Tuesday, May 3, 2016

I Didn't Hate "The Hateful Eight"

I gave up on "The Hateful Eight" at the utterance of the word "dingus."  Up until that point I was hopeful that Quentin Tarantino was building up to something interesting, that his finale would make use of  all the solid technical and character work he'd put on display so far.  Sure, I anticipated the usual guts and gore and excess, but if Tarantino was paying homage to his favorite Westerns - he got Ennio Morricone to write the score for chrissake - I figured I'd at least be getting a narrative that resembled Sergio Leone more than grindhouse exploitation.  But no, not a chance.  No matter how stately the super-widescreen cinematography, no matter how restrained the early scenes, and no matter how sterling the cast, when it comes down it, "The Hateful Eight" is just another round of Tarantino's favorite, garish, blood-spattered indulgences.  

Initially, I had high hopes for the film.  Eight horrible characters, including a pair of bounty hunters, Mark Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and John Ruth (Kurt Russell), lawman Sheriff Mannix (Walton Goggins) and Ruth's prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), find themselves obliged to wait out a terrible snowstorm together in a one-room trading post called Minnie's Haberdashery.   Domergue is slated to hang for her crimes, but a rescue attempt is expected, so the audience is invited to puzzle out which of the characters in the haberdashery isn't who they say they are before the bullets start flying.  Additional suspects include a Mexican named Bob (Demian Birchir), British hangman Mobray (Tim Roth), cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), and an elderly Confederate General, Smithers (Bruce Dern).  Also caught up in the mess is John Ruth's non-hateful stagecoach driver O.B. (James Parks).  

There have been plenty of good genre films, and Quentin Tarantino has made several of them.  I thoroughly enjoyed watching the Bride and Django carry out their revenge against nasty wrongdoers in "Kill Bill" and "Django Unchained."  However, if a filmmaker crosses certain lines, gets too bloodthirsty, or loses sight of their primary aims, they're in danger of losing the audience.  As I mentioned earlier, Tarantino lost me at the word "dingus."  This wasn't because of the dialogue, but the accompanying visuals that removed all ambiguity from the scene that the character who uttered it was lying.  Suddenly we were being beaten over the head with the fact that one of the most interesting characters in the film was an irredeemably deplorable human being.  And that's when the premise just collapsed for me, as I had no stake in the story anymore.  Watching a gang of terrible people take each other apart can be a lot of fun, but when you have no sympathy for any of the participants, the entertainment value drops considerably.

I certainly enjoyed the first part of the movie.  I love that Tarantino is so confident at this point, he'll have lengthy scenes of people having rambling conversations or just pull the camera back to enjoy the landscape.  His dialogue is always a lot of fun, and here he gets a lot of mileage out of Old West pastiche with a healthy dose of black humor.  This may be Tarantino's funniest film to date, featuring lots of physical humor, running gags, and pointed satire.  And he takes his time, slowly setting up his playing pieces and ratcheting up the tension. There are little character beats and a musical interlude that are among my favorite Tarantino moments.  The performances are great across the board, especially Jennifer Jason Leigh making a comeback as the casually offensive Daisy, and Samuel L. Jackson having a ball as a badass bounty hunter.

That's why I was so disappointed when the whole works came crashing down.  It wasn't just the "dingus," mind you.  Tarantino trotted out his achronological story structure again, and spent a large chunk of the film showing how he set up a big twist that really should have just been explained with a few lines of dialogue.  So much time was spent talking up the various characters' theories of justice and civilization, and suggesting that several of them embody parts of the American experience, but Tarantino doesn't bother to follow through.  Sure, "Django" and "Inglorious Basterds" were inelegant in their revisionist revenge fantasies, but they were satisfying on a narrative level, delivering final blows to the Third Reich and the Confederate South.  I have no idea what I was supposed to take from the ending of "The Hateful Eight" beyond the triumph of anarchy.

Everyone was awful, so the whole country can go to hell, perhaps?  Oh well.  At least the cinematography was pretty.


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