Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Hateful Eight

Quentin Tarantino returns to the Old West with his latest film, The Hateful Eight (2015). Unlike Django Unchained, a sprawling revenge epic, The Hateful Eight harkens back to Reservoir Dogs. It's a potboiler about a small group of rather nasty characters who are confined to an isolated location where they grow suspicious of each other, leading to outbursts of graphic violence and dark ironies. I wasn't surprised to learn there are plans to turn this into a play.

The Hateful Eight asks who can we be sure of. Well, we can be reasonably sure of John "The Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell), a bounty hunter bringing in the notorious outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to the town of Red Rock, Wyoming to be hung. But what about Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), another bounty hunter who brings in his targets dead? Or Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a former Confederate renegade who claims he's the new sheriff of Red Rock?

When a blizzard hits, these travelers hunker down at Minnie's Haberdashery, only Minnie's not there. There is a Mexican who says his name is Bob (Demian Bichir), and he says Minnie's left him in charge. There's also the actual hangman of Red Rock (Tim Roth), a Confederate general (Bruce Dern), a silent cowboy (Michael Madsen), and Ruth's driver (James Parks). They all state their reasons for why they've come this way, but it becomes apparent soon enough that almost no one is what they seem.

The isolated, wintry setting, along with the presence of Russell and the music of Ennio Morricone, brings to mind another movie: The Thing. In that film, a shapeshifting alien monster infiltrated an Antarctic outpost, creating a climate of paranoia and suspicion in which the men (no women) turned on each other.

While it's a different genre, it's the same M.O. for The Hateful Eight. This is less like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and more like Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians. We're confined to a single, claustrophobic location, and we wait for the killer to emerge, and it could be any of them. Ruth suspects one of these men might be there to help Daisy escape, so he confiscates guns, barks orders, and doesn't trust anyone. Meanwhile, Daisy sits patiently, like a bomb ready to go off but we don't know when.

The movie's title is appropriate. Pretty much everyone in the main cast is an unrepentant scumbag. Ruth, the nominal hero, regularly hits Daisy when she mouths off. When we first see her, she has a black eye, and her face becomes increasingly battered, but she remains defiant to the end. Warren, the other designated protagonist, reveals an encounter he had with the general's son, and assuming it's true, which we can't be sure of, it's arguably the most depraved and sadistic act made by any of the characters. Everyone is defined by their relationship to violence, whether in the past or in the cabin.

The movie's more than three hours long (it's a long time before we even get to Minnie's), but it doesn't drag, even though the action is limited to mostly unexpected bursts rather than prolonged shootouts or chases. Tarantino loads the film with his colorful, profane dialogue for his more than capable cast, and it's the dialogue that drives the tension; as these characters reveal their histories and explain what they're up to, we can't be certain if they're telling the truth. The snowy, mountainous location is authentically chilling and isolated.  When violence erupts, it is bloody, graphic, sometimes funny, and sometimes horrifying.

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