By Adam Cutrone
While a conservative 85 percent of the attendees of the AMC Lowes in Garden State Plaza mall spent their Sunday after Christmas being whisked away to a galaxy far far away, this writer found himself dragged by the hair to the inhospitable frontier of Civil War Wyoming by Quentin Tarantino.
A proper western deserves a proper western review, so here we have it: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of “The Hateful Eight”.
The cramped confines of “Theater 15” were a far cry from the illustrious “70mm Ultra Panavision” experience that my $23 ticket promised. Even still, there is no denying the shear scale of the breathtaking scenery in “The Hateful Eight” and the creativity in which Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson utilize the 70mm film stock. Remarkable views of the sprawling infinite winter of Wyoming are juxtaposed with an intimate sense of tension and claustrophobia from within a small stagecoach and cabin. During any point of conflict or conversation, given the unique width of the 70mm frame, our focus may idly wander the screen to investigate the suspicious characters as they mill about in our periphery, like tiger sharks circling their prey.
Despite the usual calamity of a Tarantino film, much of “The Hateful Eight” is spent in a rather formal theatrical setting, showcasing sublime performances by ranking Hollywood veterans Bruce Dern and Samuel L. Jackson. However, the true breakout performance of “The Hateful Eight” goes to Walton Goggins’ incredible portrayal of “Sheriff” Chris Mannix. In a three hour film almost entirely consisting of dialogue — where no one character can ever be trusted — Goggins stands out as a necessary and unexpected sense of warmth and excitement. Goggins’ fast paced southern drawl forms a percussive and dynamic syncopation with the deep growl of Bruce Dern and the smooth confidence of Samuel L. Jackson.
There is no denying that for better or for worse, Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” is very much a “Quentin Tarantino movie.” By that I mean that it shares a number of overt qualities with the seven films that came before it: a familiar rogue gallery of actors, tense and engaging dialogue rampant with racial epithets and profanity and an excess of brutal violence, to name a few. While sharing all of those qualities and more, what makes “The Hateful Eight” feel uniquely different from Tarantino’s earlier work is how incredibly quiet it can be — until it isn’t.
Legendary film composer Ennio Morricone beautifully conducted a comparatively subtle score to his more famous spaghetti western classics. Despite being the first Tarantino film to utilize an almost entirely original score, “The Hateful Eight” is surprisingly silent, save for the dialogue and the biting gusts of wind that can be seen and heard blowing snowflakes between wooden slats and windowsills. The result is a palpable tension that is spared from Tarantino’s familiar musical intervention, the auditory validation of the carnage being shown. Viewers hear and watch as deplorable people say and do deplorable things. We’re left to interpret these actions as if we’re sitting in the cabin alongside them as a silent co-conspirator to it all whether we like it or not.
The first line of Tarantino’s 2003 opus, “Kill Bill” opens with the question, “Do you find me sadistic? … No Kiddo, at this moment, this is me at my most masochistic.” One could argue that these words couldn’t be a more appropriate for “The Hateful Eight”. Though the film is quite dense with beautifully written theatrical dialogue, a more conservative audience may find it difficult to see the forest for the trees.
Tarantino’s jet black humor of “The Hateful Eight” may be the most sardonic of any film he’s written so far, with misanthropic and often controversial themes that demand an air of sincerity in order to be taken seriously. So when the film tiptoes the line between stone-cold earnestness and over-the-top childishness, it makes the delivery of these heavy themes a more challenging load to bare. Without spoiling any specifics of the scene, there is a moment where one of our hateful eight describes in graphic detail a rape that occurred at their hands. As the scene unfolds, it’s ambiguous whether these events have actually occurred or whether the lie is simply a part of a larger rouse. But it’s the borderline silly manner in which the scene is written and performed that strips away at the calculated tension that the film worked so hard to build in favor of a cheap thrill. These moments of contention are far and few between, but are potent enough to potentially challenge a viewer’s overall opinion of “The Hateful Eight”. But perhaps that’s the point.
Confession time: In order to write as objective of a review as possible, it was necessary to see this film twice. My first showing of “The Hateful Eight” at the Garden State Plaza Mall AMC left much to be desired in almost every way. Incredibly disappointed with the film, I feared it had less to do with the movie itself and more to do with the experience as a whole. What was supposed to be a return-to-form for the cinema roadshows of yesteryear was instead an excruciating three hour exercise in patience and restraint. Having paid for a ticket whose price was equal to that of a 3D Imax film, I eagerly anticipated what was advertised as a unique 70mm Panavision experience. After fighting through hundreds of anxiously aimless “Star Wars” attendees and broken ticket machines, I arrived at Theater 15.
Theater 15 was the furthest and smallest screen from the main lobby. That proved to be true not only spatially, but also in terms of its priority to the AMC staff. Given the ultra-wide aspect ratio of this unique viewing experience, when projected on a smaller than average movie screen, you’re left with the very top two-thirds of the screen populated with content and fading out to a blur somewhere around the middle. This was made even more disappointing by the film’s crude projection that fought its way in and out of focus for the first half of the film. What was billed (and priced) as a premier movie engagement was in reality much worse than if I had simply seen the film at my local theater.
What was even more aggravating than the film’s presentation was its reception. “The Hateful Eight” is, more often than not, a difficult film to watch given its brutal violence and racially charged subject matter. Any illusion of tension is all but squandered when your audience is giggling at any and all usage of racial epithets and violence towards women. During that showing I thought the film was slapstick and cruel even by Tarantino’s standards. Was this the same filmmaker that was responsible for such empowering films like “Jacky Brown” and “Kill Bill”? I knew I needed to see it again.
My second viewing of “The Hateful Eight” was at a much more intimate showing and proved to be essential to my understanding and appreciation of the film. At its core, “The Hateful Eight” is a poignant expression of what the topic of race and justice has become in America. In one example, Reservoir Dogs alum Tim Roth plays Oswaldo Mobray, the dandy hangman for the town of Red Rocks. As the hangman, he delivers a unique and inspired observation of justice that is as relevant during the tumultuous Civil War as it is now. “The man who pulls the lever that breaks your neck will be a dispassionate man. That dispassion is the very essence of justice. For justice delivered without dispassion, is always in danger of not being justice.” Tarantino raises a spiteful 70mm mirror to show us that by succumbing to the fears and paranoia of the lowest common denominator we are doomed to become snarling, spitting animals, picking each other off one by one.
Like many Tarantino films, it’s easy to become distracted or even disgusted by masochistic violence and vulgarities, but beneath it all is always something deeper. Often varying in degrees of subtlety, “The Hateful Eight” is a deceptively brilliant film despite its shortcomings, and will sit with you for days.