The Hateful Eight

This is a review that might well be entitled The Good, The Bad, The Ugly and The Fascinating – though the Hateful Eight as a title is somewhat misleading.  They are far from being a sympathetic eight, but this is far from being a sequel to The Magnificent Seven (which has just been remade – see here), along the lines of Ocean’s 11, 12 and 13.

Tarantino movies are inherently derivative, he being the master of pastiche and the sly nod and wink. It becomes a game to see how many influences or direct lifts you can spot in the course of a typically over-extended movie. But don’t think for a moment that application of cliches make these films uninspiring to watch; each comes with a heavy dose of Quentin’s  trademark panache and his ear for dialogue, not to mention startlingly original use of time signatures and plotting, of which more shortly.

The Hateful Eight, his 8th movie, is no different to the others, at least in two senses: the movie is divided into chapters and comprises a relatively slight story extended over 160 minutes on film, packed with references for those in the know.  Many will be to obscure westerns, but I’d say the most obvious parallels are to Agatha Christie‘s Ten Little Niggers (QT calls a spade a spade – the taboo word is used extensively, and authentically, here, though the Christie tale was later euphemistically renamed And Then There Were None), The Usual Suspects, maybe even a touch of the Pardoner’s Tale from the Canterbury Tales – though the devil comes in human form here, and the pot of gold a bounty for the lives of criminals (bounty hunters have featured large in recent QT movies.)

You can probably think of more, but the core ingredients will sound familiar as I describe them. That said, H8 takes QT into a new realm, that of a psychological thriller and undiluted character study where the audience is invited to read into the personalities and decide who is lying through their teeth before the inevitable bloody denouement. Some argue that there is no character development, this being a study of the past and present of these characters, but as the story is told there is no particular need to look into their futures.

Following on from Django, this is another western, this time set after the American Civil War in snow-bound Wyoming, though in finest Christie style it could easily have been a country house cut off by the weather in the 30s and played out in DJs and evening gowns in the hands of another director.

A group of strangers who know one another by reputation meet and travel together in a horse-drawn carriage complete with coachman OB (James Parks) towards the town of Red Rock (actually a rock formation but a fictional town) with a storm fast approaching: two bounty hunters, one with a pile of dead bodies and a letter allegedly written personally to him by Abraham Lincoln, the other with a woman he is taking to Red Rock to be hanged, there to collect a bounty of $10,000.  The other stranger purports to be the next sheriff of Red Rock. None entirely trusts the others for reasons that will become apparent.

As the storm will arrive before they can reach their destination, the group takes refuge up in Minnie’s Haberdashery, a stagecoach lodge.  Owners Minnie and Sweet Dave are unaccountably missing (their story is told in flashback in a later chapter with help from Dana Gourrier and Gene Jones) but the joint is being minded by a very suspicious Mexican called Bob, played with ferocious intensity, not to mention gusto, by Demián Bichir. A motley group of visitors are already there: an English hangman, a cowboy and a confederation General (a deceptively laconic Bruce Dern.)

The film stays in this mildly claustrophobic setting through to its conclusion. There is an air of mystery from the start of this scene – something does not quite gel, though the polite small talk reveals background information that at the time seems unimportant, even dull. The emphasis is mildly comic – you wonder where this is all leading.  All you’re left with is the dialogue and the slow striptease as the stories told by each player gradually unravel. Until the real motives emerge this is a series of power games between an odd assortment of people, some of whom harbour natural grudges while others form uneasy alliances. None are exactly sympathetic and all have vulnerabilities, though in the interests of staying spoiler-free I won’t reveal anything too outrageous.

The one who lost overtly trusts nobody is John Ruth, as played by Kurt Russell (yes, that Kurt Russell), as he shepherds a cackling hag of a villain in Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh, complete with a corker of a black eye following Ruth’s rough treatment of Domergue) through to her inevitable fate. He it is who insists on others giving up their weapons, though there are no shortage hidden, as it turns out (this could easily be a touch of gun control debate thrown in by the director to shake up the mix.)

The closest thing we get to a hero-cum-detective is Samuel L Jackson‘s wide-hatted, devious but perceptive Marquis Warren – though he is nobody’s idea of a saint, still less Hercules Poirot. Jackson is a regular member of the QT repertory company, though Warren is a useful antidote to the evils of his Uncle Tom-like Stephen in Django Unchained.  His goading of the General to the point where guns are fired is not nice by any reckoning, but maybe that’s how you dealt with bitter enemies to justify a self-defence plea.

Young redneck sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), whose daddy was another leading confederate, is not trusted either, in spite of being the most naive present. Indeed he is not believed up to the point where he nearly drinks poisoned coffee – while others are less lucky.  He is comparatively straightforward, maybe slightly dim, such that everyone suspects he is hiding more than he reveals – but then it seems nobody in these days was what they seemed or claimed to be.

Tim Roth‘s Oswaldo Mobray, pseudo English gentleman and alleged hangman, complete with occasional cockney flourishes certainly sounds fishy.  By comparison, Michael Madsen‘s Joe Gage says little and stays out of the limelight, but his account of going to see his mother is equally dubious. The 8th of the H8 is played by Channing Tatum and is called Jody – though by necessity his role will remain shrouded in mystery.  Watch the film and find out why!

Tarantino himself makes an uncredited appearance as an ironic and quite probably superfluous narrator, a nod to westerns which did the same (cinematography Oscar heading to Robert Richardson.)  You might say the same of his persuading 87 year old Ennio Morricone to write his first full film score since 2000 – and damn good it is too!  Whatever other parallels you might recognise, the link to spaghetti westerns is far from dead.

Perhaps inevitably the ending is blood-strewn to the point of the winner being the last man standing (two live though neither are standing.)  The gore and the tale of Smithers’ son earn the 18 certificate, and maybe goes two steps further than it needs to achieve the effect – less can indeed be more.  There is a degree of expectation that for a Tarantino film you will get plenty of brutally cartoonish violence, and that is the stereotype the director has now created for himself.

In many ways this is a beautifully crafted film.  Every lingering shot, from the opening salvo as the camera withdraws from a close-up of a snow-bound crucifix in order to capture a passing stagecoach, is handled with awesome love and care.  The acting demonstrates a talented and well-rehearsed company who know precisely what they are doing and are totally at ease with themselves and their director.

At every technical level, this is QT’s most accomplished film yet… but still it falls foul of his greatest weakness.  That weakness is self-indulgence and lack of self-editing.  I complained in previous reviews that Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds were both good films that would have been tighter and better were they markedly shorter; Kill Bill was split into two rather than QT allowing it to be edited down to manageable proportions for one film.

H8 is no different in that respect.  Tarantino’s script slaps itself on the back for its own cleverness, yet it goes right round the houses unnecessarily.  It is flabby, repetitive and fails to nail down some critical scenes and at times sounds no more inviting than overheard snippets of conversation at a coffee shop.  Cut it down by 30-40 minutes and you would have a taut thriller that keeps its audience engaged and riveted. The dialogue in Tarantino movies has become an end in itself, to the extent that losing overall coherence is of secondary importance.

Thank goodness then for Samuel L Jackson, an actor with the capability of saving almost any film from its own longeurs.  Jackson has two blistering monologues that he delivers with the same power, skill and verve as his famed Ezekiel 25:17 speech in Pulp Fiction:  one needling the general past the point of tolerance, the other gradually unravelling the mystery by poking holes in the stories relayed over the previous 90 minutes.  Despite his flaws – for which the character is duly punished – he remains credible and the driving force of this movie.  There is much to be said in favour of The Hateful Eight, but if you had to see it for one reason only see Jackson’s masterclass in acting charisma as the thing that makes the difference between an ordinary film and one worth staying the course for.

That said, I hope Tarantino will someday make a masterpiece in miniature, a 90 minute novella of a film, one with tidy scope that packs a punch without the need to go on for many hours.  It will serve his legacy far better in the longer run.

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