If you want a quick, spoiler-free summary, The Hateful Eight is dead good. It’s better than Django Unchained, but does exhibit a few of the flaws seen in that film. To avoid spoilers, I’ve avoided specific details about a couple of key moments in the movie, but I’d expect them to be heavily dissected afterwards.
The Hateful Eight is set in post civil war (actual, not Marvel) America, and it primarily takes place in Minnie’s Haberdashery. Here, a small collective of scoundrels find themselves stuck together, seeking shelter from a blizzard, with haberdashery-owning Minnie conspicuously absent. As is the case with scoundrels, it’s hard to know who to trust. Two bounty hunters, a general, a cowboy, a sheriff, a hangman and Seńor Bob seem to be on a collision course. Inevitably, it seems that at the centre of collision will be prisoner Daisy Domergue, wanted dead or alive.
The film plays out almost in entirely in just a couple of locations. In fact, between the dialogue (there’s lots of it) and the way it’s laid out, The Hateful Eight would adapt easily into a stage play. Keeping the film enclosed in this way, and limiting the number of characters, seems to restrain the wily Tarantino from flying too far off course. It works well and leads to a more cohesive film than his last film, Django Unchained, a film that doesn’t quite fit together for me. To Tarantino’s credit, he’s managed to retain the ‘big’ feel of his recent films in spite of the contained setting.
A couple of other problems that have featured in Tarantino’s recent works, though, resurface.
The Hateful Eight is too long. If you get a chance to see the roadshow version of the film (a rare opportunity in the UK, but it’s the version we were shown for review), it’s the director’s longest work to date. The intermission might serve a narrative purpose, and is arguably there as much as a style choice as a necessity, but it does pull the momentum out of the film, which is frustrating as the first chunk is a slow build. It feels like we’re finally getting going only for things to stop.
As an exercise in tension, it feels like it needs monologues less than Tarantino’s other films. They’re still here, of course. Wonderful though they are, the film is a little bloated and they aren’t all essential. Often, The Hateful Eight is more compelling than tense, and I wonder whether a bit more silence and a bit less of everything else might have fed the paranoia and tension.
Right, now for the tricky part.
There are a couple of bits of The Hateful Eight that made me a bit uncomfortable. There’s the constant beating of one character, which is weird and feels out of place. I felt like I was missing something, like it was the punchline to a joke where I hadn’t heard the set-up. Perhaps it’s because violence in Tarantino’s recent films has long been so melodramatic; even when it’s meant to be funny, it always has weight. This is throwaway, almost casual and cartoony. It feels at odds with how the director uses violence, in the rest of this film and in previous works.
Then there’s a specific sequence that I’m not going to spoil here, but which is also difficult to explain. The moment in question is a really horrible scene, hateful even, and I’m not sure it achieves what it sets out to.
Now, in both instances, I’m going to defer judgement. The fact is that I’m not sure what I think about these scenes. They definitely made me uncomfortable, but it’s okay for films to make you uncomfortable. Certainly, Tarantino has long used uncomfortable language and violence, often to great effect. But something about these two examples stood out to me. I’m not sure I understand why they’re there. Perhaps that’s a failing of the film, or perhaps it’s a failing on my part. There’s so much in The Hateful Eight, and I don’t think it can all be unpacked in a single viewing. With these two examples, I think it would be wrong to notice them and not mention them, but I’m not sure I know what I make of them just yet.
I’ll certainly have the opportunity to reassess those scenes, though, as there is much to prompt repeat viewings.
Some of the director’s recent style choices sometimes hurt the film as much as they help it. For example, typical of Tarantino’s recent films, especially so of Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight is performed with a slight over-the-top theatricality, one that the characters seem amused by. It’s a bit of a wink to the audience. It’s really fun, and Tarantino has long been able to elicit wonderful performances from actors, but wasn’t it more fun in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction when things weren’t all quite so self-aware?
Then there’s the music. Brilliant though much of it is, and I appreciate how daft it sounds to wish away a Tarantino soundtrack, a bit more silence, a bit more allowing the chilling wind to fill the auditorium, might have sold the paranoia and tension better. That said, the music that is chosen, particularly the new piece from Ennio Morricone, is magnificent.
Such is the task of reviewing a Tarantino film, almost every complaint comes with a footnote explaining why it’s still good. There’s too much dialogue, maybe, but the dialogue is terrific. There’s too much music, perhaps, but there’s nothing wrong with that music. It feels like the film is bloated with excess, but it also feels grand and big, which you wouldn’t want to lose.
Then, there are the things in The Hateful Eight that are a flat out joy. The post intermission voiceover, for example, is an absolute riot. It’s audacious and perfectly realised, yet shouldn’t really work. It’s like watching someone showboat while walking a tightrope.
Then there are the mystery elements of the film. Certainly, all the way through we’re invited to question the real meaning and motivation behind the characters actions and speeches. But a mystery, which we’re invited to try to solve, breaks out in the midst of it. Here’s a conclusion I hadn’t anticipated arriving at off the back of The Hateful Eight; I would be first in line for Quentin Tarantino’s Clue.
The performances are uniformly brilliant. Samuel L Jackson is at his brash best. Walton Goggins’ turn as the obnoxious Mannix should earn the actor some well-deserved attention. Tim Roth, too, warrants mention for his performance, his character providing one of the best moments of the film. You could go through the whole line-up, though; Kurt Russell’s bastard take on Yosemite Sam, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Evil Dead Daisy and so on. Then there’s Channing Tatum, who gets little screen time but threatens to steal the entire film with his menacing, sleazy turn. Oh, and Bruce Dern, too. Really, it’s everyone. Tarantino remains a master of producing memorable characters, and The Hateful Eight finds him on top form.
There are all sorts of highlights, some unexpected. One scene that really grabbed me, and it’s entirely incidental and not something that stands out as particularly glamourous, is the scene of two characters setting ropes to the barn and outhouse, so that the characters can find their way through the blizzard. The weather assaults them. It’s them versus nature, a rare honest conflict in a film full of lies. It is absolutely compelling. I can’t imagine how they knew this would be interesting to see, as it doesn’t sound like it would be, but it is.
I appreciate that there are a lot of comparisons to Tarantino’s other films in this review, but they seem like the best measure for a director who has long been walking his own path. It’s hard to argue that the films don’t court it, either. This one a throwback to Reservoir Dogs, filtered through Django Unchained, with a sniff of the tavern scene from Inglourious Basterds thrown in for good measure. Perhaps the most telling influence, though, is that of John Carpenter’s The Thing. From the presence of Kurt Russell to the isolated, snowy setting, the paranoia and the music (in fact it borrows a few pieces of Ennio Morricone’s score from that film), the influence of the The Thing hangs heavy over The Hateful Eight, like a The Fog (sorry). There’s also a little of The Evil Dead in there, too, not least in the gore.
The Hateful Eight is unlikely to convert anyone who hasn’t enjoyed Tarantino’s work previously. For better or worse or both, it’s the director doing what he does. It’s a lush production, a compelling story and is full to the point of excess, but has lots of surprises and brilliant performances.
The Hateful Eight is released in the UK on January 8th 2016.
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