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Friday, 15 January 2016

The Hateful Eight (2015)

The 'Eight' in the title refers to this being Quentin Tarantino's eighth feature, a specious bit of arithmetic, since one can only reach that total if one counts the two separately released halves of Kill Bill as a single film, if one ignores the dire "Four Rooms" where QT was one of several directors, and if one counts his half of "Grindhouse" as the single movie it turned out to be, rather than half of an intended whole. Never mind...let the man have his own conceits, and my goodness he is full of them.

None of the above is meant to deny my general admiration for him as a talented filmmaker. I have a fair amount of affection for most of his features, with the possible exception of "Jackie Brown" which I find something of a Parson's Egg, brilliant in parts but dreary in others. I was therefore prepared to adopt a positive approach to his latest film (and I would never have gone to see it so soon after its release last Friday were I not anticipating something special). Sorry to say, I found it hard to 'love' the movie, despite some redeeming virtues. Let's examine these:

Much has been made of the fact that the film was shot in 70 mm Panavision. The opening shots of snow-bound mountainous Wyoming are nothing short of spectacular, with a screen almost too wide to take everything in. However some 95% of the subsequent tale -- a bum-numbing three hours plus is shot in a single interior. While one could argue that the wide-screen gives one the feeling of the characters' whole immediate universe, the effect is rather more like watching a stage-bound production. However, I can forgive this since those characters are largely so well-drawn.

Set in the period immediately after the Civil War, we are introduced to Kurt Russell's walrus-moustached bounty hunter, handcuffed to his prisoner, the murderess Jennifer Jason Leigh, who spends the film getting progressively more battered and bloodied until her features are barely visible. She seems to be garnering acting kudos for her role, which puzzles me, since her voice is horribly affected at the best of times and largely unintelligible here (except when she sweetly sings a folk ballad). Then of course there is Samuel L Jackson's more ruthless bounty hunter, who prefers to bring them in dead rather than alive. His character is probably the most precious to Tarantino, but his barnstorming performance is probably too much for the film's own good; he overpowers the action. Next we have Wayne Groggins' Southern rebel who claims to be the incoming sheriff of Red Rock where the previous characters are headed, before a fierce storm forces them and their stage-driver to take refuge at a mountain way-station (Minnie's Haberdashery, a name that only QT could dream up). I can't say that I am familiar with Groggins' career, being largely a TV actor but with a smallish part in "Django Unchained", however he becomes one of the more likeable and believable characters among the hateful eight.

At the cabin we meet Bruce Dern's bigoted Southern general, Tim Roth's putative hangman (speaking with an unbelievable plum-in-the-mouth upper-class accent), Tarantino regular Michael Madsen as a laid-back cowboy enroute to visit his Mom, and Demien Bichir as a Mexican dogsbody, theoretically looking after the station while Minnie is away. We have doubts that any of them are what they claim to be and Russell suspects that one or more of them are planning to spring his prisoner. We are therefore introduced to a long and somewhat tedious game of cat-and-mouse as suspicions and prejudices fly and we wait for some sort of mystery to be solved. This first half finishes with a fifteen-minute intermission, Tarantino's nod to earlier film sagas, where we were presented with a still screen ad encouraging us to go out to buy more popcorn...

The second half is probably slightly more action-filled and entertaining, when two of the characters die from drinking poisoned coffee, spewing and spraying buckets of blood -- at times the surplus of gore verges on the humorous. Jackson is determined to unmask the culprit. He mercilessly kills one of the company, but the subsequent violent shootout is interrupted by someone unexpectedly shooting up from the basement. One of the protagonists has been hiding there throughout, Leigh's outlaw brother, Tatum Channing in the briefest of lead roles. This exposes a fatal flaw in the writer-director's plot: if Channing and his cohorts (who these are I will leave as a non-spoiler) wanted to free his sister, they could have taken out Russell the minute he burst through the cabin door with Leigh in tow -- but then we wouldn't have had our three-hour talkfest.

Even without this peculiar plot point, the film feels self-indulgent and overstuffed. It could easily have become a more manageable shorter movie if Tarantino had taken out some of the singularly unnecessary stage business: having to burst open and then nail shut the cabin door every time a character entered or exited, the slow business of setting up stakes in the snow as aids to reaching the far-off outhouse, the lingering shots of stabling the horses, and more. We could also have done without the two bits of voiceover narration by the 'great man' himself, totally superfluous to the action which was divided into clear chapter title cards -- but Tarantino seems to feel obliged to put in an appearance of sorts when he can. Then there was a rather unnecessary cameo for his good mate Zoe Bell as 'Six-horse Judy' (!) and a rather over-extended massacre of black Minnie and her all-black staff prior to the current action.

Some people feel that Tarantino is trying to make a case for the plight of the black man in America and that this justifies Jackson's larger than life determination to kill white men. The N-word is used ad nauseam and I sometimes think that Tarantino does this to excess just to annoy Spike Lee. Jackson's centrepiece speech is a rather disgusting and graphic harangue to Dern, bragging of the horrid things he inflicted upon Dern's estranged son, goading the old chap to attempt to draw before Jackson can claim another notch on his belt. One suspects that this is just another of his character's unbelievable lies like the ongoing rigmarole of his being one of Abe Lincoln's pen-pals!  The point is that any political grievances that the director wants to stress are undermined by the unending and small-minded blood-letting.

A great Morricone score doesn't compensate for this being the most un-Western purported Western in film history. This movie is as about as 'Western' as "Reservoir Dogs," the Tarantino film it most resembles.
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