December 31, 2015

Tarantino's Latest Film is Sick, Demented, Fun. (If you're up for it.)

The very mention of Quentin Tarantino’s name is loaded with associations and expectations. For some, Tarantino is a cinematic god. For others, he’s an irritant. Like J.J. Abrams, Tarantino is a nostalgia pirate, making movies that riff on specific films and genres he loves. But Tarantino is a better filmmaker, and even a “lesser” entry like The Hateful Eight is something to behold. There’s so much pressure to be a masterpiece, that it’s hardly fair to hold The Hateful Eight up to such an impossible standard. If you like the style of Quentin Tarantino, you’re likely to enjoy his latest joint; if you find his work maddening, steer clear.

The Hateful Eight may be the sickest Quentin Tarantino movie yet. Or, maybe I’ve just forgotten how sick all the previous films were. Eight is sort of a combination Western and Agatha Christie yarn, set on a blizzardy night in the Wyoming wilderness in a rickety old haberdashery, where a group of strangers is snowed in. Among them is John Ruth (Kurt Russell), a bounty hunter nicknamed “The Hangman,” who’s escorting a salty murderess named Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the small town of Red Rock, where she’ll be hanged for her crimes. Russell is a pop culture legend, having created some of the best tough guys in action movies of the last thirty-ish years. As John Ruth, with his face hidden behind an unkempt wilderness of hair, he’s gruff and withered, but still tough as nails and still utterly likable, even when he elbows poor Daisy in the face (on multiple occasions).

Leigh’s performance as Daisy is probably the best in the film and the least show-offy. She’s like an older, weather-worn version of Ally Sheedy’s character in The Breakfast Club: she’s a quiet flake who can take just about anything that’s given her, and she’s constantly winking when her aggressors aren’t looking.

Daisy and John Ruth are on a private stagecoach when they’re stopped by Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Mark Warren, another bounty hunter. Warren fought for the Yankees in the Civil War, and he’s a controversial figure, having deliberately killed white soldiers on both sides of the fight. Unlike John Ruth, who always sees his captive criminals are given proper hanging justice, Warren has no scruples about collecting his bounty with a corpse. When we meet Warren, he’s sitting atop a pile of frozen dead swindlers, waiting for a ride into town.

Samuel L. Jackson exhibits such exuberant brio in his performances that he may be impossible to dislike. His acting in The Hateful Eight isn’t particularly different from his acting in Chi-Raq, or any number of other movies (including my personal favorite Tarantino film, Jackie Brown). But like many of the great stars, it’s Jackson’s personality that we love. The way he talks directly to us (even when he isn’t), the way his grandstanding and speechifying commands our attention and tickles us, is some kind of pure Hollywood pleasure. Jackson here does not disappoint, and even when he’s on the brink of physical agony, he's delightful.

Hateful Eight may be Tarantino’s nastiest effort. As the title suggests, nobody in this film is lovable. (It looks as grim as Robert Altman's wintry Western McCabe and Mrs. Miller, only the nastiness is canned, far less authentic.) Many of the characters have charming attributes, but those attributes are really the personalities of the actors coming through: Jackson’s smart-ass-cinematic-emcee quality, Russell’s charming-tough-guy, the way Jennifer Jason Leigh uses her eyes as obscene gestures directed at anyone and everyone. Tarantino newcomer Walton Goggins may have the most genuinely good character to play: his name is Chris Mannix, and he’s allegedy the new sheriff of Red Rock, stranded in the snow and awaiting rescue when John Ruth’s lucky stagecoach happens by and whisks him away. Mannix brims with foolhardy machismo, and it’s utterly charming: First you can’t help but feel sorry for him because you know he doesn’t know whom he’s dealing with; later you feel sorry for him because you actually like him; and by the end you may feel something like affection for him.

Tarantino doesn’t skimp on the gab in Hateful Eight, either. At times, the talking lulled me into almost-stupefaction. But the movie is just interesting enough in those moments to work. And it builds to a satisfying—if deeply troubling and disturbing and gory—finish that will not disappoint fans. Hateful Eight may be the least urgent of Tarantino’s later films, but it’s a terrific entertainment, and it’s beautifully shot (by Robert Richardson) and scored (by Ennio Morricone). And that cast is hard to beat.

With Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, James Parks, Demian Bichir, Bruce Dern, and Channing Tatum. Written by Tarantino.

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