The Hateful Eight (2015)     ★★★★½

Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to not be satisfied merely directing a one-location film, even when that’s precisely what he wrote. No, the wunderkind director who has torn through the history of American genre cinema since the early nineties, delivering hugely popular homages – Hollywood art made with an European flair – that wildly convey his deep love for the medium in clever and vibrant ways, decided to make an event out of his new drawing-room mystery The Hateful Eight by shooting in prestigious 70mm film, and releasing it as a Roadshow to cinemas across the country, complete with an overture and intermission, just like the good old days, and even a full color booklet to be handed out with each ticket purchased. But regardless of whether or not you get to see it in its intended mode of presentation, it remains 167 minutes of footage that must live or die on its own merit, and while it doesn’t rank up with the director’s best, The Hateful Eight is still top shelf entertainment that surprisingly makes almost three hours go by in a flash.

Sadly there have been reports of lackluster presentations of the Roadshow. My local theatre projected it onto a flat (1:85) screen, and didn’t bother to (or couldn’t) raise up the masking, making the image look like a floating postage stamp, in addition to having a poorly filed aperture plate which made the edges, particularly during the bright white scenes depicting a snowy landscape, shadowy and formless. For those in situations like myself it would be best to see the film in digital, leaving room to wonder how much better it would have been in seventy, than be disappointed at failures that were not the filmmaker’s doing. Perhaps nobody tested it, or nobody who knew what they were doing tested it, or perhaps there was simply nothing else to be done to bring the fading equipment back up to routine standards from a half-century ago. I try not to dwell on that irony for long, but it’s why journeying out of your way to see it as intended might backfire, and unless you are somewhere these kinds of films are shown on a regular basis, it might not be worth the trouble. It’s such a great film, it doesn’t deserve such distractions.

Tarantino’s eighth film takes place in the Wild West of Wyoming during a blizzard, some time after the Civil War, mostly in a haberdashery, a kind of General Store rest stop for travelers passing through. Prior to getting there we are introduced to John Ruth (Kurt Russell), a bounty hunter escorting violent outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) into Red Rock for his bounty. Along the way he picks up Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a soldier in the confederate army, and a local sheriff (Walton Goggins), and the company soon get waylaid at the haberdashery due to the weather conditions, where they are greeted by a host of suspicious characters, performed by the likes of Tim Roth, Michael Madsen and Bruce Dern. No quicker do they arrive than mistrust, deception, betrayal and arrogance begin to rule the day, which as dutiful students of Tarantino’s cinema through the years, the audience should be able to anticipate how a room full of people with guns and loud mouths will end up. It’s just a matter of getting there, which he achieves with his usual relish, granting characters his trademark long, descriptive monologues, roundabout braggadocio slowly teasing out a character’s demise. Samuel L. Jackson gets the bulk of these moments, while Russell comes in a close second. Despite how it might appear initially this is Jackson’s film through and through, and the actor hasn’t felt this alive or relevant since his career best performance in Tarantino’s Jackie Brown nearly two decades ago. Jennifer Jason Leigh too, gives her best performance in as many years, all spit and snarl, spending half of the film spewing vitriol with a face covered in blood and brain matter. And Goggins, last seen as Laugher in American Ultra but soon to be everywhere, nearly steals the show with his juicy role, and ability to hold his own among such cinematic icons. But credit should go to the entire ensemble, who just make Tarantino’s dialogue sing, and help to push The Hateful Eight effortlessly close to the three hour mark without a single glance at the watch.

Regarding the dialogue, it’s worth noting that this might be the first time Tarantino’s long-winded digressions appear full of pointless and unnecessary exposition for its own sake, contrasted with his earlier films where his writing style became a hallmark of his characters, a means of defining them while at the same time delivering a specific point, from Steve Buscemi talking about tips in Reservoir Dogs to Leonardo DiCaprio’s lengthy speech on phrenology in Django Unchained. In The Hateful Eight these digressions serve no purpose other than to wallow in protracted depravity and often vulgarity. As expected this film is teeming with racist and misogynistic characters, so it’s no wonder it’s shaping up to be his most divisive. But I’m not sure I want to be guided to some obscure moment of truth and honesty when characters are this despicable, so as empty as it seems, realize its sole value lies in the entertainment of watching these people talk themselves into deserving what they have coming.

None of this would be as evocative without other key players behind the scenes, master composer Ennio Morricone’s inspired score, playing with western conventions while delivering unique orchestrations brimming with urgency, and of course Robert Richardson’s breathtaking 70mm cinematography. Whether he is fluidly moving throughout the haberdashery, capturing the warm, inviting tones and infinite nuances of the interior oak set design (I never knew there were so many shades of brown), or his many static shots of characters on opposite ends of the frame, talking politely and respectfully, while the intense, clarity of their breath darting through the cold air betrays their distaste for each other, or the endless column of steam rising from bowls of stew, mocking their affected pleasantries. In fact, to its detriment, this film is so perfectly “staged” I’m compelled to criticize it, as there is virtually no crosstalk – everyone speaks their directed lines and has all the time and freedom in the world to finish their thoughts, without the intrusion of others – a completely unrealistic proposition for a room full of villains. But that is a minor complaint against a film that is otherwise excellent on all accounts. Give Tarantino’s script to another director, or let Tarantino direct someone else’s, and it would probably have been a disaster. Every element he brings together works in harmony together to deliver a singular, 167 minute experience of pure entertainment, which, considering the competition this season, is something for which cinemas are in dire need.

The Verdict: Rave