Did Quentin Tarantino stumble this time out? His tale of western killers sharing a snowbound cabin builds almost zero suspense, and the verbal excess and violent grossness lack Tarantino’s usual clever, wickedly funny edge. And 70mm cooped up in a dim interior? It’s A Long Day’s Journey into Lincoln Logs. Totally dig Jennifer Jason Leigh and Ennio Morricone, though.
The Hateful Eight
Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD
Anchor Bay / Weinstein
2015 / Color / 2.76 widescreen (Ultra Panavision 70) / 187 min. / Street Date March 29, 2016 / 39.99
Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth, Walton Goggins, Demián Bichir, Michael Madsen, James Parks, Dana Gourrier, Zoë Bell, Lee Horsley, Gene Jones, Channing Tatum.
Cinematography Robert Richardson
Film Editor Fred Raskin
Original Music Ennio Morricone
Production Design Yohei Taneda
Produced by Richard N. Gladstein, Shannon McIntosh, Stacey Sher
Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Quentin Tarantino’s opening title sequence card announces The Hateful Eight as his eighth feature; I think that works out to one picture every three years. This time out the excitement was high; not only would the show be a straight western tale — no samurai swords, no slavery sub-plot — it would also be filmed in 70mm and given a road show release for its initial engagements. Tarantino bought the New Beverly Cinema a few years back and dedicated it to film-only exhibition, so to revive 70mm is more than a gimmick for him. He honors the tradition of film enough to use his filmmaker’s bully pulpit to promote keeping the magical stuff around. Ironically, most of the spaghetti westerns Tarantino so worships were filmed in Techniscope, a small-gauge format only half the size of normal 35mm. The Hateful Eight uses many times the negative real estate as does The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
Having remained in Tarantino’s corner through thick and thin, the Weinsteins bankrolled his 70mm experiment and the expensive limited road show release for The Hateful Eight that premiered on Christmas Day 2015. To say that hopes were high is not an understatement. From news blurbs a few years back we learned that composer Ennio Morricone was not pleased with Tarantino’s habit of licensing and his old classic music tracks. The Hateful Eight was to have a new Morricone music score!
70mm was traditionally reserved for pictures conceived on an epic scale. The Hateful Eight takes us to a snowbound Montana as a blizzard settles in. Two bounty hunters meet on the road. Ex- Yankee Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) is stuck in the snow with a stack of frozen bodies he needs to get to the sheriff in the next town, Red Rock. John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) prefers to bring his dead-or-alive charges in alive. He’s transporting the murderess Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock with great caution, in a coach he’s specially hired, driven by O.B. Jackson (James Parks). When a second hitchhiker appears, John Ruth becomes wary of a possible ambush. The new man happens to be Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), the new Red Rock Sheriff who will be receiving the bounty hunters’ prisoners. At the stage stop called Minnie’s Haberdashery Warren and Ruth are confronted with unexpected news. Minnie and her husband have left for a few days, and the stop is being managed by a Mexican who calls himself Bob (Demín Bechir of A Better Life). A group of likewise stranded travelers are inside. Still concerned that Daisy’s old confederates may attempt a rescue, John Ruth sizes up the men hiding out from the storm. Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) is Red Rock’s new hangman. Ex-confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern) is quiet until Chris Mannix strikes up a friendship; they fought on the same side. Smithers is en route to Red Rock to arrange a tombstone for his son, who is presumed dead. The fourth stranger is cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), an inoffensive fellow who writes letters and is coming home to visit his mother. Neither John Ruth nor Marquis Warren accept these men at face value. Suspecting some kind of trap, they form a temporary partnership to watch each other’s back.
When Quentin Tarantino burst on the scene in 1992 he brought fresh water to the genre tide pool, which was growing stale with neo-noir posers and lifeless remakes of crime stories from the ‘forties. Tarantino had an exceptional gift for smart dialogue, and when he was rough and dirty he was truly dangerous. He claimed to be transplanting ideas from his beloved ’70s Trashploitation epics, but he also brought back classic genre storytelling graced with challenging time-structures and graffiti-like ‘time-outs’ to properly introduce his colorful characters. From Kill Bill forward he took the Trashsploitation ethic seriously, giving us a genre scramble of western, samurai and chop-socky themes. The Hateful Eight announces itself more or less as a straight Italo-style western in the mold of Leone and Sollima. We were ready for what he did to the escapist war thriller in Inglourous Basterds, a genre dissection that celebrated our addiction to immature fantasies about killin’ Nazis. But we’d happily accept Tarantino in any of his styles, from a half-farce like Django Unchained to the much straighter example of Tarantino’s Jackie Brown.
Tarantino gives himself a truly demanding task with this picture — he has to keep it on its feet even though it stays in one (fairly large) room for more than two hours of its three-hour running time. In truth this marathon one-act play isn’t big enough to fill that time slot or the demands of an epic. It’s really a claustrophobic pressure cooker drama, not too different than André de Toth’s Day of the Outlaw. Only even that modest show has major action exterior scenes. But that’s just the beginning, because The Hateful Eight disappoints in a number of ways.
Mr. T’s screenplay is his first that I would call anything less than impressive. The characterizations aren’t all that interesting and things move so slowly that we can’t help but guess the majority of his ‘surprise’ events. He never puts us enjoyably off balance, as is one of Tarantino’s many skills. His grossly overwritten dialogue goes in for repetition effects that backfire in a serious way. The running gag of the broken door does not get funnier the second time around, let alone the sixth. There are about a dozen characters, and each is given three or four introduction-analyses, first by themselves and then maybe twice more as new people must meet the ones we’ve already met. As there is no action associated with this, it just becomes a storytelling session, which brings in associations from the past, mostly Civil War horror stories and what passes for justice on the frontier. As these are, after all, eight hateful people, there is no room for anything like humanity. Since they’re all the scum of the earth, with only John Ruth and Warren distinguished by a grain of legality, there is no tension beyond the question of who is going to shoot whom. With nobody’s life worth worrying about, our involvement is only on the level of a cheap thrill.
Yes, this western story unfolds as if all the players had been studying the dirty double cross ethic of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and done special post–graduate work in despicable behavior and sadistic carnage. Samuel L. Jackson’s Major Marquis Warren is named after a director of right-wing westerns, but he conforms in dress and professional manner to Lee Van Cleef’s Colonel Mortimer character in For a Few Dollars More. He’s first seen sitting atop a pile of Leone-like bodies, and he makes and keeps a deal with another bounty hunter just as did Mortimer. Coming back for more fun with Tarantino is Kurt Russell, the dominant bounty hunter whose claim to distinction is his barbaric treatment of his female prisoner. Buried under facial hair and a heavy winter coat, Russell is a pleasingly rough-tough old coot who isn’t about to trust anybody.
Unfortunately, Tarantino gives Russell’s John Ruth the gift of gab. Russell often seems to be channeling the voice of John Wayne, just as he did for John Carpenter on occasion. Like everybody else in the show, he talks strictly in colorful stylized western talk, except when the script has the actors go against the grain and talk like modern hipsters. This makes the period jargon sound like a put-on: am I being colorful, or am I distracting you with colorful expressions? There are also a number of lines that smack of anachronism, something that I should have expected since Tarantino still plays things in ’70s action terms. Major Warren talks about ‘paranoia,’ a word that I suppose existed in the 1870s… I guess. Then again, perhaps Tarantino stays true to the vintage period by not giving Minnie’s Haberdashery one anachronistic item … a doorstop.
The big hit of the show is Jennifer Jason Leigh, who carries off in fine style what must be the most thankless female role in the history of westerns. Daisy Domergue never hears her name pronounced correctly, although the way the Eight say it fits the way she looks. Starting with a black eye, she spends the entire three hours amassing wounds and outrages that eventually cover her head in blood, vomit, human brains and home-cooked stew. When she stops to play a song on the guitar (about Botany Bay), Daisy does fine considering that her face looks like the floor of a slaughterhouse. Ms. Leigh was the most fearless leading lady of the 1980s, taking on the worst indignities that directors like Paul Verhoeven could throw at her, and coming back for more. I’ll revisit this ‘dump on Daisy’ theme in a minute.
Not given much to do but be eccentric are Tim Roth and Bruce Dern, both wonderful players here encouraged to underplay. Nobody is who he says he is. Roth gives his character line readings that sound like an imitation of the comic Terry-Thomas. All he lacks is a gap between his front teeth. Bruce Dern is essentially playing the wretched ex-army officer from the classic The Ox-Box Incident, the S.O.B. that works out his frustration over losing the war through miscarriages of frontier justice. Dern’s General is nicely conceived, I have to say.
Tarantino’s pressure cooker situation never really comes to boil. This being a Tarantino film, we expect that bloody hell will break out sooner or later. John Ruth and Major Warren simply don’t know who among the guests is getting ready to bushwhack them and free Daisy. Warren doesn’t wait to find out. As he’s a 1970s black super-dude character shoved a century into the past, Warren forces the race issue. Tarantino shows a total lack of creativity when Warren baits General Smithers with an obscene story of what happened to his lost son. For one of our few moments outside the lodge, we flash back to a violent sex scene unworthy of the writer-director. Tarantino often displays a knack for creating extreme moments unthinkable in ‘polite’ movies, which nevertheless seem liberating. Hateful Eight’s forced sex-torture scene is a lame fall-back. Has Quentin run out of ideas? For all his outrage about racial injustice, the scene just makes Sam Jackson into a regulation oversexed Superfly or Sweet Sweetback sexual threat. That’s not liberated cinema, nor progress, or anything.
Perhaps the ugliness perpetrated on General Smithers and Daisy Domergue seems excessive because not a whole lot else is going on. Major Warren spends what must be a half hour going over the mystery of what happened to Minnie Mink, laying out the facts and discussing the suspects in a way that turns the show into an episode of The Thin Man. But the tension simply doesn’t hold. We’re not young punks in a 42nd street fleapit any more; we’re not looking for a plot
Is Tarantino expecting us to find all this excruciatingly funny? He’s pulled off gruesome balancing acts before, bringing sleazoid themes and gross-outs to a wider audience than ever saw Switchblade Sisters or Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein. His Pulp Fiction had at least four moments when I thought, ‘I can’t believe I think this is funny…. It is funny.’ The gross-out moments here just fall flat.
When push comes to shove, even the violence doesn’t take us anywhere new. Just slaughtering people doesn’t amount to too much these days. Two or three heads here explode Real Good… but what more can I say? The effects register but generate no thrill. The most interesting part of The Hateful Eight occurs in a sidebar story (I’ll avoid spoilers) where we get to spend ten minutes with some lively, lusty characters making jokes, having fun — a proud cook and her coddled husband, and a Calamity Jane-like winner called Six-Horse Judy (Zoé Bell). I thought, hey, I want to see that movie. Geez, Quentin Tarantino has made some marvelous movies. His relatively straight Jackie Brown is just sensational, and so is the liberating insanity of Kill Bill. But he’s focused on this narrow range of Trashploitation themes based on a grindhouse ethic from forty years in the past. This is the first one that really doesn’t work very well, that doesn’t have a bigger statement to make, that feels like it went in the wrong direction.
Anchor Bay and Weinstein’s Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD of The Hateful Eight is a gorgeous encoding of this handsomely shot picture. We don’t get the benefit of the 65mm cinematography, but it sure doesn’t look like HD video. With the old Ultra Panavision 70 lenses the depth of field is excellent and the images crisp. I’d have to guess that there isn’t enough variety of visuals to let theatrical viewers really appreciate the larger format… but I didn’t see it in ‘seventy, so I’ll stop right there. Did the road show have an intermission? Intermissions were fun in road show pictures. I’ll bet that the actors were excited to see themselves so ‘enlarged’ when the show was projected on the bigger 70mm screens. The special makeup effects had to be done more carefully. Gotta admire Ms. Leigh for playing 90% of the picture with God-knows-what schmutz poured over her face.
Road show viewers did see material we do not. This is the shorter cut of two hours and forty-seven minutes. Did the extra 20 minutes make a big difference?
The densely layered soundtrack features a score by Ennio Morricone that got a lot of press before winning Il Maestro his first Oscar in competition. He was nominated several times before, but it rarely seemed to be for the right movies. Rather than cherry-picking from older scores, Tarantino finally let Morricone put together original music. But more than one theme come from earlier pictures, and Quentin still goes eclectic with non-Morricone cues. The Hateful Eight isn’t a pastiche but a straight western siege in a single location — it would have been nice if Morricone’s music could have unified the whole show. But I’ve always liked Tarantino’s previous music choices. The main theme over the titles growls forward with an impressive momentum. Morricone’s choice of instruments is always exciting.
The Blu-ray package comes with a second DVD disc and a digital download code; the extras amount to two featurettes. One is a standard from-the-set ballyhoo piece, with the cast exchanging enthusiastic accolades for each other and their director. A second piece gives us Samuel L. Jackson in total carnival barker mode, touting the 65mm shoot and 70mm road show exhibition for premiere runs of The Hateful Eight. It’s good for the uninformed to learn about a grand movie tradition from the past. I personally think that Tarantino shooting in the big format is a great idea if one can get away with it. Was The Hateful Eight chosen for the bump to 70 because its shooting schedule was mostly confined to one set? That had to help with the economics.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Hateful Eight Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD
Movie: Fair ++ saying good-minus makes it sound as if I enjoyed it more than I did
Sound: Excellent English and Spanish tracks
Supplements: promo featurette, 70mm featurette
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English & Spanish
Packaging: One Blu-ray disc plus one DVD in keep case
Reviewed: March 25, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson