Friday, December 25, 2015

The Hateful Eight: Insufficiently nasty

The Hateful Eight (2015) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for strong bloody violence, gore, profanity, graphic nudity and racist behavior

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.31.15

Quentin Tarantino’s best films are highlighted by deliciously snarky dialog, scene-stealing — and sometimes career-reviving — performances by delectable character actors, and twisty scripts that build tension to the screaming point.

Every time somebody enters Minnie's Haberdashery, those already inside — in this case,
John Ruth (Kurt Russell, left), Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and a wincing
Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern) — have to yell for the door to be nailed shut, lest the
blizzard blow it open again.
The Hateful Eight gets two out of three.

Tarantino’s tough-talkin’ homage to classic Westerns — complete with an awesome new orchestral score from 87-year-old Ennio Morricone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), his first Western score in 40 years — simply doesn’t have enough story to justify its butt-numbing 182-minute length. The set-up is rich with potential, and it screams for the multiple back-story treatment that made Kill Bill so engaging ... but no; aside from two brief flashbacks, we and the cast are stuck in the same claustrophobic cabin for three interminable hours.

Granted, the actors do their best to hold our attention. Ultimately, though, the posturing and narrow-eyed ’tude can’t make up for a script that doesn’t kick into gear until after the intermission (roughly 100 minutes in).

Tarantino makes us wait much too long for the good stuff, and by then things are rather anticlimactic.

And yes, I’m fully aware that the “good stuff” is the enfant terrible filmmaker’s gleeful dollops of blood and gore. But even here, it feels like Tarantino is only half-trying; having teased us with a cabin laden with hammers, shovels, iron spikes and all sorts of other implements of potential mayhem, he settles for gunfire. Which, tasteless as it sounds, is quite disappointing.

As he did with Kill Bill, Tarantino divides this saga into chapters, starting with “Last Stage to Red Rock.” The setting is post-Civil War Wyoming, with a six-horse stagecoach doing its best to outrun an approaching blizzard. The driver is forced to halt after coming upon former Union soldier-turned-bounty hunter Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), perched in the middle of the road atop three of his sanctioned kills.

Warren’s horse has given out on him; he’s hoping for a lift to Red Rock. But that’s a problem; the stage has been chartered exclusively by fellow bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), who is handcuffed to his prisoner, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and escorting her to a date with the hangman at Red Rock.

The wisely suspicious Ruth views any strangers as either a) somebody trying to steal his bounty; or b) somebody trying to rescue Daisy. But it turns out that Warren and Ruth know each other, if only vaguely; the requested ride is granted, if grudgingly.

They don’t get far before encountering another traveler on foot, who also claims to have lost his horse: Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a former southern renegade — and proud racist — who improbably claims to be Red Rock’s newly appointed sheriff. Ruth has no intention of letting this obvious weasel on board, but is forced to acknowledge that, in the unlikely event that Mannix is telling the truth, leaving him behind would be tantamount to murder. In full view of O.B. Jackson (James Parks), the stagecoach driver.

This uneasy quartet gets as far as Minnie’s Haberdashery, an unlikely mountain pass stopover, before the blizzard hits. Ruth drags his prisoner inside, where he encounters three travelers from an earlier stagecoach, also waiting out the storm: taciturn cow-puncher Joe Gage (Michael Madsen); Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), a sullen old man still wearing his Confederate general’s uniform; and the hilariously loquacious and mildly prissy Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), who — imagine that! — turns out to be the regional hangman.

The Haberdashery is absent its namesake; as explained by guest proprietor Bob (Demian Bichir), he’s watching the place while Minnie and her husband are visiting relations.

No surprise: Ruth doesn’t like this set-up. Not one little bit.

Nor does Warren, whose calculating gaze touches on every inch of the notions-laden emporium, his eyes momentarily pausing on a lone jelly bean, wedged between two floorboards. Glancing up at the candy shelf, he spots what appears to be a gap between two jars.

(Note to production designer Yohei Taneda: The aforementioned sweets look less like old-style jelly beans, and more like modern Jelly Bellies ... which most definitely did not exist in the mid-19th century.)

Time passes; as is typical with Tarantino, various characters prove to have unexpected ties. Others probably aren’t what they seem. But the tone remains jocular, the conversation testosterone-laden but not really threatening. At no time does the dynamic become anywhere near as uneasily tense and precarious as, say, the marvelous opening scene in Inglourious Basterds, between the French dairy farmer (Denis Ménochet) and Nazi Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz).

We keep waiting for that Tarantino to show up. Never happens. The closest we get is during Chapter 5 (“The Four Passengers”), the film’s one modestly lengthy flashback.

Not that there isn’t much to enjoy, starting with the dynamic between Ruth and the crafty Domergue. Leigh embraces this down-and-dirty role with merry enthusiasm, her wily vixen being both atrociously uncouth, and increasingly battered by Ruth, every time she mouths off. Doesn’t matter what he does — break her nose, knock out some teeth — she patiently licks the blood off her lips, smiles a feral grin, and bides her time.

Russell, for his part, channels a John Wayne-styled alpha dog. Russell obviously loves the part, and well he should; it fits him perfectly. Ruth is the pluperfect hunter and mountain man: a big bear of a guy who is patient to a point, and then — like a chiding parent — quick to administer punishment.

Jackson has an equally good time. Ruth’s self-assurance notwithstanding, Warren IS this saga’s alpha dog; he simply doesn’t make noise about it. Jackson radiates calm menace: his drawling conversation never casual, each passing comment or query designed to elicit a telling response or reaction.

Goggins, well remembered as the charmingly lethal Boyd Crowder on TV’s Justified, is a hoot as the excitable Mannix. He’s always the loudest guy in the room, whether sneering at somebody’s gullibility, or reacting with shock when he recognizes somebody by reputation. Goggins is delightfully over the top, which makes us wonder when Mannix’s true self will emerge.

Madsen and Roth are longtime Tarantino regulars, both having starred in 1992’s Reservoir Dogs. Roth is a hoot here as the genteel Mobray, a British transplant who couldn’t seem more out of place. Roth embraces Mobray’s high-tone speechifying, sounding as if he’s campaigning for public office, while looking like a watchful demon.

Madsen and Bichir, though, remain under-developed dead weight: cardboard figures who lack any defining sparkle. That leaves Dern, who brings angry dignity to his grey-garbed ex-soldier, obviously still smarting from the South’s loss to its “Union oppressors.”

Jelly beans aside, Taneda dresses this expansive set with great care, layering all the walls, shelves and tables with the casually strewn bric-a-brac that one would expect in such an establishment; you just know, if a drawer is opened, that it’ll be filled with eclectic and fascinating stuff. Much has been made of the fact that the actors spent 12 weeks in this deliberately cold environment, their frosted puffs of breath proof that they worked in sub-freezing temperatures, which definitely lends authenticity to the setting.

At the same time, this place also isn’t quite what it seems. Pay attention to Mannix’s line, when he first steps inside.

Cinematographer Robert Richardson takes ample advantage of Tarantino’s decision to make this picture on film — in other words, not digital — via the old-style Ultra Panavision 70 process (which hasn’t been used on a mainstream feature since Ron Howard’s Far and Away, back in 1992). Indeed, longtime movie fans will smile with appreciation, when the famed Cinerama logo appears on the screen.

The establishing mountain vistas are gorgeously framed, Richardson’s lens even capturing individual snowflakes. There’s simply no question: Film is much prettier, and warmer, than video.

Tarantino’s affection for old-school movie-making extends further. He opens with an orchestral overture against a static screen; the aforementioned intermission concludes with another musical interlude. Patrons who seek out this road-show production — solely at Sacramento’s Tower Theater, in these parts — are further rewarded with an old-style, full-color program.

(Following these exclusive engagements, the film will be shown elsewhere in conventional digital.)

Although this narrative lacks Tarantino’s signature energy, a few moments showcase his mesmerizing filmmaking chops. Watch for the long extended take, when Domergue picks up a guitar and sings a song; Richardson’s camera focuses in and out on her, and on what’s taking place behind her. Warren’s merrily cruel anecdote is another stand-out, as is the aforementioned flashback.

Mostly, though, we’re held captive by Tarantino’s self-indulgent hubris; The Hateful Eight is a film made by a guy paying too much attention to his previous critical plaudits. He and editor Fred Raskin should have chopped at least half an hour from this bloated vanity production.

What we have, instead, is merely a sorta-hateful eight.

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