Wednesday, December 23, 2015

'Hateful Eight' : blood, racial conflict -- at length

Tarantino's overlong and, of course incendiary, foray into the West.

A B-movie trying to wear A-movie clothes -- and not always doing a good job of it.

That's part of what I thought about The Hateful Eight, director Quentin Tarantino's three-hour opus, a Western that was filmed in Telluride, Colorado. Like the so-called road shows of yore, Hateful Eight begins with an overture (Ennio Morricone wrote the score) and includes an intermission.

The movie can be seen in 70mm at certain locations, although the necessity of seeing it that way can be argued. The movie's "prestige" trappings struck me as overkill, a phenomenon not unknown to a director whose seven previous movies have been known to go over-the-top.

As usual, Tarantino plays with structure, but he's decided to go against the Western grain. The snow-covered landscapes of the movie's opening suggest a spacious background, but the bulk of The Hateful Eight takes place indoors.

Tarantino's screenplay revolves around a simple premise: More than a decade after the Civil War, bounty hunters take shelter in a cabin during a blizzard. It doesn't take long before these bounty hunters are interacting with strangers in a high-stakes game not all of them will survive.

Before the movie's done, its characters are given ample opportunity to prove that they've earned the movie's title. They're a hateful bunch, several of them steeped in racism stemming from North/South divisions that haven't begun to scar over.

If there's a main character here, it's probably Samuel L. Jackson's Marquis Warren, a savvy bounty hunter who led a group of black fighters during the Civil War.

Early on, a stranded Warren stops a stage coach to ask for a ride. He's transporting two dead outlaws across the snow-covered hills: His destination: the Wyoming town of Red Rock. His goal: to collect bounties.

The stage coach has been hired by John Ruth (Kurt Russell), another bounty hunter who's headed to Red Rock. Ruth is transporting a murderous woman named Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to an appointment with the hangman.

It doesn't take long before another traveler joins the group. Walton Goggins portrays Chris Mannix, a former Confederate soldier and the guy who's supposed to take over as Red Rock's new sheriff.

Once the travelers reach the stage stop -- the oddly named Minnie's Haberdashery -- they encounter more characters: an English hangman (Tim Roth), a cowboy who scribbles in a diary (Michael Madsen), an aging Confederate general (Bruce Dern) and a Mexican (Demian Bichir) who claims to be taking care of the place for Minnie, who's off visiting someone or other.

No one who's familiar with Tarantino's work will be surprised to learn that Hateful Eight includes considerable violence, profanity and racial slurs.

If you thought that Tarantino made his racial movie with Django Unchained, think again. Warren instantly is pitted against southern, racist sensibilities and once again, Tarantino gives the "n" word a workout. Its use here can be piercing, raw and maybe a bit forced: One presumes that Tarantino wants to use the movie's isolated setting to get at what he regards as the ugly, bottom-line truth of racial hatred.

Perhaps, but you'd think by now, Tarantino (who writes his own scripts) would have developed a severe case of "n" word fatigue.

Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson, who has filmed many of Tarantino's movies, don't always find ways to make the depressingly brown interiors of Minnie's Haberdashery all that interesting, and this time, they're stuck in a situation in which talk mostly trumps action -- at least in the movie's pre-intermission segments.

That shouldn't be a problem for Tarantino, whose speciality is dialogue, but there are times when you're a little too aware that the characters aren't exactly talking; they're indulging in Tarantino-speak. Put another way: You can hear the writing.

Now, there are surprises here, so there's not much point saying more about what happens in this God forsaken Wyoming outpost other than to note that Tarantino breaks the movie into five acts, each introduced by a title card.

Know, though, that Jackson seems to be playing a character who's not entirely unlike Jules, the hit man he played in Pulp Fiction; he's whip smart and nasty when he needs to be.

Russell's character specializes in what appears to be misogynistic brutally, punching Daisy when he thinks she's out of line. Leigh spends much of the movie with a bloodied face. Of course, Daisy's no angel, either.

Of all the performances Leigh's feels the freshest, reaching near-demonic proportions. An enraged Daisy is something to behold; she could be a guardian at the gates of hell.

When it comes to color palette, Hateful Eight might be the brownest movie I've ever seen. I'm not sure what that signifies, other than that it breeds a whiff of monotony, a condition not unknown to the movie, particularly as it approaches its intermission.

Intense violence explodes during the movie's protracted finale, generating enough plasma to fill a blood bank before Tarantino brings the movie to its rueful dead-end of a conclusion. These westerners know how to get medieval on one another, to borrow one of Tarantino's signature phrases.

As is often the case with Tarantino, we're not sure whether he's reading reality or commenting, expanding on and sometimes subverting pop-cultural tropes, some of them his own. Put another way, I can't say I really believed much of anything I was watching.

Besides, volatile as it is, even hate gets boring after a while.

No comments: