In its extended and intended form, Quentin Tarantino’s eighth (but really ninth) feature film begins with an overture.1 The red, white and black titlecard flickers ever so slightly as Ennio Morricone’s score works wonders of discomfort. In addition to setting the tone, this three-minute sequence signals to us in-film that The Hateful Eight wants to be treated like no work of studio-backed cinema in recent memory. It has been advertised as a fully formed cinematic experience running on the promise of a celluloid resurrection, replete with a roadshow 70mm release, an intermission and this overture. As an act of showmanship, The Hateful Eight is an interesting curio in modern movie history. As a standalone film, though, it is a lumbersome bore and a thoroughly ham-fisted journey through the heart of racism, misogyny and misanthropy.
In the mountains of Wyoming lies Minnie’s Haberdashery, a warm and homely hideout from the law and the weather. On account of a huge blizzard, a group of disparate characters seek refuge there: bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell), his prisoner Daisy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), his stagecoach driver O.B. (James Parks), and two passengers he comes across en route to the town of Red Rock— fellow bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who claims to be Red Rock’s new sheriff. For those of you playing along at home, that makes five, though O.B. doesn’t count. The remaining four from the hating crowd are already at Minnie’s: a hangman (Tim Roth), a cowboy (Michael Madsen), an old Confederate general (Bruce Dern) and the haberdashery’s makeshift caretaker (Demián Bichir).
Most of the above lot are introduced with their reputations preceding them: “You’re [name], the famous [bounty hunter/rebel/general] who [anecdote]!” It’s in keeping with Tarantino’s recent fascination with truth in narrative that they’re all defined by an uncertain and untrustworthy past. As the real facts start to spill out, though, this cast of villains is re-rendered as a uniformly generic bunch, an act of accidental subversion in a film full of intentional provocation. The script is propelled by the bluster of the eight, who emptily pontificate on frontier justice and post-Civil War racism, Tarantino mistaking insinuation for insight. Even when he hits on something interesting – the story of a letter from Abraham Lincoln – he fumbles it, answering the dictum of “show, not tell” with a repetitious shout.
The film’s formal subversion is amusing in theory and confusing in execution. Despite the visual expectations set by the 65mm shoot and 70mm projection, it’s his least aesthetically compelling feature. Robert Richardson’s gorgeous exterior cinematography (including one of the haberdashery in the blizzard that also calls to mind The Thing) is a highlight but most of the runtime is spent inside; the blizzard peeking through the windows looks just like the blue screen backdrop of the sound stage on which the film was shot. Ennio Morricone’s score is likewise unexpectedly underused, mostly pushed to the top and tail of each story chapter.
The Hateful Eight also sees Tarantino stake a claim as his own most passionate auteurist: the film is a melting chamber-pot of self-referentiality and re-creation. This display runs the gamut from playful (the chapter titles from Basterds, Zoe Bell’s Death Proof-nodding cameo) to grating (“a bastard’s work is never done”, multiple asides about Red Apple cigarettes, an inversion of one of Samuel L. Jackson’s Pulp Fiction lines of dialogue). Most frustrating, though, is the strained attempt to capture the magic of the first 15 minutes of Inglourious Basterds, where a theatrical approach to dialogue and space stunned audiences expecting gleeful bloodletting. Here, he’s either lost his knack for writing dialogue or sense of pacing and structure – both at once in the case of his attempt to wring comedy out of incessant repetition of dialogue.2
His commitment to glacial tension-building in the first three chapters is thrown to the wind in the post-intermission narrative; Tarantino heeds the warning of the Crystal Gayle song that he plays: “changes are coming no doubt”. Most of these changes, though, are indicative of the director’s worst creative tendencies. Tarantino himself narrates the back-end of the film, smugly recapping the plot and signalling the film’s shift from a western to a murder mystery. For the most part, the film’s second half is a Bonanza bottle episode by way of Agatha Christie, Jackson suddenly re-written as a swaggering Poirot whose mode of discovery, outside of Tarantino’s overbearing insert shots, is lining people up and threatening them with guns. When, as expected, everything ends in a bombastic bloodbath, it’s less satisfying than tedious; the penultimate chapter fills in all narrative blanks, and the visual spectacle of squibs exploding reads here as a poor man’s version of so many of his earlier violent climaxes.3
In writing about Tarantino’s films it’s hard to avoid discussing his penchant for the word “nigger” and the way his characters wield the epithet in Eight feels markedly different from his previous work.4 Unlike in Django, there’s no real notion of re-claiming language; here it’s either unnecessary historical window-dressing or a stubbornly simplistic illustration of characters’ racism. When Jennifer Jason Leigh uses “nigger” in the film’s opening scene it feels less like context setting than weak pandering to his well-known affectations; when Dern spits out the word in his caricature of a Confederate it’s even more embarrassing to watch.
Interestingly, his characters reserve as much venom for their use of the word “bitch”, Tarantino marking out their misogynist tendencies whilst not so effectively escaping the accusation himself. The first shockingly visceral moment of the film is when Daisy is pistol-whipped across the head by Russell’s bounty hunter, and for the entire film she is the only character who suffers, or is threatened by, acts of physical violence. Particularly in the opening chapter, the way Tarantino plays with tension is stomach-turning – we wait in anticipation of Daisy getting punched in the face again. It’s certainly an uncomfortable and provocative creative decision but since the film does so little to engage with the gender politics it merely glances at, these specific acts of violence are an indulgent excess. In an interview with Kim Morgan at Sight & Sound the director referenced the beatings Daisy endures by claiming that “it would be detrimental to her and to the sex of her character if I played any favorites.” It’s a fair point, in a sense, as Daisy is just as malicious and vindictive as her captors, but by making every other female role in the film merely bullet fodder to further underline the already stark misogyny of the men, Tarantino starts to tip these acts of gendered violence from world and character building into the territory of unnecessary and disgusting visual embellishment.5
In spite of this, Jennifer Jason Leigh delivers an impressive performance as Daisy, though it’s through her physicality and facial expressions moreso than the tinny dialogue Tarantino gives her. The rest of the cast is a very mixed bag. Goggins delightfully chews on his lines, Parks is a welcome foil to the exaggerated egos and Roth does amusing work with a role Christoph Waltz likely rejected for being too insubstantial. The others do nothing of particular interest: Jackson feels more like a mouthpiece for dialogue than a fully-realised figure (a major step down from his confronting Django turn), Russell, Madsen and Bichir are serviceable, Dern is the weakest link of the eight and Channing Tatum’s terrible cameo ends his recent string of fantastic performances.6
Lacking in any substantive commentary on race or violence, The Hateful Eight is little more than a masturbatory exercise in misanthropy. As Tarantino gleefully moves through an array of seemingly provocative moments—a vaguely homophobic monologue, the slaughter of unarmed women and his contemptible final image among them—he commits a cardinal sin within his own mode of filmmaking: giving his audience something that is deathly boring. Playing mind games with your audience gets tiresome across a three-hour spread, particularly when those games are as hollow as the lies his lying liars tell one another.
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