to everything about the story and the performances show some of the most interesting dynamics in his career. Even if he has done better movies (Inglourious Basterds), there's no denying that the suddenly socially conscious Tarantino is an exciting and authentic voice in mainstream cinema that transcends his love of film culture. This film feels like he's starting to understand its ability to be used as provocation and change (instead of just the former). It may be too eccentric and the twist at the halfway mark is a commitment some won't likely take, but it's all a reflection of how Tarantino's confidence has built over the years by not going directly to the violence. If anything, that only provides hope for whatever his final two films are likely to turn into.

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