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Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015 12:09 am

Tarantino flirts with greatness with Eight

PHOTO COURTESY THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY
Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bruce Dern in The Hateful Eight.

 

His most assured and satisfying film since Jackie Brown, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight is unique in the director’s oeuvre in that it’s the only one he’s made he can truly call his own. Absent are the numerous allusions to other movies that have not only devalued his work – making him appear more hack than innovator – but also worked as needless distractions that break the narrative spell the director is quite good at creating. Granted, Eight does borrow its premise from other siege dramas like The Petrified Forest and The Thing, however the plot he concocts and the characters he creates – for better or ill – are all distinctly Tarantino, as are the elements that prevent the film from achieving the status of “classic” that’s applied far too liberally where his movies are concerned.

A storm is coming fast and stagecoach driver O.B. Jackson (James Parks) knows there’s no way he can outrun it. In tow he has bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) who’s eager to get to the town of Red Rock to collect the price that’s on the head of Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), his reluctant prisoner who will bring him $10,000. Not only is the weather slowing him down but also the fact that they’ve had to stop and pick up fellow bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and Sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins). Deciding not to risk it, Jackson stops at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a mountain outpost where they find the proprietress missing but four odd characters holding down the fort instead. They are British dandy Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), taciturn cowpuncher Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), former CSA officer General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern) and quiet stew-maker Bob (Demian Bichir). Ruth immediately makes the mistake of warning everyone to keep their distance as he will not broach anyone coming too near, what with the value of his reluctant human cargo.

The first half of the film is devoted to setting up this situation, introducing us to the characters and explaining their motivations. However, all is not as it seems as Tarantino springs a well-laid trap, having us believe that everyone’s intent is to kill the others and bring Domergue in by themselves, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

There’s no mystery as to why Tarantino is able to assemble the strong casts and loyal fans that he does. His dialogue remains smart and witty, the kind performers must relish pronouncing and viewers love to hear, while the characters he creates are arresting and theatrical, the sort that are a challenge to bring to life and so peculiar we find ourselves eager to spend time with them. Eight is no exception, as the bandage between members of this ruthless crew is as sharp as a well-honed Bowie Knife, each chapter containing numerous absorbing interactions that are as intelligent as they are entertaining.

What ultimately trips up the film is the adolescent aesthetic Tarantino gleefully wallows in time and again. A story related by Warren of a past meeting with Smithers’ son is needlessly obscene, the sort of offensive tale adolescent teenage boys would relate to one another and giggle over, while the violence that ensues during the film’s second act is over the top without being comical, distracting when it should be shocking. Defenders of the director’s work will cite the flashback’s use of dark humor as justification for the former and that the graphic sight of a man’s head split open with a shotgun is actually an indictment of gun violence. Don’t believe it – these are matters that rear their ugly heads in Tarantino’s films again and again, signs that while his talent as a writer and director has steadily matured, as a person he has not. His inability to rise above this prevents Eight from becoming one of the great films of the year.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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