By Charlie Schmidlin | The Playlist April 20, 2014 at 9:36AM
For those entering the sold out live read of Quentin Tarantino’s “Hateful Eight” last night expecting a funerary sendoff, they were instead met straight away with a correction: the event, held at Downtown L.A.’s stunningly renovated Ace Hotel, was simply a public work-in-progress (there'll be some *spoilers* here and there, but keep in mind this thing is going to change, see below).
After a brief introduction from LACMA film curator Elvis Mitchell, where he described the original suggestion for the occasion happening three weeks prior over chili cheese fries, the man himself took the stage. Dressed in cowboy hat, ascot and black Western shirt with red lining, Tarantino declared he was on the second draft of the “Hateful Eight” script, previously shelved after being leaked in January, and a third was expected to follow. Where it headed from there—bookstore shelves or the big screen in CinemaScope 70mm—wasn’t revealed, but the “Django Unchained” director still seemed smitten with the story’s possibilities.
“What makes this night unique, is Chapter Five will not be Chapter Five later,” Tarantino added at the top of the reading, referring to the story’s chapter-based structure and its final section, “Black Night, White Hell”. “So the only time it will be seen is here, tonight.”
With that, Tarantino brought out the star-studded cast with whom he’d rehearsed the first draft script for three days: Samuel L. Jackson as Major Marquis Warren, Kurt Russell as the cruel bounty hunter John Ruth, Tim Roth as the English “bit of a fop” Oswaldo Mobray, Amber Tamblyn as Daisy Domergue, Walton Goggins as Chris Mannix, Michael Madsen as John Gage, Bruce Dern as Confederate Gen. Smithers, James Parks as stagecoach driver O.B., Denis Menochet as the Frenchman Bob, Dana Gourrier as Minnie, Zoe Bell as Six Horse Judy and James Remar as Jody.
Flipping through the script (read our initial review), one could predict many from that lineup based simply on Tarantino’s text and known repertory players. Major Warren’s “sly Lee Van Cleef type with a bald pate” could only mean Jackson, who dominated the night with several superb monologues; the crotchety General Smithers at last provided the role for Tarantino to work with Dern; and Six-Horse Judy, a Kiwi “young Calamity Jane type”—who else fits but the “Death Proof” stuntwoman and actress Zoe Bell?
Still, the mostly-familiar ensemble meant that they tackled the 146-page script with confidence, comfort, and a palpable atmosphere of excitement. Each acknowledged the audience as their meaty roles were introduced, using their hands to emphasize the script’s physical descriptors, or, as with Roth, flashing a knowing grin at Tarantino when he spoke of Mobray’s “untrustworthy” nature. When Major Warren was introduced, sitting atop a pile of dead white men in the snow and smoking a pipe, Jackson coolly took out a cigarette and let out a thin stream of smoke.
Set six or eight years after the Civil War, the story is a unique beast in Tarantino’s crowded stable, despite the period setting and tension-filled standoffs. “The Hateful Eight” explores only two locations, denies a single protagonist in favor of eight unlikeable brutes, and winds a profane, bloody, and darkly humorous plot to an anticlimactic and upsetting finish. Aside from “Rio Bravo,” there aren’t many obvious Western references in Tarantino’s script, but in seeing it performed Sergio Corbucci’s 1968 film “The Great Silence” seems an apt spiritual companion. This is bleak, harsh material, and seeing specifically Jackson, Tamblyn, and Russell (channeling a pitch-perfect John Wayne) draw out and nail the emotional beats required of them transported the audience to that appropriate mood.
Moving from a blizzard-swept stagecoach into a claustrophobic mountainside haberdashery, Tarantino constructs several top-tier sequences with his characters, especially while using the post-Civil War setting as a prime source of discomfort. Goggins’ wonderfully-played Chris Mannix, son of a famous Southern rebel, picks away at Warren’s calm nature by reminding him of the horrible conditions he faced as a black man; later, Warren does the same with Dern’s Gen. Smithers by describing the sexual brutality he inflicted upon Smithers’ son after the war.
In material, Tarantino repeatedly proved he hasn’t slowed in defying his critics since “Django Unchained”, and he displayed the same quality in showmanship as well. After Tamblyn delivered an early line to Jackson using the “n” word, the director suddenly stopped the scene and turned to the audience.
“If anyone in the house is keeping a tally, [the “n” word] first appears on page 7,” he said. Only 322 to go.” He then made a point to have Tamblyn repeat her line more emphatically.
Tarantino otherwise performed wonderfully as host—he read the script’s stage direction with his usual exuberance, acting out complex camera moves and providing sound effects; he also let the audience in on some on-the-fly directing, stopping the actors at numerous points with whispered tips or orders to repeat a passage. Ad-libbing from the cast even forced Tarantino to grow somewhat irate, as he told them, “You’re starting to drift a little from the dialogue, guys. Stick to what’s written on the page—no more co-writing.”
He was right: when released from its particular rhythms, Tarantino’s plot threads began to lose focus and drift into tedious waters. The lead-up to the bloody climax certainly suffered the most, as long-broiling accusations were disposed of in seconds after a frustrating three-hour runtime—partly a deliberate decision, I believe, and partly a major first draft flaw.
Which is far from a deal-breaker—in its essence, the “Hateful Eight” Live Read came from a project exposed mid-creation, and it was an absolute pleasure to see the cast that may soon bring it to life onscreen locate their characters on-stage, flaws and all. By the time that entire cast lay “dead” on the ground, with only Tarantino left standing to describe the mayhem’s aftermath, it only increased the need to see this nuanced, entertaining, and formally inventive project tweaked and brought to theaters in gorgeous 70mm.
Postscript: While Tarantino sadly never provided any hints as to his musical selection for the film (and disregard any reports saying they do), he did select Claude King’s 1962 hit, “Wolverton Mountain” as the intermission music. Check out the full song below.