Review: The Hateful Eight

The promotional materials for "The Hateful Eight" proudly declare it "The 8th Film by Quentin Tarantino." It hardly seems necessary. Tarantino's films are practically their own genre; even without his name in the credits, the film would be unmistakably his. "The Hateful Eight" is the latest entry from the writer-director at the top of his game. It is a composition of contradictions, both gorgeous and grotesque, excessive and deliberately indulgent while simultaneously brisk and exciting, epic in spirit while so narrowly focused it could be done on stage. I'm not sure what the whole bloody affair left me feeling, but I know I enjoyed the ride.

That ride begins in the post-Civil War frontier as a carriage carries John "The Hangman" Ruth and his quarry, Daisy Domergue, to Red Rock where she will hang for murder and he will collect on the $10,000 price on her head. They are twice stopped by men looking for lifts; first, Major Marquis Warren, a former Union officer turned bounty hunter who is stranded while delivering his own bounties to Red Rock; next, Chris Mannix, a former Confederate rogue claiming to be the town's newly appointed sheriff.

This is a slow burn. To say it merely begins with the carriage ride is misleading; the first two of the film's six chapters take place almost entirely in the carriage cabin. Thirty minutes in a carriage may not sound like an exciting way to start a movie, but Tarantino is famous for his dialogue and there's some A-grade material here. The three men all know, or know of, each other. They tell their own stories but more interestingly fill in the sordid details of each others'. Set upon by a blizzard, the travelers take shelter at Minne's Haberdashery with four other strangers: the store's Mexican caretaker, an elderly Confederate general, a traveling cowboy, and Red Rock's executioner. John Ruth instinctively distrusts anyone's intentions on Daisy. He is, of course, right to be suspicious. Someone is not who they seem.

"The Hateful Eight" soars on the strength of Tarantino's script and the performances of the ensemble cast. These characters, save carriage driver O.B., are all varying degrees of dis-likable.  Kurt Russell's John Ruth comes across as a gruff but ultimately well meaning man. He swings between showing Daisy small kindnesses to sudden bursts of violent anger towards her. Daisy, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh is a delightfully nasty cuss who has her fingers on her captor's buttons and revels in mashing them. Samuel L. Jackson as Marquis Warren is perhaps the most likable of the lot but even he, a practical survivor, is somewhat sadistic. Watching all of the characters trapped together in Minnie's Haberdashery suspect, question, bicker and eventually start killing each other is immensely fun.

The threat of violence lingers over every scene. The film's ominous first moments set tensions at a low simmer. Characters are allowed to take the time to monologue, explain, and argue at length. The longer they talk without firing a shot the more fraught each moment becomes. In one of the most tense (and best) scenes in the film, Daisy plays a guitar while watching characters pour and drink coffee. The scene lasts several minutes. By the end you may find you've been holding your breath. Throughout the film, Tarantino expertly ratchets tensions higher and higher until they finally boil into bloody climax.

Tensions are further buoyed by Ennio Morricone's brilliant score. Morricone, the godfather of the spaghetti western score whose previous work includes "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly," has composed a perfectly bleak score which gives every accompanying shot a morose foreboding. Since this writing, the score has already both won the Golden Globe and been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Score. The music isn't the only place Tarantino has looked to classic westerns for inspiration. "The Hateful Eight" has a distinctly retro feel complete with opening overture and a 15 minute intermission (if you see the 70mm version).

Tarantino's excesses are generally a strength but in two significant areas seemed an indulgence too far. In the first case, Marquis Warren delivers a monologue describing abhorrent acts in a way so juvenile that it actually pulled me out of the film. The lines insist on how outrageous they are; you can almost here Tarantino saying "Can you believe I'm going here?" Second, the not-insignificant amount of violence inflicted on Daisy in the first half of the film is disconcerting. These moments are visceral and seem to be played for laughs. By the third time she was getting punched or pistol whipped for saying something the men found disagreeable, I was genuinely uncomfortable with the laughter. Fortunately these problems are restricted to the first half of the film, which is otherwise fantastic.

On the whole, "The Hateful Eight" is a fine installment in Tarantino's catalog that will please his fans and do little to sway his detractors. Love or hate him, his films offer an experience you can't really get anywhere else. I'm firmly in the pro-Tarantino camp. "The Hateful Eight" is thoroughly fun and offers a mystery that is engaging from start to bloody conclusion.

Score: 4/5

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