Movie Review: The Hateful Eight
By Ben Gruchow
January 5, 2016
It may be this that contributes to the movie leaving me comparatively cool - not the simple impression of a puppet master moving his subjects on strings, but the feeling that that’s all there is here. For a feature that runs precariously close to three hours, The Hateful Eight leaves us with awfully little to go on by its end. The story construction plays out like most of Tarantino’s latter work, in more or less linear chapters, but the technique plays itself out well before the final scenes do, and it isn’t long before we anticipate a chapter that will explain everything by taking us backward through time, prior to the start of the movie.
We’re introduced to the eight core characters piecemeal: the movie starts with Jackson as Major Warren, a bounty hunter transporting that pile of bodies to Red Rock, Wyoming, for payment. In the stagecoach is another bounty hunter, John Ruth (Kurt Russell, barely recognizable behind an avalanche of facial hair). John’s charge is Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a wanted fugitive. In advance of the encroaching blizzard, and with some reluctance, Ruth allows Warren to hitch a ride with the two of them. Soon enough, they’ve picked up another traveler: the soon-to-be sheriff of Red Rock - and the one in the position to pay the two bounty hunters for their corpses - Chris Mannix, played by Walton Goggins. It’s not until the four land at the Haberdashery that we meet the remainder of the Eight, and I will leave the remaining identities for you to discover.
It’s all well and good for a story to lack a protagonist, or even a likable figure, provided that the main character or characters are drawn with clarity and the right broad strokes. We don’t get that here, and I blame the introductions stacking on top of each other is to blame; the first two long scenes - consisting of Russell, Jackson, and Leigh - are engaging and intriguing passages. We are waiting for their characterizations to deepen. Then Mannix joins, and the expected character elaboration arrives at the hands of a character we don’t know much of and have little reason to believe. This does not happen just once.
To a degree, I understand this is the point. The entire affair is about peeling back layers of deception, with participants that would form a decent antagonist in any other Tarantino film. And each individual gets a moment of dialogue and motivation. We are not meant to identify with anyone; we’re meant to look down on the scene along with the puppet-master, enjoying the mystery while being unable to invest in anyone. Picture two hours of Bill’s comic-book speech from Kill Bill, Vol. 2, multiplied. We lack an anchoring figure like the Bride, or Christoph Waltz’s Dr. Schultz from 2012’s Django Unchained.
The movie is well-paced and colorful in its approach, even if there’s not a lot to hang onto by the end. There’s little of the pokeyness that sporadically invaded the beginning and middle passages of Unchained. And when the lightweight storytelling gets to be too much, there’s always the scenery to fall back on. A step back for Tarantino is still many steps ahead of most other entries in the cinematic subgenre he helped to create. It’s a film that I can recognize the aim of, as well as the merits inherent, even if I don’t actually end up liking it all that much.