After a three-year absence, Quentin Tarantino returns with his eighth directorial effort, the uneven, sporadically entertaining The Hateful Eight. Thanks to Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, two of his most crowd pleasing and commercially successful movies, Tarantino has been in a career renaissance of sorts.
Movie Review: The Hateful Eight
By Felix Quinonez
January 6, 2016
But looking back on those movies, there seems to be something uncharacteristic about their eagerness to please. (Especially Inglourious Basterds) In hindsight, it feels like a conscious effort to win back some of the fans he may have lost with Death Proof (from the Grindhouse collaboration with Robert Rodriguez). That movie was a rare misstep from a director with such a strong grasp on his craft that his only competition is himself.
And that brings us to The Hateful Eight, which finds Tarantino in a rare mood. He seems more concerned with entertaining himself than captivating viewers. And he wastes no time testing the audience's patience, cashing in on all the goodwill he’s earned with his previous work. The opening title sequence is a study in self-indulgence and definitely foreshadows what’s in store. The music - at odds with the visuals - very slowly builds to a crescendo, while on screen there is nothing but a horse-drawn carriage riding on a snow-covered field. The music tries really hard to build tension without letting the viewer know why.
The protracted opening scene culminates when a lone stranded figure is revealed. But instead of serving as some sort of a payoff, this feels more like a relief. And that’s when the story proper begins. The man is Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a bounty hunter transporting the corpses of three outlaws to the town of Red Rock. Unfortunately, his horses couldn’t make the trip and with a blizzard on the way, he is now in desperate need of a ride.
But the man inside the carriage, bounty hunter John "The Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell), isn’t very inviting. He’s escorting fugitive Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock, and she is handcuffed to him. At first Ruth is hesitant about giving Warren a ride, but after a typically entertaining negotiation, he comes around. And with Warren now in tow, it isn’t long before they pick up another passenger. This is Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), the soon-to-be-appointed sheriff of Red Rock.
With the blizzard fast approaching, they decide to take refuge at Minnie's Haberdashery, a saloon or inn of some sort. Once there, they find the proprietors conspicuously missing, and in their place are four mysterious characters, including a retired Confederate commander, (Bruce Dern) who massacred black Union soldiers during the civil war, a traveling hangman (Tim Roth) and two others with suspicious backgrounds (Michael Madsen and Demian Bichir).
The plot is fairly simple. One could even refer to it as Tarantino’s attempt to make Clue: The Movie. Basically, these untrusting characters are stuck together for a couple a days while they ride out the blizzard. But it isn’t long before bodies start dropping and they are forced to get to the bottom of the mystery. In typical Tarantino fashion, this involves a lot of bloodshed.
But perhaps because of the claustrophobic setting, The Hateful Eight feels more like a long scene than a movie. More specifically, it could be described as “That” scene. Viewers with more than a passing knowledge of Tarantino’s work might be familiar with “That” scene. But basically, in a lot - or most - of Tarantino’s movies, there is usually one scene that feels like an island to itself, secluded from the rest of the movie. A couple of examples of this are the basement bar scene in Inglourious Basterds and the pawnshop scene in Pulp Fiction. There are definitely others, but those two perfectly illustrate the point. Ultimately, these scenes, while entertaining, don’t really serve much - if any - purpose. They are there because Tarantino really liked what he wrote and didn’t want to cut it. Unfortunately, The Hateful Eight plays like an almost three-hour-long version of that scene.
Here, Tarantino seems more concerned with very slowly building suspense than telling a story. And he often succeeds, especially when dealing with the racial tension between the characters, a powder keg always on the verge of exploding. It is especially effective with the use of the often-mentioned “Lincoln Letter.” It’s best not to get into the details, but it culminates with one of the most moving and best-written exchanges in any Tarantino movie. And every one of the words still (sadly) rings true today. It manages to speak directly to audiences without the need to break the fourth wall or being ironically self-aware.
The performances are predictably entertaining, but for the most part it’s business as usual, a phrase not normally associated with a Tarantino film. Jennifer Jason Leigh comes the closest to breaking out, followed by a very strong turn from Kurt Russell. Samuel L. Jackson is also great, but not any more so than he has been in past Tarantino collaborations. And even though Warren is a great character, at times it feels as if the movie doesn’t completely know how to use him.
On the other hand, there are a couple of surprisingly weak performances. First time Tarantino collaborator Demian Bichir goes so overboard with his performance that he borders on tone-deaf caricature. He often lacks even a passing semblance to the way a Mexican person would speak. And although Tim Roth’s scenery chewing seems to be a bit more justified, his overacting nudges the movie into unintentional self-parody. It’s as if he was trying too hard to steal scenes. Lastly, the less said about the miscast Channing Tatum, the better. Luckily he doesn’t have a lot of screen time.
But the biggest problem is the way the movie appears so eager to get in its own way. The story itself somehow manages to be both paper thin and convoluted. Where his most effective films have something to say about racial issues - or at least act like they do - here Tarantino settles for hollow posturing. And in the end, it’s all ground he’s more successfully covered before. In fact, for a director known for “borrowing” from other movies, it seems he’s finally reached the point where he’s stealing from himself. The movie definitely inspires unflattering comparisons to the finale of Tarantino’s own Reservoir Dogs.
And although it’s a topic that deserves its own piece, I found the very casual and repeated violence against the one prominent female character very jarring and off-putting. It’s as if Tarantino put his need to shock over any concerns about the meanings - perceived or otherwise - behind these acts. Perhaps he felt that his racial button pushing wasn’t having the desired effect and decided to try misogyny to spice things up.
But that doesn’t mean The Hateful Eight is without merit. Tarantino is so talented that he could film paint drying and make it entertaining. In fact, at times that’s what the movie feels like. But there is so much to enjoy. Tarantino’s excellent ear for dialogue is as effective as ever. The actors all relish reading the lines (some a little too much). And it’s all beautifully shot. But it’s a bit surprising why they bothered with the much-publicized use of 70mm only to confine most of the movie to the inside of a cabin. And the actors, all clearly enjoying their roles, have great chemistry. The fact is, the movie is peppered with great moments and powerful exchanges that really shouldn’t be spoiled. Sadly, all the great parts don’t add up to a very interesting whole.
But even at his worst (Death Proof), Tarantino is a filmmaker worth following. He can elevate the most throwaway material and turn it into something special. And The Hateful Eight is definitely not his worst. Unfortunately, it’s also not close to being his best.