The Hateful Eight
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Googins, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, and Demian Bichir
By Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume
You’ve never seen a western like Hateful Eight, which is neither praise nor pan.
Before we begin there, though, take yourself back to Inglourious Basterds. It had Hitler, Churchill, Nazis, the French resistance, a vile Jew-hunting SS officer, wise-talking GIs, machine guns, bombs, interrogations … everything one could hope for in a World War II movie. Pulp Fiction, a crime movie, had robberies, murders, drug deals, drug overdoses, fixed boxing fights, kidnapping, torture. Kill Bill, a revenge thriller in two parts, had kung-fu, animation, gunfights, swordfights, assassinations. I bring all this up because director Quentin Tarantino really packs everything he can into his movies, and he also boils his genres down to their most basic parts and then he exemplifies those parts with his subversive brand of glee.
Hateful Eight, though, is a western with few of the characteristics that define a western, least of all the adventurous spirit of the West. No saloon brawls, no high-noon shootouts, no horse chases or cattle rustlers, and not even a train heist or bank robbery. None of this is really out of the ordinary for Tarantino, who seems to thrive on taking what we expect and giving us something completely different. But Hateful Eight is not only a letdown as a western, it’s a tremendously indulgent film for the brash director, who likely didn’t hear the word “no” very often when he was pitching it as a three-hour, single-location stage play with overture and intermission and enough mindless dialogue to undo all the goodwill he’s earned from a career of mindless dialogue.
The film opens on a stagecoach as it travels through a blizzard in Colorado. Inside the cabin are bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), John’s latest bounty that he intends to take to a town called Red Rock where she will hang for her crimes. Slowly, amid the snow and wind, the stagecoach begins assembling the cast: there’s the feisty stagecoach driver (James Parks), a former union officer Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), and soon-to-be sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins). Early scenes take place in the stagecoach as three of the men and Domergue talk about bounties, bushwhackers and a letter from President Abraham Lincoln. This tedious dialogue is neither boring nor interesting, but it fills the cabin of the stagecoach for north of 20 minutes.
With a blizzard bearing down, the stagecoach stops at Minnie’s Haberdashery, where the film will spend the rest of its running time, and where our travelers take refuge inside with Mexican Bob (Demián Bichir), a proper English gentleman (Tim Roth), a weary cow-puncher (Michael Madsen), and Confederate general (Bruce Dern). What happens next would best be described by saying “the plot of Clue.” Men are killed, some coffee is poisoned, and Daisy Domergue cackles with delight as John Ruth questions who is and isn’t who they say they are.
Hateful Eight wasted so much of my time, that I will not to do the same here: the movie is simply far too long. A skilled editor could have his way with this and come out 45 minutes lighter, and the movie would fly. Here, though, it’s so bloated and top-heavy it can never build momentum. Dialogue just keeps rolling out of everyone’s mouth, and so little of it is noteworthy or memorable that it all blends into a monotonous dribble of cowboy talk and frontier banter. Jackson has a great monologue about torturing a confederate soldier — he repeatedly says the word “dingus” which gets some decent laughs during a darker chapter about Union revenge — but these scenes are few and far between.
With so much dialogue, you’d think the characters would have more — you know — character, but they never elevate out of Tarantino’s muck of words. Russell’s bounty hunter has an interesting look and particularly evocative dialect of country words, but he seems lost amid the exposition and mood that are telegraphed within pages of dialogue. Jackson and Goggins do what they can, even as the film ratchets tension around their plight that can only end one way. As characters trade conversations inside the store, amid the shaking of the blizzard and a broken door that needs to be hammered shut, none of it really leads anywhere. By the time the intermission starts, the film is nearly at the two-hour mark and you slowly start to realize that a better movie would have you walking to your car at this point. But Hateful Eight toils onward.
Post-intermission scenes do greatly improve, largely because key sequences from earlier are revisited in Tarantino’s out-of-order style of chapter organization. And while the first two-thirds are largely bloodless, the last third pours the guts, blood and mayhem on thick as all parties turn on one another. Snickering through much of it is Daisy Domergue, who might be the sole salvation in this twisted whodunit. Leigh seems delighted to play the demented little demoness. Russell has some great lines, and his thick porkchop sideburns do justice to his unapologetic ruggedness. Jackson is Jackson, which is way of saying he’s excellent, but I found the 75-plus uses of the N word thrown at his character excessive and entirely unnecessary — Tarantino believes we should take the power from the word, which is admirable but altogether impossible in this context.
I admire Tarantino’s vision, but Hateful Eight simply doesn’t work. Slap any other name on this film and every cowpoke on the range will tell you it’s too long, too wordy and too meandering. But Tarantino’s name is on it, so it’s brilliant — no thanks. He’s showing off here, and for once in his career, it’s not really working like it once did.