Monday, January 11, 2016

Film Review: The Hateful Eight

There are worse things than going into a movie with high expectations only to be disappointed.

You can go into a movie with high expectations, start having those expectations exceeded... and then the movie decides to crap all over you.

That was my experience with The Hateful Eight.

I have not been Tarantino's biggest fan.  Though I think Reservoir Dogs is genius, I still hold that Pulp Fiction is ridiculously overrated.  I enjoyed the Kill Bill movies and I thought that there was some marked improvement in his style with Inglorious Basterds and finally Django Unchained.  With this upward trajectory in mind I was incredibly excited to see The Hateful Eight.

Set in post-Civil War Wyoming, the movie involves bounty hunter John "The Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) traveling by stagecoach ahead of a blizzard.  Along the way they encounter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), another bounty hunter and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) who claims to have just been elected the local sheriff.  Ruth treats both men with great suspicion with eyes on his bounty.  The paranoia gets worse as the group is snowed in to a cabin with General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a retired Confederate officer.  Also in the cabin are the properly English Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) and the silent Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) along with Bob the Mexican (Demian Bichir).  The rest of the movie plays out at the paranoia builds and things eventually get bloody.

To be fair to The Hateful Eight, the first act is a fantastic piece of work.  Tarantino writes some of his best work as he slowly introduces the characters.  He does an excellent job of making them intriguing without a shred of sympathy.  These are all hard-bitten, violent individuals with no heart or sympathy.  And yet there is a crispness to their characters that draws you to them in the beginning.  And as they are introduced, he wisely withholds a lot of information from you so that you look at them with the same jaundiced eye that Ruth holds.  Ennio Morricone's amazing score fills up the atmosphere and makes the action on the screen seem bigger.

Some of the acting is also top notch.  This is one of Kurt Russell's best performances, and that is saying something.  Samuel L. Jackson plays the same character he has in a other Tarantino films, but with that same amazing charisma.  And Jennifer Jason Leigh deserves an Oscar nomination for her Daisy who is alternately insane and introspective.  You get the sense that her madness is somehow her own internal escape but only a temporary one as reality constantly breaks through.  Also, Dern is able to wring some humanity out of an evil, racist war criminal which is no easy feat.

And for most movies, this would be enough to recommend it despite whatever deficits.

But not The Hateful Eight.

It is very difficult to explain the movie's flaws without getting into spoiler territory, but I will endeavor to do so.

As great as any first act is, it only is effective if there is a satisfying payoff in the rest of story.  Stories usually set up plot points, or "story debts" if you will, that must be paid off by the end or you will feel cheated.   And Tarantino eschews this completely.  He thinks he is being horribly clever by playing with your expectations and then totally subverting them.  Some film critics praise this as fresh storytelling.  In the case of The Hateful Eight, I say that it is bad storytelling.  If you are going to pull the rug out from under an audience, you must give them something new to hold on to.  In Reservoir Dogs, when the twist occurs, Tarantino pulls you into a new and fascinating storyline.  In The Hateful Eight he gives you nothing.  By the time you get to this part of the story, the appeal of the characters has worn off and you are left with complete ugliness.

And that was when I realized that this was only the half-way point.  The rest of the movie would be a long slog to its end, slouching towards the end credits with increasing awfulness.

When things derail, it gets ugly.  Things begin to make less and less sense.

The story begins to meander and linger needlessly.  My wife observed that Tarantino is in love with his own writing and thinks we should all bask in its glory.  And the movie horribly underutilizes talented actors like Roth and Madsen.  Many critics like Goggins' performance as Mannix, but he felt empty and dead behind the eyes.

I've mentioned before that I usually have no problem with violence.  But I was left disturbed by the level of blood and carnage that Tarantino showed on screen.  I don't often use the phrase "pornographic violence," but I think that it applies to this movie.  He takes a sadistic glee in pushing his disgusting, bloody violence.  Whereas Kill Bill had a cartoonish, over-the-top nature, Tarantino wants to revolt you with this movie and he thinks that he can get away with it because of the cache he has earned from critics.  And even the dialogue takes an ugly turn.  Right before things go off the rails, Jackson's Warren gives a monologue that is so revolting that it wonder what mind of malice could come up with it.

Throughout the movie I couldn't help of think of John Carpenter.  This is not a big leap considering that this movie borrows heavily from Carpenter's other works, especially The Thing to the point where Tarantino even uses some of the score from that movie.  But while Tarantino wants you to think of The Thing and Assault on Precinct 13, I thought of Ghosts of Mars.

Ghosts of Mars is a terrible film that feels like an elderly director trying to hold on to his former glory by mixing in elements from all his previous hits, hoping to recapture the magic.  The result is a sad effort of a formerly great storyteller who has lost his originality.

And that is what I saw in The Hateful Eight.  The further you get into the story, the more you see how Tarantino samples from his own previous hits.  He uses plot devices from Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained, Kill Bill and Inglorious Basterds.  Rather than seeing them perfected in a more seasoned and skillful story, it feels old and tired.  Things that were shocking in Pulp Fiction feel tired in The Hateful Eight.

The movie begins with a long, extended shot of a snow-covered crucifix as the stage coach leaves it behind.  This film is a long day's journey into night away from the mercy of God and into the abyss of evil.  Watching it, I was reminded that in Dante's Inferno, the deepest circles of hell are the coldest.
As the deep freeze settles in on The Hateful Eight, you can feel the coldness of hell.

1 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

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