Mark Reviews Movies

The Hateful Eight


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Walton Goggins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth, Demian Bichir, Bruce Dern, Michael Madsen, James Parks, Channing Tatum, Zoë Bell, Dana Gourrier, Lee Horsley

MPAA Rating: R (for strong bloody violence, a scene of violent sexual content, language and some graphic nudity)

Running Time: 3:07 (roadshow version); 2:48 (wide release version)

Release Date: 12/25/15 (limited); 1/1/16 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 24, 2015

Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight is not so much a deconstruction of the Western as it is a playful riff on our expectations for the genre and, perhaps, for the film itself. Its opening shot—of a snow-covered crucifix in the foreground, as a stagecoach slowly approaches in the distance—suggests something of formal elegance and thematic import. Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson don't just give us widescreen compositions, either. They go full-bore: shooting on 70 mm film at a super-wide aspect ratio.

That opening shot draws us into anticipation for such panoramic vistas of the West, so it comes as a bit of a surprise that the majority of the film's introductory scenes play out within the confines of that stagecoach, with a few wide shots showing a blizzard following the carriage. By the time the blizzard catches up to the coach, its passengers have arrived at a log cabin that serves as a general store for weary travelers crossing through the middle of nowhere to and from a nearby town in Wyoming Territory.

That means that the film's handful of glimpses outside the wooden structure are hindered by the violent whirl of snow. We can see an outhouse within walking distance, and that's about it for the stunning views we might expect. The film's final chapter evokes a "White Hell," which has as much to do with the surroundings as it does the racial tensions that have begun to build almost as soon as the characters start talking.

Instead, Tarantino's screenplay offers something more along the lines of a Western chamber piece. It's a five-act drama (six "chapters," with the first serving as a prologue) of confined hostilities among the players and of a claustrophobic sense of tension that those conflicts will leave the relatively small space a blood-splattered mess by the time everything is said and done. Sudden violence serving as a punctuation is a Tarantino hallmark that will always be the expectation. The writer/director fulfills it, too, with an exploding head, a castration by pistol, and an extended scene of bloody, projectile vomiting.

Those are a few of the film's punch lines, by the way. The setup is that this group of by-the-books lawmen, obvious scoundrels, and secret villains will be stuck in the cabin for days before the storm passes. The joke, in general, is that they cannot even make it through the night before the bodies start to drop. One man is pretty convinced that a few corpses have been lying around somewhere on the premises before he even arrived there.

He's Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a former officer in the Union Army during the Civil War who since has become a bounty hunter. John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is the passenger of that stagecoach from the opening shot, and after some convincing, he lets Marquis and his deceased haul aboard the coach. John is taking Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a notorious criminal, to town for her to receive justice. They call John "the Hangman," on account of his strict code to capture his prisoners alive.

There's a lot of talk, either explicit or implicit, about justice of the legitimate and "frontier" varieties. Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), the newly appointed sheriff for the town and a veteran for the Confederate Army, becomes another passenger. He informs John that they're riding with a man who has a bounty on his head, leveled on him by the Confederacy for his actions during the war.

The price on Marquis has gone down significantly and become something of an uncollectable prize, and only the true believers of the rebel cause still hunt him. Just before the film's intermission (if one sees the roadshow version, which this critic did), Marquis tells yet another tale about some of those true believers—one filled with physical and psychological torture. The veracity of the story is inconsequential. The yarn is a means to elicit a reaction, and it works bloody wonders. This is, to a large extent, a story about storytellers and the ways in which they use their tales to establish a place within the isolated little society of the cabin—through political alliances and outright intimidation.

There are already a few people at the cabin when the quintet from the coach (the fifth being the driver, played by James Parks) arrives. Bob (Demian Bichir) is running the store while the owners are away visiting family. Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) is the polite traveling executioner who's on his way to do some hanging business. Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) is a cowboy on his way to visit his mother for Christmas, and Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern) is a former Confederate general who hasn't gotten over the result of "the War Between the States." At least one of these men is a liar, and John and Marquis come to believe that at least one of them is trying to free Daisy from the hangman's noose.

The story eventually becomes a murder mystery (In a self-referential bit of storytelling, Tarantino narrates the gap of events during the intermission, informing us of the method of inevitable murder before it occurs), with Marquis becoming an impromptu detective set on determining the current deaths, as well as the ones he suspects occurred before his arrival. It's the closest the film comes to offering a plot, and it's heightened by Jackson's performance, which combines clever rationalization with righteous anger over everyone's overt and concealed prejudices toward him.

If the film is a chamber piece, that means the performance are key, and everyone is strong in The Hateful Eight. Tarantino might be reaching too far with the film's formal credentials and structural quirks, which all point toward some complexity and significance that elude the story's barebones nature, but as a piece filled with rich characters and performances, the film's pleasures are simple but prominent.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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