Review: The Hateful Eight

The Hateful Eight appears, upfront, to be a western. Quentin Tarantino’s 8th feature film (as he takes great pride in advising us right out of the gate) takes place several years after the end of the Civil War in the coldest wastes of wintery Wyoming. It begins, as Django Unchained before it, with a bounty hunter stopping a procession. Here, instead of Christoph Waltz halting the path of a chain gang, we have Samuel L Jackson blocking the path of a six-horse wagon. Jackson isn’t there to put an end to a journey, but to join one.

Jackson plays Major Maquis Warren, a notorious former soldier turned notorious bounty hunter hoping for the lift that will save his life as he transports a trio of bodies to town. The wagon he stops, coincidentally, is also carrying a bounty hunter; equally notorious John Ruth a.k.a. The Hangman (Kurt Russell). Ruth has a prisoner; the less-than-dainty Daisy Domergue (a bloodied Jennifer Jason Leigh). Presently they are also joined by suspicious chatterbox and supposed-sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins). Together they aim to hole up through the increasing storm at a little outpost called Minnie’s Haberdashery.

It’s a precarious set-up that Tarantino beds in over the course of nearly an hour, but one which finds the director working with a surprising and welcoming level of restraint. Yes, the peripheral accoutrements that pepper a Tarantino film are there (chapter headings, incongruous musical choices etc), but in the main The Hateful Eight starts out feeling refreshingly sincere. The dialogue is as enjoyable and idiosyncratic as ever, but crucially it’s always interesting. At this point it should be no surprise that Tarantino likes the sound of his own voice, but the words placed in the mouths of this foursome are playful and engaging and the photography of Robert Richardson has never looked better. There’s a comparative lack of showboating to this build up that is as enjoyable as it is welcome.

It will always be great to have Kurt Russell on the big screen, and he makes as much of his role here as he did recently in Bone Tomahawk; another western that turns out to be more than it first appears. Most heartening of all, however, is Samuel L Jackson, giving easily his most charming performance in a decade, one that just about makes up for his irksomely cartoonish mugging in Django Unchained. 

Things stay on course when we reach Minnie’s – where the film will spend much of its weighty running time. Our quartet and their driver O.B. (James Parks) are greeted not by Minnie as anticipated, but rather by a trio of suspicious strangers that include a deliciously eccentric Tim Roth, a blessedly marginalised Michael Madsen and a wryly monosyllabic Demián Bichir. Also present, sat fireside and seeming innocuous, is Bruce Dern as an old war general.

The blizzard itself feels like a character at this juncture. Tarantino goes to great pains to press upon the film the hazards of the outside world, and it ratchets up some pleasing tension. He is helped in no small way by the original music (a first for the director) composed by the legendary Ennio Morricone. Some of that music was once intended for John Carpenter’s The Thing, and there are correlations between the pictures; not least the presence of Russell and the howling winds and bitter cold battering at the door.

But it is here, around 90 minutes into a film that pushes itself close to three hours, that The Hateful Eight slowly reveals itself for what it really is. It’s not a western. It’s a Tarantino film.

The man is about as indulgent as he could possibly be. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise; he certainly has a track record of it, and it’s fair to say that his last few pictures, for better or worse, have all felt divorced from the real world. They are campfire stories set in a heightened reality. Tarantinoland. In Tarantinoland things have to play out a certain way, and that’s part of the problem that sets in. Having got us captivated through restraint, Tarantino zings too far in the other direction with a long-winded and largely dissatisfying resolution.

Rest assured, this picture sees the director employing all of his old favourites; pace-hobbling flashbacks, around-the-houses stories within stories, (multiple) shoot outs, largely unwelcome crudeness, and a lot more of that gloopy, unconvincing bloodshed that marked Django Unchained‘s more electric eruption of violence. Here it feels sloppy; another cloying, egotistical addition to the brand. Just another  characteristic of the terrain you’ll encounter in Tarantinoland.

Yet still, the picture has something. A nice little whodunnit rears it’s head, and the man’s mid-film narration of his own story is forgivable because the story still has something. Not only that, but it fleetingly seems as though the man might actually have something to say as the film flirts with some timely political statements about what it means to be a black man in America.

But it’s all squandered by the time the last chapter rolls around (an intertitle which will appear as a blessing for some). What hampers The Hateful Eight is that, at the end, it’s all much of a muchness. It’s, to borrow from a favoured Cards Against Humanity card, exactly what you’d expect. And after such a promising build up (which features some of the director’s most readily enjoyable scenes), the generic laundry list of offers, counter-offers, bad gangs, gunshot wounds and mean deeds done add up to less than ever. We’ve been down these roads too many times now. We’ve seen these sights. It’s simply time for a new destination. There’s ultimately nothing new at work in The Hateful Eight. You’re left to wonder why exactly Tarantino felt this was a story that needed to be told?

Which is confounding because it is really enjoyable in the main. For a while there I was happily expecting The Hateful Eight to end in the upper tier of not just the director’s filmography, but of the choices available in terms of modern westerns.

But it’s not a western. Not really. It’s  a Tarantino film. The ego has won.

Score: 3

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