The Hateful Eight
There is no past Quintin Tarantino film that I do not like. I might not appreciate Kill Bill as much as others, but I still like it. I might think Jackie Brown is a bit over-rated, but that doesn’t mean I under-rate it. Seven films in, and Tarantino is, as far as I am concerned, 7-0. His mastery of dialogue between multiple players, of creating suspense, of drawing the kind of performances out of his actors that other directors only dream of and, of course, creating fascinating visual stories, is something that only a handful of others working today really come close to.
But nothing lasts forever, and for every film such a director makes, the greater the likelihood that this will be the one, the one where things do not come together just right. The Hateful Eight, drawing together a raft of past collaborators and continuing Tarantino’s more recent obsession with the American past, was the latest offering. Would it be another triumph, making Tarantino’s filmography an eight sided thing of cinematic achievement? Or has Tarantino finally hit the stumbling block he has dodged seven times already?
Snow-swept Wyoming in post-Civil War America: seven distinct men and one woman find themselves seeking shelter in an isolated rest-stop. John “the Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) is transporting dangerous prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the scaffold, and along for the ride are bounty hunter Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and local sheriff to be Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins). Joining them in “Minny’s Haberdashery” are caretaker Bob (Demian Bichir), actual hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madson) and aging Confederate General Samford Smithers (Bruce Dern). No one is entirely who they seem. No one can really be trusted. Blood is going to be spilled.
You might notice that I mentioned the number of films Tarantino has made a few times in that introduction. One of the reasons I did this is because Tarantino wanted to make sure that I knew it too, The Hateful Eight opening itself with the declaration that it is “The 8th Film By Quintin Tarantino”. Such a declaration, pointless in the extreme and evidence of an ego of immense sensitivity, put a bad taste in my mouth before anything even came up onscreen. What infolded was, in my eyes, an extended example of every flaw that Tarantino has, the excess of blood, the excess of plotless dialogue, excess of unnecessary film, maximised to the point of satire, nearly all of which comes back to an arrogant belief in his own prowess and an egotistical need to display that arrogance at every available opportunity. When Tarantino himself started narrating his film, and not as a narrator, but as if he was in the seat next to you explaining scenes he just hadn’t shot, I realised fully the depth of this personality hole I was being cast into.
To pick just one thing for the moment, The Hateful Eight is a film so obsessed with its characters that the actual plot is left by the wayside, somewhere in the snowy wilderness where Kurt Russell stumbles upon Samuel L. Jackson. This film approaches the three hours’ mark, and in many places it crosses it with an overture and intermission (thankfully, my experience was not drawn out to that degree). But in this film, the most bizarrely paced and needlessly bloated film I have seen in a long time, something in the region of 90 minutes’ plot actually takes place, with the rest given over to the characters to just talk amongst themselves about whatever they feel like, when they aren’t actively trying to murder each other.
Dialogue has long been a strength of Tarantino’s, but he has previously shown an aptitude for the exact point when the waffling should stop and the narrative be progressed: I think his Inglorious Basterds is a great example of that, not to mention the exquisite pacing of Reservoir Dogs. But it all goes out the window here, as the titular eight (well, it’s actually nine if we’re being technical) just waffle back and forth. Part of the problem here is Tarantino’s preference for long takes that can’t be easily cut up, and where it was a creeping problem in Django Unchained, it’s a gigantic flaw here.
But you could even forgive that if you could get behind one or more of these characters, but you can’t. Kurt Vonnegut’s second rule of creative writing was “Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for”. It’s good advice. Films need someone the audience can rally behind, it’s a simple story-telling truth as old as stories, and if you are crafting a tale with nothing but unadulterated bad guys, you’re straying into dangerous waters. Every character in The Hateful Eight is a morally bankrupt figure, be it in the form of unabashed racism, violent megalomania, brutal sexism or just general assholery. You could argue that a few characters – two in particular, but I won’t spoil it – become the heroic figures of The Hateful Eight by its distant last act, but even they are guilty of the same sins as everyone else, manifesting itself in cold-blooded murder and seemingly random blood soaked expressions of violent anguish.
Everyone is awful here, and too many characters are too close to each other in terms of personality. I don’t like any of these people. I didn’t particularly care if any of them made it out alive. Tarantino has never had a lack of protagonist before, be it Mr Orange, the Bride, Shoshanna or Django, people who might do morally questionable things but who were clearly meant to be the films heroic personalities, arranged against those more villainous. Even the violent Basterds were aiming their scalping knives in the direction of Nazis. The Hateful Eight has no such characters, and so it becomes difficult to become engaged in the painfully drawn out narrative.
That point is not to be under-estimated. There is a lack of narrative awareness here, such a total failure of pacing and drive, that The Hateful Eight at times seems more like an extended parody of Tarantino than an actual film by him. I can only surmise that Fred Raskin, the film’s editor, has never had such an easy job. Divided into six chapters, the third being the most overstuffed, the film trundles along, the first two forming an overly-extended prologue that situates the viewer right in the mire, wondering when, if ever, the film is going to start. I wasn’t checking my watch, but it takes fully 40 minutes or so for the plot I described above to actually come into some kind of coherent form, and you’ll be yawning long before that. From there, things get worse: the fifth chapter, a flashback, is totally unnecessary, a needless re-introduction to characters that could have been done in the form of a short montage.
Watching, I was reminded of Inglorious Basterds and the introduction of Til Schweiger’s Hugo Stiglitz, done in a rapid-fire montage narrated by none other than Samuel L. Jackson, that did everything required and kept the narrative going. Indeed, it was a refreshing cutaway from a tense scene, that ended at the right point. Tarantino has none of that same restraint here, and so a needless 10-15 minute scene (it might have been longer) is inserted, at a time when my attention was barely being held at all.
The dialogue is another central weakness. There are a few good conversations here, decent monologues where we learn important things about characters and fascinating events occur. One by Jackson at around the midpoint, as he spars with the flagrantly racist Dern, is a serious stand-out, and the only time when I felt that The Hateful Eight was hitting the heights that Tarantino has previously reached. But so much else is just talk about nothing and mindless, irritating repetition: recurring sequences surrounding a letter from Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln, the Abraham Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln the President of the United States, yes, that Abraham Lincoln, is a good example where Tarantino appears to have lost his mind. Sometimes characters have their distinctive voices – Walter Goggins’ “God dogged damned!” was a memorable one, as was that distinctive drawl of Tim Roth in his refined meditations on the nature of detached justice – but too many of them are too similar: just rustic western scumbags, talking to other rustic western scumbags.
But for all the flaws (and I’m not done yet), the film is partially saved by how extraordinary good it looks. Much has been made of the 70mm. I have no great appreciation for the old ways, but it is fair to say that the decision to shoot The Hateful Eight that way resulted in some really glorious cinematography. The film opens with the vastness of snowy Wyoming, and lingers lovingly on some truly beautiful landscapes, the crisp and detailed picture mixing wonderfully with The Hateful Eight’s low-key but occasionally engaging score of sombre tones and foreshadowing beats. The audio, in line with the picture, is well mixed, and the howling of the wind makes you shiver in your cinema seat (or maybe the IFI was just cold that evening…).
Once you get inside, to the small building that hosts the vast majority of the action, the detail of 70mm creates a picture full of richness and things to ponder, with Tarantino’s eye for detail and set construction doing the rest. Minny’s Haberdashery, with its glasses of sweets, partially played chess board, raging fire, Indian rugs, coffee mugs and musical instruments, is a place that was intricately designed and expertly shot, and the creation of a mystery suspense feeling around The Hateful Eight, while not aided enough by the dialogue and the actual story, is aided significantly by the visual direction and the little details. A stage play on screen is what it really is.
But if there is one visual problem worth talking about at length, it’s the blood, and Tarantino’s obsession with it. The ridiculously blood-soaked final third of Django Unchained came close to making that film’s finale a thing worthy of ridicule, but Tarantino was undeterred. Where once this director knew just when the moment of violence was needed, to advance action, to tell us something about characters or to fulfil a slow build-up of tension – I mean, Reservoir Dogs is a masterclass in that – now he just can’t seem to wait to explode his characters, whose chests and bellies rupture upon being shot or stabbed, as if they have ingested a few grenades.
The moment of true disengagement in this film for me was a scene around the mid-point, top of Chapter Four, when one character vomits copious amounts of blood into the face of another, a shot designed purely for shock value and nothing else. My brain echoed the thoughts of Homer Simpson upon witness something jaw-dropingly stupid: “That’s it, I’m outta here”. Once I knew we had reached that point, and that we would be wading through rivers of the red stuff from then until the credits, I lost a significant amount of what little care I had left. I already didn’t like the characters, and the extremes of blood-letting were more hilarious than affecting. A bad combination.
And so our cast of horrible people plodded along on their race to the bottom of moral failure. Tarantino still has his strengths for getting good performances out of his actors, and The Hateful Eight has some good work on display. Tarantino regular Michael Madsen was a bit somnambulant, and Demien Bichir was lost behind a bad accent and layers of clothing. But everyone else at least seemed fully capable of losing themselves in their characters, even if they were characters I wasn’t all that interested in. Special mention must go to Kurt Russell’s “Hangman”, a brutish individual with a John Wayne-esque demeanour, Tim Roth’s delightfully posh Brit, Jason Leigh’s maniacal killer and Jackson, closer to Django than Stephen the Uncle Tom here, full of barely repressed anger at the society he still struggles to survive in. But I must give the most props to Walter Goggins, an actor I admire greatly from his time as Boyd Crowder on Justified. Chris Mannix isn’t all that different from Boyd: both latently racist, but not dominated by that facet of their personality, both capable of goading insults but also honourable conduct, and both caught between the law and worse criminal forces. Mannix is as bad as the others in most respects, but was a bit more tolerable, and if anything good was to come out of The Hateful Eight, hopefully it might be leading roles for Goggins, a man who truly deserves them.
But no acting performance, no matter how good, can make anything of the material in this film, especially that blood-soaked second half, where any trace of tension was lost among the gunshots and knife thrusts. New characters pop up and get killed off just as quick, and the finale has an almost comical air about it, as characters mortally wounded continue to have back and forth conversations. The Hateful Eight comes with no interesting conclusion, and no effective pay-off for the events depicted: the final scene is a confusing thing, it unclear what kind of point, if any, Tarantino is trying to make.
Indeed, The Hateful Eight’s lack of an overall point is hard to stomach. At crucial moments, Tarantino seems to be harkening back to Django’s commentary on race relations, also briefly a part of Inglorious Basterds, in a film that exhibits a slow-burn depiction of Black America’s revenge on the slave-owning south, a concocted fairy-tale that the director perhaps hopes will speak to a modern USA still struggling to make good on the abolition-led promise of the post-Civil War period. There is a certain schadenfreude in seeing racist characters get their comeuppance, but Tarantino takes it too far: even the aforementioned Jackson monologue, the most prominent example, serves as much to make Major Marquis Warren look like a crazy person as it does to make him look like some kind of black avenger, sticking it the white man. I care nothing for the scripts repeated use of “nigger”, a period-appropriate term whose exclusion would be odd: people looking to complain about social issues in Tarantino work might instead look at how casual violence against women is part and parcel of The Hateful Eight’s world, performed by many male characters with the acceptance, and even encouragement, of everyone else.
As the credits finally rolled on The Hateful Eight, someone in the back of the sparsely populated theatre, seeing Tarantino’s name, shouted a very loud “Fuck You!”. I do not condone such outbursts in public spaces, but I would be lying if said I, and many others I noticed, were not both amused and maybe in full agreement. The Hateful Eight is, in my eyes, easily Tarantino’s worst film to date (and he’s made eight of them, if you weren’t aware). It has none of the tension of Reservoir Dogs, none of the narrative flair of Pulp Fiction, none of the effective limited violence of Jackie Brown, none of the great female characters of Kill Bill, none of the nostalgic appeal of Deathproof, none of the character expertise of Inglorious Basterds, none of the epicness wrapped in the personal of Django Unchained. It is, instead, a film groaning under the weight of its creator’s worst excesses, in dialogue, abandonment of narrative and glorying in scarlet. The film is still a worthy exercise in visual terms, and the 70mm decision made for a unique cinematic experience. The performances too are decent. But there is far too much bad here for a recommendation. The Hateful Eight is the film where Tarantino finally dropped the ball.
(All images are copyright of The Weinstein Company).