Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Awesomely Shitty Movies: The Hateful Eight

Welcome to another edition of Awesomely Shitty Movies, here at Enuffa.com, where I pick apart the pros and cons of a given film.  Sometimes it's a movie I'm quite fond of in spite of its flaws, sometimes it's a movie I wish I could be more fond of in spite of its flaws.  Today's entry falls into the latter category.  It's Quentin Tarantino's latest opus, The Hateful Eight.


Quentin Tarantino is one of my all-time favorite filmmakers.  His uniquely demented filmography includes three Best Picture nominees, literally dozens of classic sequences, and some of the wittiest, most memorable dialogue ever put to film.  Drawing from his video store geek origins in the early 90s, Tarantino has built a body of work full of loving pastiches of gangster films, westerns, war movies, pulp novels, and even horror films, assembled with such enthusiasm and bravado one can't help but be swept up in their frenetic energy.

So what went wrong with H8?  This epic-length western concerns an eclectic group of bad guys and unscrupulous lawmen who get snowbound in a Wyoming lodge, and the film shows us in painstaking detail how this sociopolitical powderkeg might play out.  You've got a bounty hunter, a notorious outlaw, a black Civil War Major, a racist Civil War General, a British hangman, a newly elected Sheriff, a cowboy, and a Mexican dude.  Plus a stagecoach driver and a handful of other characters who make brief appearances.  The film plays out like an ultra-violent parlor drama, almost entirely taking place in one room, as the characters argue, scheme, bargain, and eventually start shooting at each other.  Like his 2007 film Death Proof, H8 is little more than an exercise in style, and while Tarantino films always have plenty of that (I found the first half of DP a delightfully entertaining play on cheaply cobbled together 1970s grindhouse fare), it left a lot to be desired in other areas.

So let's take a look at the virtues and drawbacks of The Hateful Eight....



The Awesome


Cast

As always, Tarantino's casting is first-rate; this film is largely populated with sure-footed veteran actors who suit their characters perfectly.  Kurt Russell is the down n' dirty bounty hunter John Ruth, who will stop at nothing to make sure his quarry, the brutal outlaw/killer Daisy Domergue (a gleefully degenerate Jennifer Jason Leigh, who earned an Oscar nod) hangs to death at Red Rock.  Samuel L Jackson is the resourceful former Civil War officer Marquis Warren, whose instincts are always on point and who's the closest the film has to a protagonist.  Walton Goggins is the slack-jawed, slightly dimwitted "good ol' boy" Chris Mannix, who's on his way to Red Rock to begin his term as Sheriff.  Bruce Dern is the bitter, tight-lipped old Confederate General Sanford Smithers.  And Tim Roth is the oddly foppish Red Rock hangman Oswaldo Mobray.  Whether Tarantino mainstays like Jackson and Roth, or newcomers like Leigh, each member of the cast slips comfortably into their "hateful" roles.  No complaints about the performances.

No shortage of onscreen talent here.



Cinematography

Shot in glorious 70mm (an odd choice considering most of the film takes place in the one room), H8 is a beautiful-looking film, peppered with some breathtaking shots of the snow-covered Wyoming landscape (actually shot in Colorado).  Regular Tarantino collaborator Robert Richardson gives the film a classic widescreen look, and it's a shame there weren't more locations in the story to take advantage of the medium.

They shoulda filmed the whole movie outside.





Score

A lifelong fan of the Spaghetti Western, Tarantino enlisted legendary film composer Ennio Morricone, returning to the western genre after 34 years, to provide the first-ever original score in a QT film.  Morricone's strains are grim and forbidding, eerily portending the animosity and violence to come.  His scores are always a welcome addition to a film, and this one is no exception.  The score won Morricone his first-ever Oscar.




Mood

H8 shares the desolate, shut-in feel of The Thing (also starring Kurt Russell in a story where no one's sure who's friend or foe - hmmmm) or The Shining, where the characters are trapped in a hellish blizzard setting and it's clear the pleasantries of the first act won't last.  This is the kind of film you'll want to watch during the winter, with a lovely fire crackling nearby.  Incidentally I've always been fascinated with Tarantino's uncanny gift for filming people eating and drinking; Mia's burger in Pulp Fiction, Shoshanna's strudel in Inglourious Basterds, Django and Schultz's beers in Django Unchained, and Minnie's beef stew in H8 all look goddamn delicious and I want 'em all right now.  Anyway, Tarantino sets up a wonderfully authentic mood in this film.  The brutally cold weather, accentuated by the constant wind sound effects, chills us to the bone while the coffee, stew and roaring fireplace are oddly comforting (till the coffee gets poisoned anyway).

I'd totally hang out here.



Like a Play

Much like his debut feature Reservoir Dogs, Hateful Eight could very easily be adapted into a stage production, as nearly the entire film takes place in one location and involves characters plotting against each other and eventually revealing their true intentions.  It takes its cues from Agatha Christie and Edward Albee, moving the story forward mostly through dialogue.  This is an interesting change of pace from QT's recent epics and there's a nice atmosphere of ratcheting tension as these ne'er-do-wells congregate in close quarters.




Tarantino Hallmarks

If you're a fan of Quentin Tarantino you'll find at least something to like, even in his lesser works.  The dialogue is stylized and vulgar, the violence is grotesque and sloppy, the film plays a bit with the timeline to reveal things about certain characters, and the performances are operatic.  Regardless of its flaws, Hateful Eight most certainly bears the hallmarks of a Tarantino film.



As you can see, everything seemed in place for The Hateful Eight to be yet another Tarantino triumph.  So why then did the film leave me somewhat unsatisfied?  Read on....




The Shitty


Length

Aside from the two-part Kill Bill, Hateful Eight is QT's longest movie, and at 168 minutes (if you saw it without the intermission), it feels pretty goddamn long.  The earliest scenes and the final scenes both feel unnecessarily drawn out, as though Tarantino was so in love with the meandering dialogue he forgot to move the story along.  There's simply not enough happening in this movie to justify its near-three-hour running time; 20 minutes' worth of trims would've improved it immensely.




First Act

Much of my issue with the film's length derives from the first act.  We spend a good half hour in John Ruth's hired stagecoach as first Major Warren, and then Sheriff Mannix, each have to coax the paranoid bounty hunter to let them jump aboard and tag along to Red Rock.  There's a whole lot of dialogue in this act that frankly doesn't reveal all that much about these characters beyond their respective occupations, and it's all just a way to get the five of them into the cabin with the other four.  So why does it take so damn long?

Come on in, the ride's only 18 days......



Underdeveloped Characters

As I said, the characters aren't really given much depth aside from their professions.  John Ruth is tenacious and distrustful, convinced that everyone's after the bounty he intends to collect for turning in Daisy.  Warren is clever and resourceful but not entirely truthful.  Mannix is slightly naive, Smithers is jaded and bigoted.  Notwithstanding that there's almost zero to these characters.  Tim Roth and Michael Madsen both give able performances but they're essentially just playing one-dimensional archetypes.  Ditto for James Parks and Demian Bichir as O.B. and Bob.  In fact I'm not even sure why Madsen's character is in the movie, except as a way to bump the number of hateful pricks up to eight.  He does nothing in the story.  He lays around, poisons the coffee, and later he gets shot.  We really don't get a sense of who these people are and thus there's precious little drama to be conjured.  And the most glaringly underdeveloped character of all is....




Daisy

We're introduced to Daisy Domergue from the outset, as a ruthless miscreant killer who's so appallingly evil she's worth $10,000 alive.  John Ruth is so determined to bring her properly to justice he's willing to do anything, and she's such a depraved reprobate that he punches her in the face whenever she opens her mouth.  This is designed to be darkly comic, but there's just one problem.  We're never shown why she's considered such a dangerous, vile criminal.  We just have to accept what we're told.  There's literally nothing the film shows us to illustrate why Daisy is so much worse than the nest of vipers she's snowed in with.  When it's revealed she's a gang member, it turns out she isn't even the leader.  So when Warren and Mannix hang her at the end, there's no sense of righteousness or satisfaction at seeing a merciless killer get her comeuppance.  Tarantino's never shied away from showing flashbacks, so why not sprinkle in a few of those to show us why exactly we should hate this character any more than anyone else.  Christ, Major Warren supposedly forced the General's son to fellate him before murdering him, and he's the de facto protagonist.  Daisy needed an actual backstory of some sort to set her apart from the others.

A potentially great character with nothing to do....



Dialogue Missing Something

One of Tarantino's greatest strengths as a filmmaker is his ear for the music of dialogue, to the point that it's always been what drives his films.  His characters talk like real people having believable conversations, unlike most film characters who only speak as much as the plot requires them to.  Listening to these characters wax poetic about mundane topics like fast food, the hiding instincts of rats, the tropes of Superman, etc. is one of the joys of Tarantino's work.  But sadly the dialogue in this film is missing something.  Where the opening sequence in Inglourious Basterds for example was a masterstroke in building up tension through seemingly innocuous dialogue, the characters in this movie just seem to blather on incessantly without much purpose about very little of interest.  Samuel L Jackson gets a couple memorable monologues that build to major plot developments, but other than that these characters seem overly in love with their own voices and all the talking becomes pretty joyless.  "You only need to hang mean bastards, but mean bastards you need to hang."  Ummm, okay.  Was that supposed to be clever?




No Narrative Thrust

Hateful Eight plays out less like a cohesive narrative and more like a series of gory set pieces that don't quite fit together.  The story's momentum never really takes hold and it often feels like we're just filling time waiting for the next set of chips to fall.  There's a scene where Warren and the racist Smithers butt heads over the issue of black soldiers and Warren goes to reach for his gun, only to be reminded that he'd almost certainly be charged with murder and hanged if he shoots a General without provocation.  The moment passes and cooler heads prevail.  Then later Sheriff Mannix accuses Warren of lying about a letter he carries that was supposedly written to him by Abraham Lincoln.  After much prodding, Warren begrudgingly admits he lied about its authenticity, explaining that he uses it to appeal to white people so they won't cause him any trouble.  Only then does he go talk with Smithers again, this time launching into the story about how he killed Smithers' son after sexually assaulting him.  An enraged Smithers goes for a gun and Warren shoots him dead.  These scenes all feel disjointed from each other, like there's no narrative force taking us from one moment to the next.  Sequences like this and the one later where the coffee gets poisoned feel less like a natural dramatic progression and more like Tarantino said to himself, "Okay we need something to happen here...."  Good storytelling should be more a case of "This happens and then because of that, this happens...."




How Far Can We Go?

Tarantino's films have always contained lots of graphic, stylized violence.  His earlier work left much of it to the imagination, but there was plenty of blood and graphic gunplay.  Then with Kill Bill he swung for the fences, taking cues from ultra-violent samurai pictures like Shogun Assassin.  It fit the style of the film, as did the brutal depiction of Aldo Raine's men machine-gunning Nazis' into pudding.  By Django Unchained the hyper-violence started to feel a little gratuitous, and here it seems almost wantonly fetishist, with exploding heads, broken teeth, splattering brains, etc.  It's like Tarantino thinks we've all become so desensitized he has to venture into George Romero territory for us to care.  At a certain point the carnage seems out of place in a western.

Jeezus dude.....



No One to Root For

Yes, I understand the film is called The Hateful Eight.  And I know Tarantino films rarely have any truly "good" characters.  They're peopled almost exclusively with seedy, immoral, violent figures.  But his other films still had characters we liked and could identify with.  Jules the hitman had an epiphany and decided to quit the mob life.  Mr. Orange was an undercover cop we hoped would make it out alive.  Jackie Brown was an underpaid airline attendant just trying to start over.  Beatrix Kiddo was a reformed assassin who got screwed over by her former boss/lover.  Aldo's Basterds were Jewish soldiers waging their own personal war against the Nazis.  Django was a freed slave on a quest to rescue his wife.  Hateful Eight has nary a character we really feel compelled to root for or even relate to.  Major Warren is the closest thing to a protagonist, but even he is dishonest, vengeful and sadistic.  If we don't care that much what happens to the characters there isn't much point in telling the story.




Resolution

There was little suspense over whether or not these eight (or nine, or ten) characters of ill-repute would end up in some sort of bloody shootout by the end of the film.  It's a Tarantino movie and these people are all violent assholes.  But given how long the scenario took to set up, it just seemed like the fates of all the characters were arrived at rather unimaginatively.  They talk for a while and someone gets shot.  They talk some more and two guys get poisoned.  They talk some more and a buncha other guys get shot.  Beyond the mystery of what happened to Minnie and Sweet Dave there wasn't much of an engaging story at all.  Tarantino's whole inspiration for the film was the various TV westerns he grew up watching, but he wondered what would happen if he just put all the villains in a room with no protagonist.  Unfortunately the answer to that question it seems is, "Not a whole lot."





Nitpicks

-Near the end of the film after everyone else is dead, Warren attempts to shoot Daisy but is out of bullets, but ten minutes later when Mannix is about to shoot her, Warren stops him and insists she needs to hang.  What changed your mind, Major?  Since when are you all about honoring John Ruth's wishes?  One more bullet in the chamber and she would've been dead ten minutes ago.

-Why does Channing Tatum spend the whole movie hiding in the cellar?  Is it me or did that seem like a huge plot contrivance just so we could have a shocking third-act reveal?

-Tarantino's voiceover narration feels totally out of place.  The stuff with the coffee being poisoned and the later scene showing us how the bandits took over Minnie's could've been depicted without the voiceover.  What is this, the theatrical version of Blade Runner?




Conclusion

Look, I'm a huge Tarantino fan.  When he's on his game his films are transcendent.  When he's off it, his films are still pretty fascinating in some way.  The Hateful Eight is a technically proficient, well-acted piece of exploitation.  But it could've been so much more had the characters been given more to do, had we been given anyone to care about, and had the script not been so in love with itself.  Wordy dialogue for the sake of wordy dialogue gets old real fast, as does splatter violence with no purpose behind it.  I found myself spending the first half waiting for something to happen, and the second half feeling kinda disappointed when it did.  I'd say it's high time for QT to move on from the western genre, as four of his last five films have either been westerns or played out like westerns.  I look forward to his next feature, which chronicles the Charles Manson murders.  A change of pace will definitely be refreshing.


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