By Anthony Norton (Singapore)
Hello everybody! This is my second movie review on this site, upon the successful posting of my Star Wars: The Force Awakens review, which really spurred me to write more. This time, I am very excited to share with you an amazing experience I had over the past week. A friend of mine who lives in Los Angeles invited me over to watch The Hateful Eight (a film I have been eagerly awaiting to check out) in the best unadulterated viewing experience one could have for this film. Yes, I’m referring to true Panavision 70mm projected screen at The Landmark Cinema, which was a real treat for the senses, and which was the real intention that director Quentin Tarantino had for audiences to enjoy his film. It’s a rare treat for me, to be amongst like-minded cinema lovers, which also warrants gifts of higher value for my pal this Christmas. My home country, Singapore, unfortunately does not offer 70mm projected theaters, but I am hoping to watch this film again when it is released on 21 January 2016 (very late), and I do hope that my fellow countrymen will be able to at the very least witness this film in its full 3 hours 7 minutes roadshow duration instead of the reduced general release duration. Anyway, on to the review.
WARNING: THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS. PROCEED WITH CAUTION!
I have a confession to make. Hours before going to the cinema, I decided to download the leaked first draft script of the film, and I read all 147 pages of it. It was really well-written, and part of the excitement was to see how those pages translated to visual images. There was a great deal of hype because this was Quentin Tarantino going back to basics, which means writing scripts that he wanted to, not just for the sake of mainstream audiences unlike his previous two films, Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds. This one was more like Reservoir Dogs. With a budget of $40 million, it really is a good ol’ western stripped of over-the-top set pieces and action sequences, to just present its raw and intense nerve-jangling story, told through the expositions of the characters. And there is a lot of exposition. So let’s start with that.
Now, Quentin Tarantino is a true auteur of detailed characters complete with backstories, and for a good reason. I do not believe anyone can credibly complain that this film lacked plot, because there was so much to discover about the story, the craftiness, the secrets, and the characters. However, sometimes, this could be overly done with too much exposition. The first half of the film, before the irrelevant intermission (I will get to that later), was just discursive and long-winded. Granted, it did build up a lot of the brutality and catharsis in the final act, but while it was being executed in the first act, boy was it boring. When I read the script, I was already bored stiff, but I thought the genius Quentin Tarantino would surely find a way to grip attention when need be. Then again, I never seem to share the same sentiments with others. The way the dialogue was being written (which is really well-written I must re-emphasize) is very much Hitchcockian in nature and tone. It lets you in on clues that could prove important later on in the story, but this time, the exchanges between characters on the American Civil War really does not do anything to add much value to the situation at hand. There is some prejudice against Samuel L. Jackson’s character Major Marquis Warren, but it was more of a touch-and-go kind of effect, not really manifested in the final story arc. This makes the entire dialogue, while witty and snarky, feel unnecessary and oftentimes contrived and forced, just so that Tarantino could show off his knowledge and firmly-held beliefs by getting the characters to wax lyrical about these said beliefs. I much preferred the soliloquies that exposes the characters through their retelling of their backstories rather than their beliefs. In particular, Major Warren had a great moment when he recounted to Bruce Dern’s character General Sanford Smithers how he humiliated and killed the latter’s son, in a very powerful stare-down competition and heart-pounding delivery by Jackson, almost on par with the Ezekiel scene he perfectly performed in Pulp Fiction. But the entire stagecoach repartee between Major Warren, John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins, incredible actor) was quite painful to sit through. The other character that Tarantino decided to parlay about beliefs and argumentative theories is Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) when he preached about justice and frontier justice, and how hangmen should be dispassionate, which ultimately doesn’t really amount to anything that drives the story further. These are just great dialogue, in all the wrong places.
Then there is the problem of the genre. The thing about this film is that it tries so hard to be something that it is not. In addition to that, it tries so hard to be many things while ignoring the fact that it is limited by scale and money. It wants to be a western, a whodunit mystery, a drama, and a comedy all at once, but all it got to achieve was the western part. The rest of the genres were just half-baked representations, not even homages. Clearly, the script was too preoccupied with being something pulled out from John Ford’s Stagecoach to even have the capacity to take on the whodunit part. Except for the poison in the coffee plot, which did scream Agatha Christie, there was very little mystery within the story itself, which is truly a pity because imagine what greater heights this film could have reached if it dedicated more craft towards a compelling mystery genre that makes us all guess and second-guess. As for the comedy, nothing really hit me the way Django Unchained did with its brilliant mask-wearing scene. Just a few giggles here and there, nothing that would get one chortling with laughter.
We will get to the good parts soon, not to worry. While I adored the way Tarantino tells his stories by introducing chapter segments in his previous film entries, I felt that this was really not that great an idea here. Why? Simply because the story is set in just two locations, okay maybe three: The stagecoach, Minnie’s Haberdashery, and some outdoor scene that is either next to the stagecoach or Minnie’s Haberdashery. In fact, the story is set in such a small space that Chapters 1 and 2 are basically a continuation of each other without much transpiring between the two chapters. And they are set in the same location with the same characters in each one, so that rather drew me out of the film quite a bit. The other thing that stuck out awkwardly like a sore thumb? The narration by none other than Quentin Tarantino himself. Twice he narrated, and in both occasions they were surprising to me. Because for a good 2 hours the story played along with characters unfolding the plot to audiences through verbal exchanges and great acting, and suddenly, Tarantino for some reason could not relate or connect certain dots or actions to the viewer and felt that narrating would make it obvious. Imagine watching the film, a shootout has just taken place, people are dead on the floor, and their bodies must be gotten rid of. Bear in mind this is after 2 hours of intensity. Suddenly Tarantino’s voice comes up dictating how the bodies were dealt with in his usual slightly nasal twang, and it just ruins the moment. This happened also during Inglourious Basterds when he explained the flammability of nitrate films. It’s anti-climaxing and frustrating because I was so involved in the story and would rather let the actions speak for themselves. What is filmmaking if one needs to explicitly tell us what is happening onscreen all the time?
Next, I need to address the score of the film, which I often do especially if the composer is renowned for in film scores. For the very first time, Quentin Tarantino made a great choice to include original music compositions from the great Ennio Morricone in his film. When that news broke out, I was ecstatic, because Ennio Morricone is behind some of the most iconic music in cinema, and his works are so vast I think I will need a separate article to list down my favourites. So can you fathom my disappointment when I went to this screening? From the overture to the end credits, not a single piece moved me like he did for many amazing films that benefitted from his musical ingenuity. In fact, most of the film occurred with background silence, save for the whirring of the blizzard outside the set, or the clinking of tableware and thumping of boots over hollow floorboards. These were great to provoke the atmosphere of uncertainty and fear and claustrophobia and deception and doubt and all those other great moods. Then again, why hire a maestro when his work is not grand and absorbing to the ears? It was merely sounds that did admittedly give a vibe that something is going to happen, as heard in the reused music originally composed for John Carpenter’s The Thing titled Bestiality during the poison scene. That was alright.
The big problem was the theme that played when the camera pans over whitewashed mountains and landscape, and how screeching the music was. I expected beautiful hymns like La Califfa, or For Love One Can Die, or I don’t know, the hundreds of other sentimental tunes that Ennio Morricone have written in his career. Sorry about this guys, I’m very into music, because I have studied music and play it myself, and what we have all come to love about Ennio Morricone is really not displayed triumphantly here. Even for a western, where is the whistles, the trumpets, the bells, that we loved in all of Sergio Leone’s films? So I am truly surprised when the score for The Hateful Eight has been nominated for the Golden Globes for best original score. On one hand, I really hope Ennio Morricone doesn’t win. But if he does, it would also be a well-deserved win for all the beautiful music he has written for us all these years.
Okay, now that the difficult part of criticizing is over, let me tell you that this is truly an amazing movie. Do not be deceived by the copious length of my disdain for this film, I just like ranting a lot about things that displease me. Other than the fact that The Hateful Eight upends any precedent expectations of a Quentin Tarantino movie, the style and the soul of Tarantino still lives and breathes at every shot of this brilliant picture. First off, I must reiterate what the trailers have been advertising all these while, and that this that 70mm is glorious (or is it glourious?). The picturesque view is simply breathtaking and you really feel the cold, the frostbites and the bitterness with panoramic scope that Tarantino has a real knack for. The film is very old-school, and it brings one back to the 60s, when confrontational westerns were not only about gunfights and Mexican standoffs but also about taking the time to showcase great acting and dialogue. It is very cool in every sense of the word. From the lighting of a match by striking a boot, to the blood-spewing finale, I LOVED the look of this picture and every single flawed character.
The first half of the film was very slow as I said previously, but after the 12 minute-long intermission, things started picking up. And there I was thinking, “Yes! That’s the Quentin Tarantino movie I’ve come here to watch finally unfolding.” It was gory, vengeful, energetic, everything that emotionally paid off whilst still expertly managing the drama and character development. If you can manage your expectations, you will not be disappointed. Just don’t expect Kill Bill or Inglourious Basterds or Django Unchained. Also, it gave me great pleasure to identify the films that so inspired Tarantino as referenced in this movie. All those Blaxploitation films and those by Jean Luc Godard really shined through at numerous occasions. But the one that definitely played a huge role in terms of the context which the film is set is definitely Stagecoach (1939).
All the actors were undeniably tremendous. If there is one thing an actor can be sure of, a Tarantino movie will never fail to make you look like a great actor. Jennifer Jason Leigh, in particular, with broken teeth and often drenched in blood and vomit, was stunning in her role as the focus and the source of the entire conflict, Daisy Domergue with feral slyness. The best thing about the acting is the way the actors depicted discord, animosity and unlikely alliances within that little space of Minnie’s Haberdashery, even if they were all once upon a time strangers. The final interaction between Major Warren and Chris Mannix is a fine example of this great interaction between Samuel L. Jackson and Walton Goggins respectively. Each held their own opposite the other with aplomb, and became fighting partners when at one point in time they were at loggerheads due to political stance and racist reasons. But when Major Warren finally agrees to show Chris Mannix the Lincoln Letter, that was the bond of brotherhood between the two, and the ending is perfect such that their final fate is left standing as food for thought. Now, Tim Roth, I actually wonder if his role was written for Christoph Waltz who starred in the last two Tarantino films. Because Roth’s character really behaves like Waltz, with courtly mannerisms and an overeager smile, also unable to quell a passion for preaching and being heard. But Tim Roth’s acting was great. I knew I could always count on him ever since I watched The Legend of 1900, also with amazing score by Ennio Morricone, and that was the plug for you guys to check that great film out.
The first draft of the script was not too dissimilar from the final product, though there were a few great features that I thought were neglected. For example, the script mentioned that Minnie’s coffee was strong, hot and good several times but was only mentioned once in the film. I thought it was a fine touch to really drive in the solitary and drab feeling of the haberdashery with the death of Minnie and Sweet Dave. Also, John Ruth made a big ruckus over a half-plucked chicken which was vital evidence of murder, but the final film skipped over that one although we did see Gemma plucking the chicken in the flashback sequence. Bob in the script was French for no reason, and in the film he became Mexican, also for no reason, so that also drew me out of the film a bit. But I liked the expansion of the Lincoln Letter as a plot device to bond both Major Warren and Chris Mannix together and for not killing everybody decidedly at the end.
We have eventually come to the end of my incredibly long review (I’m shocked at myself). So to wrap up my thoughts on The Hateful Eight, this is definitely not Quentin Tarantino’s strongest film. In fact I daresay that I rank it as one of his worst films, which is not really a bad thing since his accolades show that there never is a truly bad Tarantino film. But this disappoints on so many levels, for me at least. It had a great story, overshadowed by rhetorical dialogue, which explains the overly long film that makes you want to time your toilet breaks well. Story never really exercised its true potential which could have been something different in the likes of Clue or even The Grand Budapest Hotel, because it should have gone into whodunit territory all the way. In the hands of other directors, the film might have been a whole lot more intense with more rapid shots, cuts, edits, zooms, eerie happenings that puzzle the characters, and a dead body that everybody fumbles over. Wouldn’t that have been a lot more fun? It just seems that everyone is bereft of fear until the final act for the sake of being a cool cowboy in everything they do. So much so that they all start to sound like one another. Oh, and Michael Madson’s acting was nondescript in an ensemble of great actors.
Rating: 3.0/5.0. I really trampled over this didn’t I? For what it’s worth, I still love Quentin Tarantino and there should be more directors like him.BEST QUOTES