Sunday, 17 January 2016

Movie Review: The Hateful Eight (2016)



No other singular person in the world of cinema has given more credence to the importance of the screenwriter than Quentin Tarantino. He’s basically an alternate reality version of Randal from Clerks who decided that, rather than bitching about how shit movies are nowadays, actually did something about it and began making his own. After starting off his career with a loud bang with the festival success of Reservoir Dogs, he continued to carve a name for himself with his unique approach to character writing and his homage-heavy fan-boy sensibilities as a story-teller. Unless we’re talking about the film-about-nothing Death Proof or the comedic abomination that is It’s Pat, you’d be hard-pressed to find a film in his filmography that is abjectly bad. So, naturally, when news hit about his latest release, weather reports also came in of a tidal wave of fan-boy drool that threatened to destroy the world. Then there was news of Tarantino taking the film on a roadshow screening tour of Australia, in crisp 70MM film stock. Would probably lose my buff card if I didn’t attend something like that, so bear in mind that everything that follows may differ from the traditional theatrical release as the version I watched was an extended cut. This is The Hateful Eight.

The plot: On their way to the town of Red Rock, bounty hunters Maj. Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), soon-to-be sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) and prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) get attacked on the road by a blizzard and are forced to take shelter in a nearby haberdashery. There, they encounter Mexican caretaker Bob (Demi├ín Bichir), hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) and Confederate general Smithers (Bruce Dern). As they are being forced to exist under a single roof for the next two days, tensions are raised as it appears that one or more of them might not be who they say they are.

As is to be expected from QT by this point, the cast is full of notable names. However, even though this has been true of his work for a while, this might be the first time in a film of his where I’ve seen all the main players pull their respective weights; no-one in the titular Eight, and even in the supporting cast, feel like they have wasted camera time. Jackson is fantastic and charismatic as always, playing linchpin to the best moment of the film with the finale to Chapter 3 (which I think is going on my list of favourite film scene ever), Russell may be doing a twice-removed impression of John Wayne for most of the film, but damn it all if he doesn’t pull it off with panache, Roth’s primarily comic role makes for some of the funniest moments of the film and Dern’s rasp to end all rasps gives his Confederate general a strange placency in contrast to his even-more-racist-than-the-others behaviour. But those should be expected to be good. What about people like Michael Madsen, who have been flip-flopping between Tarantino and Uwe Boll for the last decade, or Channing Tatum, who only seems capable of working in films with as little a degree of seriousness as possible? Well, Madsen’s soft-spoken cowboy routine does him well here and Tatum actually manages to pull off intimidating in his pivotal scene. We also have Bichir giving a more than capable performance, and Goggins doing a damn good job as the Confederate-supporting sheriff, particularly in the third act.

It is only within the last decade or so that Tarantino became an actual ‘film’ maker. Prior to that, he pretty much reserved his talents with presenting his dialogue in the most appealing ways possible; scriptsploitation all the way. Then came Kill Bill and, all of a sudden, the man developed a real sense of stylistic ultra-violence and making proper use of the visual medium. I bring all this up because, prior history involving the script notwithstanding, this feels like QT is going back to his classic writing-heavy style of filmmaking. While this film is no way shies away from the red stuff, and it reaches expectedly cartoonish levels of gore at times, this is ultimately a rigorous workout for his screenwriting sensibilities. Long, unbroken shots of the actors giving what are basically monologues to each other, mostly taking place in a single isolated location; this is more stage play than film. And yet, the same kind of dedication is evident nonetheless: These actors more than prove their craft by not only getting through these lengthy moments, but also acting competently when they aren’t in focus. It’s easy to forget but, even if they aren’t in focus, what the other actors do on screen still matters to the overall production. In terms of utter dedication, though, the Leo DiCaprio Award this time around goes to Craig Stark. Without getting into spoilers, his mostly-silent contribution to the film involves being completely naked on screen… in the middle of a snow field. Yeah, whatever he got paid for his role, that amount of shrinkage can’t have been worth it.

More so than his approach to violence, Tarantino’s strength has always been with his ability with character: Imbuing them with life so that their performers have a healthy foundation to work from. Here, while the characters themselves aren’t exactly the richest in terms of development, they are mostly given individual backstories that make them at least feel like more than cut-outs. Where they hit their high mark, however, is when they interact with each other. Sure, you wouldn’t expect a black American army major to get along with a Confederate general, but the way they and the other characters interact isn’t that cut-and-dry. These aren’t written with basic titles in mind; rather, while being given credible reasons for their actions, the connections made are rather fascinating. This is especially true once the film passes the half-way point and more of the relationships are made clear, leading to what I can easily see will be the best verbal conflicts I’ll see on screen all year. At least, if I see much better than this, then it will due in no small part to some divine miracle.

All in all, even with the typically cartoonish levels of violence that are found throughout, especially in the second half, this was a thoroughly entertaining watch. Tarantino basically used this as a means to exercise his abilities with character and, through the outstanding performances across the board and their sharp dialogue, I’d say that he proved that he hasn’t lost his touch in the slightest. If he has suddenly decided that he just wants to make Westerns now, between this and Django Unchained, I have absolutely no complaints about that plan. Even with how much respect I have for Goosebumps and its surprisingly smart script, this film managed to trump it. What it lacks in depth, it makes up for in sheer execution and finesse. We have a new film at the top of the leader board, although I doubt that it will still be at the top of the list in 12 months’ time; it’s damn good, but it’s still early days yet and it isn’t exactly flawless.

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