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Tarantino's new film uses large lens to focus on small cast


  • Andrew Cooper

Like an Agatha Christie drawing-room mystery working through severe anger management issues, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight thrives in its claustrophobic setting, achieving epic status despite 90 percent of the action taking place in a snowbound Wyoming watering hole.

But Tarantino does not require a vast horizon to fill a 70 mm frame shot with an anamorphic lens; the opportunity to see his repertory company of glowering masters twist within his high-tension Western Thunderdome makes this project worthy of its wide vista.

The Hateful Eight begins with a faint echo of Django Unchained as bounty hunter Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson; Pulp Fiction, Die Hard: With a Vengeance) stops a stagecoach during a snowstorm to negotiate a ride for himself and the two corpses he plans to turn in for a bounty in nearby Red Rock. There’s a crowded market for bounty hunting in 1880s Wyoming — the stage is occupied by competitor John Ruth (Kurt Russell, Grindhouse), who is transporting the murderous Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kill Your Darlings) to Red Rock for hanging.

The wild frontier is unusually crowded that day, as well, since Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins, Justified), the new sheriff of Red Rock, trudges around in the snowbanks, also in need of a lift. He puts forward a savvy argument for getting one: The bounty hunters cannot collect their cash without a sheriff to accept the living and dead bodies for payment.

But as the storm surges over the mountain pass, all parties realize the horses cannot make it much farther and they soon find themselves outside Minnie’s Haberdashery, a way station with few hats but plenty of coffee, liquor, stew and fellow travelers itching for confrontation.

Tarantino uses the blizzard only as a mechanism to gather his Hateful Eight into one room, because the real storm takes place inside the haberdashery. That is where John, Chris and Marquis find the rogue’s gallery including Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern, Big Love), taciturn loner Joe Gage (Michael Madsen, Kill Bill: Vols 1 and 2), dandyish hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth, Reservoir Dogs) and Bob the Mexican (Demian Bichir, Machete Kills).

As conflicting agendas build into a powder keg, Daisy lights the fuse.

At surface level, the film’s confined spaces seem like poor use of 70 mm technology — in a recent interview with The Nerdist podcast, Tarantino said he uses it as a tool to bring audiences into theaters instead of staying home to Netflix and chill. And one of the great benefits of extreme 70 mm is its ability to capture minute details.

Some of the most memorable scenes in spaghetti Westerns — arguably the most well-known use of extreme widescreen — involve the study of a facial expression as sweat trickles down a forehead just before the guns come out.

Similarly, director of photography Robert Richardson scrutinizes Jackson’s glare of recognition as the pieces of conspiracy fall together and discloses actions and reactions in nearly every corner of Minnie’s Haberdashery without panning. Viewers should watch carefully, because details along the margins can be revelatory.

With this cast, there’s plenty for the lens to capture. The men in the cast could be billed as the Tarantino All-Stars (with Bechir on loan from Robert Rodriguez), and they know how this is done: with great vengeance and furious anger. In The Hateful Eight, everyone has dirt on everyone, which means that dirt eventually gets commingled with blood, guts and brains.

Standing out in this crowd comes with its challenges, but whenever Leigh ramps into full feral mode, not even a seasoned, scenery-chewing grand master like Dern can approach her total command. Banged up nearly beyond recognition and doused in viscera, Leigh’s Daisy comes off like a bile-filled punching bag for much of The Hateful Eight. Under Tarantino’s watch, however, power structures in the room are constantly realigned.

Completing Tarantino’s typically brilliant pastiche is the score by Ennio Morricone, the great composer whose music helped build the tension and mythos of filmmaker Sergio Leone’s classics. Morricone’s music pounds like heavy metal throughout the film and uses relatively few chestnuts from the past for aural illustration — a little White Stripes here, a little Roy Orbison there. Morricone is the main musical engine through all three hours of the project.

But, like few other directors working today, Tarantino is the true star of The Hateful Eight. More than at any other time since the glory days of the studio system, moviemaking is a forced system of art by committee, but Bob and Harvey Weinstein, founders of the mini-major film studio The Weinstein Company, give Tarantino final cut every time, and it shows in the singularity of vision in The Hateful Eight and the classics that preceded it.

There are many perpetrators, scoundrels and filthy bastards arranged around the fire and lurking in the shadows of Minnie’s Haberdashery, but every inch of the place bears Tarantino’s bloody fingerprints.

Print headline: Blood simple, Quentin Tarantino works a small stage with a big lens in gloriously visceral The Hateful Eight.

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