By James Hancock December 15th, 2015
Just as I finished my very careful attempt to discuss the New York Premiere of The Hateful Eight without breaking the embargo on reviews, which I had been told repeatedly was December 21st, I noticed a barrage of reviews suddenly appearing online. Clearly I was misinformed and I’m not about to hold back my feelings on the film one second longer. The good news is I have already written about the incredible 70mm screening I attended so I can focus entirely on the film at hand. This review will be from the perspective of a very biased, very passionate fan of Tarantino’s movies so if you’re one of those cynics who dislikes his movies for whatever reason, real or imagined, I hope this review makes your vision go red with rage. Haters love to claim that Tarantino steals from other directors yet if backed into a corner they are never able to name any specific scenes or films. Is Tarantino inspired by the work of Brian De Palma, Sergio Leone and Howard Hawks? Hell yes and rightfully so. I wish all filmmakers would take the time to watch their movies and very few filmmakers have done their homework quite like Tarantino. This is not to say that I don’t occasionally find Tarantino to be self-indulgent, functionally illiterate or too prone to believing his own hype. After all, Tarantino is a larger-than-life director and like all great men, he suffers from some larger-than-life problems. On the other hand, there is not another director alive who directs his or her films with more passion and cinematic exuberance than Tarantino. If you look at his work from any perspective including the screenplay, cinematography, music or his uncanny ability to bring out the best in his dynamic casts, Tarantino in my opinion is the greatest living director. So I hope you’ll indulge me if I spend the majority of my review focused on what I love about The Hateful Eight and I’ll let Tarantino’s enemies waste their time and energy dwelling on the film’s flaws.
***nothing but spoilers ahead***
The Hateful Eight is Tarantino’s most nihilistic film to date, with much more in common with a film like Sergio Corbucci’s very bleak but very beautiful The Great Silence (1968) than any other American Western ever made. I can think of no more fitting reason to lure the great composer Ennio Morricone back to the western (for Tarantino’s first original score) than this ruthless movie about eight violent individuals trapped in a cabin together while a blizzard rages outside. I was curious as to why The Hateful Eight had a budget of only $60 million compared to the estimated $100 million for Django Unchained (2012) but having now seen the film I totally understand. This is not a crowd-friendly, accessible movie where a man rises up to become a hero and save the day. The Hateful Eight is a dark, brooding, slow boil of a movie that unfolds at a leisurely almost languid pace for the first half only to explode in some of the most gut-churning gore and carnage you’ve ever seen when the film finally reaches its violent climax. While filming, apparently the only movie that Tarantino screened for his cast was John Carpenter’s The Thing, but I’d argue that when it comes to cinematic bloodletting and practical effects The Hateful Eight manages to exceed even that undisputed classic. I have a feeling that many critics will find the first half of the film to be undisciplined in its approach with Tarantino giving each scene time to breathe and expand allowing his cast a chance to flesh out their characters. What I did not realize until the end of the movie is that the first half teases so many small easter eggs and details, each of which has huge payoffs later in the movie. The majority of the characters are dishonest, brutal scumbags, very rarely telling the truth, and part of the joy of the movie is seeing how all of these separate narratives come together as the truth about all of them is slowly revealed. Throughout the film I foolishly second guessed where Tarantino was taking the narrative but I am happy to report that at the finale, he very satisfactorily sticks the landing and brings it all together.
The most obvious selling point of this movie is the cast. Tarantino has outdone himself with an incredible cast of characters brought to life with some of the best performances I have ever seen by Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins and Kurt Russell. Adding to the tension is the fact that this story takes place shortly after the American Civil War, a struggle where not all of these characters were on the same side. These characters cling to radically different views on what the war was about and how they feel toward the newly emancipated African-Americans. In the hands of a lesser director, this subplot would quickly lead to overly-simplistic sermonizing on the part of the more sanctimonious characters but in the case of The Hateful Eight, nothing is at it seems including the character played by Samuel L. Jackson. The relationships between the characters ebb and flow in incredibly surprising twists right up until the very last frame of the movie. My favorite character by far is Daisy Domergue played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. She plays the role with such unbridled intensity, her face essentially becomes a mask of silly putty contorting itself into every dark and hateful expression imaginable. Come Oscar season, she officially has my vote.
I can’t end this review without talking about the fact that Tarantino shot this movie in Super Panavision 70 with a 2.76:1 aspect ratio. Your options are to sit up close and be completely absorbed into this savage narrative or sit way back in the theater and relish the artistry of how Tarantino and his faithful DP Robert Richardson composed each frame. Not since the days of Lawrence of Arabia have we seen such attention paid to telling a story with this epic perspective. Even if you find yourself not embracing this movie, it is impossible not to be spellbound by the photography. If you don’t make the trip to see this movie in 70mm, you are depriving yourself of a special experience. The Hateful Eight is clearly a very personal movie for Tarantino with Tarantino breaking the fourth wall to deliver the voiceover narration in two scenes. He’s a natural born storyteller and this small personal touch is easily the best acting he has ever done. The 70mm version of the film is longer than the version that will play in regular theaters and given how this narration serves as a post-intermission recap it would not surprise me if this personal touch is not included in the condensed version. We won’t know until the abridged cut opens January 1st. For my part, I plan on catching the 70mm road show that opens on Christmas Day as many times as I can in New York. Tarantino has repeatedly stated that he has no desire to work past the point where he is delivering quality work and that his film career will likely draw to a close after 2 or 3 more movies. So we all need to relish his work while we can. If you don’t like Quentin Tarantino’s movies you either don’t like cinema, or worse, simply don’t understand it. Give yourself the best Christmas present possible and check out The Hateful Eight, a visceral reminder of the power of the movies and what it can do in the hands of a master filmmaker operating at the peak of his powers.
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