'Hateful Eight': Bloody, Beautiful, but Lacking Consequence

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino; Runtime: 167 minutes
Grade: B-

Grand cinematography shot on Ultra Panavision 70, a new soundtrack from legendary and prolific composure Ennio Morricone, and a cast with a legacy that spreads from Reservoir Dogs to Django Unchained hallmark the latest film from Quentin Tarantino, The Hateful Eight. That's a lot of front-loaded, sight-unseen prestige going on there for the latest installment in the director's violent and darkly comedic oeuvre, complimented by the recent success he had with his Jamie Foxx revenge vehicle that proved himself capable of infusing his signature style with the mythical swagger of gunslingers, dastardly villains, and personal vendettas. The journey to getting this film made and the fanfare following it to the cinemas is, of course, quite noteworthy, and nearly everything about it has one rooting for Tarantino's glimpse at bounty hunters, liars, and renegades to stand confidently as one of the greats of its year. It's disheartening, then, to see The Hateful Eight not muster much more than vivid, amusing, yet one-dimensional and protracted entertainment value.

Tarantino's latest has dealt with a complicated history in finally getting to the theaters, from leaked scripts and shooting cancellations to a reinvigorated interest in the film alongside a well-publicized table reading. The cinematic fruition of all that ruckus, broken into a half-dozen chapters with playful titles, begins in the snowy expanses of Wyoming some years after the Civil War, where storied bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell), "The Hangman", is transporting a volatile woman suspected of murder, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to the city of Red Rock. Along the way, he's stopped by another bounty hunter, black Union soldier Major Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), who has his own stack of cargo -- three deceased outlaws -- he's hoping to get to the city as well before a blizzard wipes him out. Cautiously and after some negotiation, Ruth obliges, beginning their carriage ride in the direction of Red Rock. Their expedition naturally isn't without complications and interruptions, including getting stopped by the recently-chosen sheriff of Red Rock, Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins), and them all making a stop at Minnie's Haberdashery due to weather, where they bump into other wary and suspicious travelers.

The Hateful Eight is a gorgeous film, fitted with breathtaking vistas of frosty mountain ranges and fluid shots of horse carriages galloping to their destinations, but Tarantino doesn't get carried away with the 70mm splendor. Most of it transpires in cramped, chilly locations -- within the tight box of a stagecoach and the slightly-warmer, stuff-filled walls of a makeshift inn -- with its focus directed closely upon the temperaments and reactions of the writer/director's enigmatic characters, their untrustworthiness strikingly captured by cinematographer Robert Richardson. As a result, the plotting largely takes a backseat to make room for these big personalities, while also showing some uncanny similarities to Tarantino's own From Dusk Till Dawn in its structure: an initial road trip where the audience gains a grasp on the passengers, and how these characters respond to elevated tensions during a waiting period at a bar / pitstop on their way to a payday. What occurs is a steady evolution of circumstances instead of a consistent progression of events, producing a sparse and functional story without much allure of its own.

That's justifiable, in a way, since The Hateful Eight keeps tabs on a sizable roster of colorful desperados, whose individual histories and personalities already spread Tarantino's attention thin. Unsurprisingly, these characters become the real draw to hitching a ride with his western, and his propensity toward bold traits and impulsive reactions do pack a punch here. Kurt Russell settles into a gristly zone between Jack Burton and Wyatt Earp as the horseshoe-mustached Hangman, lugging the feral deviousness of Jennifer Jason Leigh's Daisy to Red Rock alive out of principle. Samuel L. Jackson channels his signature badassery into the lethal intensity of Major Warren, whose wounds from the Civil War and the illustrious letter in his coat pocket give him more depth than the rest. Thing is, along with the sarcastic ambiguity surrounding Walter Goggins' to-be sheriff Mannix, the familiarly dapper and deceptive English sass of Tim Roth's Oswaldo, and the other dubious entities filled out by Tarantino veterans, they're all distinct but skin-deep in nature, and The Hateful Eight places too much confidence in their merits and magnetism by letting their amplified back-and-forth ramble on for too long.

Once the carriage arrives at Minnie's Haberdashery, these guarded portrayals start to make a little more sense: Tarantino essentially reconstructs The Hateful Eight into a western-themed round of Clue as the newly-arrived bounty hunters rub elbows and butt heads with the folks who are already there. The characters start to feel like carved game pieces that Tarantino's moving around, which kept me at an emotional distance from almost everyone involved, despite being intrigued to see what'll happen next to each and every one of 'em. Too much insight into the integrity of these people -- either positive or negative -- might've foiled the surprises that the writer/director has in store in the later chapters, enlivened by shifting allegiances, trigger-finger traps, and more than a few tricks up its sleeve. Tarantino's brand of mischievous, boundary-pushing humor and his fondness for rearranging what's known about what's really going on fill the air of the inn, surrounded by heavy gusts of wind and cripplingly low temperatures that prevent anyone from leaving, and it plays as well as it does because it's unknown precisely how despicable each of them could turn out to be.

While a few violent bursts emerge throughout the earlier chapters of The Hateful Eight's overlong runtime, Tarantino only incorporates that trademark aspect of his direction to a considerable degree later on. When he does, layers of carnage stack up with chaotic twists to form another exhaustive and blood-soaked finale that's come to be expected of the writer/director to punctuate his pieces of work, made out of fairly equal measures of viscera and articulation. The drawn-out, restrictive development of the characters caught in the fray, however, keeps Tarantino's film from conveying much beyond this bleakly giddy shock-value that's also expected of him, leaving the close of his return to the western genre reveling in a familiarly amped-up and reasonably clever state without a strong underlying purpose for doing so. Things are revealed, people die, stands are made, and the film jubilantly communicates who's less and more hateful than the others through exceptional composition and reverence for the craft, but there's only so much impact all that can telegraph when the hate never really seems all that personal.

Film review also appeared over at DVDTalk.com: [LINK]


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