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It’s not until about the thirty-minute mark when the persistent howl of the wind starts to penetrate. It’s a relentless, fearsome, wavering lament that after so long a time is all one can hear, but not like a tune you can’t get our of your head, more like an itch that is not only hard to reach, it’s impossible because it’s deep, deep inside you. The 8th film by Quentin Tarantino wants his film to be that wind. But much like the storm it represents, it’s long, cold, and hard to endure, even if from a distance, it’s impressive to look at it.
It begins with a ride in the snow, as a stagecoach runs tracks in the deep drifts trying to make for Red Rock, Wyoming as a blizzard gives chase. In that coach are bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his caught fugitive, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). He’s looking to collect the $10,000 reward for the storied killer, keeping her alive so she’ll hang for justice. They come across a man in the road with a stack of three dead, frozen bodies. He’s also a bounty hunter but has lost his horse. He’s looking for a ride and once introductions are made, in Tarantino fashion, they are off to Minnie’s Haberdashery, an impossibly big lonely old outpost on the open road. When they arrive, they find Minnie isn’t around and the place is occupied by some highly questionable men.
What follows is a frustrating mix of some truly inspired direction and acting with an angry, ugly, unpleasant tone that is joyless in its presentation, no matter how good the scenery looks. Tarantino has always done violence, and usually very well, with a perfect pitch of irony and purpose. That was the magic behind the orchestrated bloodshed of such films as Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill. What happens here is quite the opposite and for the first time, Tarantino missteps.
What works are the actors. The cast, which is more than eight, are authentic and believable, if not a bit too Tarantino-esque. But that’s not a criticism. Leading the pack is Russell, fresh off his remarkable turn in Bone Tomahawk, another brutal Western that wholly outshines this one (read the review). Sporting nearly the same mutton chops from that movie as this, he is a different man here than is there. From the start, he is bombastic and aggressive, confident and cunning, a man weathered to the bone by experience. He plays it well and he is fun to watch. Jennifer Jason Leigh is also very good (earning an Academy Award nomination), though she doesn’t get the chance to do much until the third act but bursts onto the scene when she does. There’s Tarantino standbys Michael Madsen and Tim Roth as well, both sneering and cocking their heads as they need to with great effectiveness, though it’s not hard to think that Roth is filling in for Christoph Waltz who may have been originally designed for the role. Either way, Roth delivers.
Then there’s Samuel L. Jackson. In the Sneak Peek post where we wrote about the trailer for The Hateful Eight, I expressed some concern about Jackson, worried that he was becoming a parody of himself. That is not the case, and indeed, he is the film’s highlight. Impassioned, engrossing, and the movie’s single most compelling character, he is magnetic throughout, arguably giving one of his best performances. This lead us to the centerpiece, post-intermission (it’s that kind of movie) chapter where Jackson, as Major Marquis Warren, a black veteran of the Civil War turned bounty hunter, tells the tale of a man he once met, the son of one of the men in the room. The story is harsh, told in both the present day and in flashback, and serves as an example of the line that Tarantino used to balance upon so confidently but here tumbles off dramatically. While it begins magnificently, with Jackson a fiery orator, gripping not only the people in the room but those watching, it goes to a place that feels wholly manipulative, a case of ‘look at this’ for the sake of controversy rather than for the story. Tarantino seems to not just say, “See how far I’ll go?” He screams it at the top of his lungs. This goes for the prodigious use of the N-word as well, which worked (mostly) well in Django but here, comes across as showy and spiteful toward the audience, a word used only to elicit remarks rather than plotting. Maybe it’s historically accurate, but so are dozens of words and phrases that have long faded to misuse or oblivion. The fact that this one remains so widely used today, doesn’t make it feel right.
All that aside, the film falters mostly in its story, or lack thereof. A film doesn’t need to be complex to be good, nor does it need a lot of dialogue, but The Hateful Eight never builds the suspense the claustrophobia should induce. It’s not even until well, well past the halfway mark when we are even explicitly shown that there is a plan in motion to set things afoul. It invites a mystery, but since none of the characters are given any real depth or interaction beyond surrendering their weapons, it doesn’t matter, and boils down to people aiming guns and talking, something handled better in previous Tarantino films. And then there is the abuse of the Jason Leigh character, a running plot point that never feels deserved, often uncomfortably played for laughs. A punch to the face of a woman chained to a man is hardly funny and runs dry the very first time it happens. Even if she is a “bad guy” in the story, the relentless, near celebratory approach in violence against her, not too mention the sheer delight others take in her ultimate fate, feels false, like the director is not just answering to critics of his work, but instead smugly folding his arms and turning up the flames just because he can.
There is some good here, though. The single setting is a kind of return to roots, like the garage in Reservoirs Dogs. It’s amazing how much of that space would seem tiresome in a film that runs 160 minutes, but never does as we visit all corners and angles of the haberdashery. Tarantino is patient with the camera, locking it in place with extreme confidence as long scenes play out with careful control in a kind of slap in the face to the host of scattershot, motion-woozy movies filing up theaters elsewhere. As usual, Tarantino loves his actor’s faces, and he lets us linger upon them with great effect. These are aged actors and their lines are as much a part of the story as their words.
I’m a fan of Quentin Tarantino. He is a visionary that has changed and influenced film like few others in his field. The attention his movies receive and the conversation they invoke are unlike nearly any other moviemaker in the business today. He raises questions, he challenges audiences, he takes extreme risks and he finds freshness in things that have long been stale. The pressure to produce increasingly provocative material is surely a burden for any director with success, and Tarantino has consistently produced works that stagger, shock, and entertain. The Hateful Eight is a measured experiment, but also feels like a director trapped by the very innovations he introduced. There is no sense of wonder here, no joy in the experience, no search for discovery. He shot the film in Ultra Panavision 70mm, a format that died out in the 1960s in great epic films of that era, but so few people would even recognize it let alone understand what it means, the point seems lost. It’s not that the movie is disappointing, it’s that it tastes bitter.
Tarantino is planning to adapt his screenplay into a stage play, re-writing himself and directing. That’s good, and feels like the right thing to do. The film already feels like the reverse, as if it were a play adapted to the screen. The stage will allow this to be much better story, giving the film director more opportunities to explore the limited space and play with the mystery. Let’s hope he makes the right changes.
Director(s): Quentin Tarantino
Actor(s): amuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Dern, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Walton Goggins