Sometimes you’ve just got to grow your facial hair, squint like Clint, swagger like John Wayne, draw your six-shooter and deconstruct the Western genre! Its time for my review of Quentin Tarantino’s latest; The Hateful Eight.
When you go into a Tarantino movie these days you have a general idea of what you’re in for; scripts that are verbose and fast-talking, a lot of violence and a large amount of cinematic references. In these respects his latest movie, The Hateful Eight, does not disappoint. Unfortunately, since his success with Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown I get the feeling that there have been fewer restraints on Quentin’s directorial whims and this has also lead to his movies being somewhat more self-indulgent than they used to be. You only need to compare the wonderfully tight scripts for Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown with his later, somewhat bloated, but still wildly successful, offerings like Kill Bill and Inglorious Basterds to see what I mean. Unfortunately The Hateful Eight comes with more than its fair share of this side of Tarantino as well. Luckily it also has several aces up its sleeve in the shape of its cast.
A cowboy movie is a relative rarity these days, partly because the interest has waned but also, I think, because there are few movie stars who can pull off the requisite tough, laconic, relaxed insouciance that a post-Eastwood audience has come to expect. Luckily The Hateful Eight has one of these few at the head of its cast in the ever-entertaining, and gloriously mutton-chopped, form of Kurt Russell. As John “The Hangman ” Ruth, a bounty hunter headed for the town of Red Rock, Russell positively chews the scenery whenever he is given even the hint of a line doing his best John Wayne by way of Jack Burton. The limelight is shared by Tarantino’s male muse; Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson is also on fine form as the Yankiee ex-Major Marquis Warren who is also a bounty hunter bound for Red Rock. The third head of this movie is Jennifer Jason-Leigh, who is fascinating to watch, even when she has no lines, as the murderess and gang-member Daisy Domergue. She is introduced as Ruth’s prisoner that he is transporting to Red Rock, where she is due to met her demise at the end of a hangman’s rope (this may give you an idea as to how John Ruth got his nickname…). The rest of the cast are filled in once the stagecoach that these three share is forced to pull in at Minnie’s Haberdashery by a vicious blizzard. Minnie’s is a staging post where weary travellers can stop in, stretch their legs and purchase some refreshment. Once there they meet the other five of “the eight” and the plot turns into a suspicious thriller as John and Marquis try to figure out which of their snowed in companions is likely to be in cahoots with Domergue and trying to free her before she can be brought into Red Rock.
Virtually the rest of the movie then takes place within the drafty, wooden, four walls of the Haberdashery and the set, which starts out feeling fairly expansive, begins to slowly close in around the characters as the tension and suspicion mounts. This is down to the film’s greatest strength; the way it is shot. Tarantino has chosen to use lenses that would normally be reserved solely for sweeping outdoor vistas, the sort of shots that westerns in general are well known for having. He certainly gives us this in the opening scenes where he lets the snow-swept landscape of Wyoming speak for itself, however, he does not switch these lenses out once the action moves indoors. This means that when you get a close up of a character, of which there are a lot, you really get to see the depth of their face in a way that is quite unusual. I found that this really made me feel as though I was in the cabin with the characters as the textures of everything from clothes to tables really stood out and gave the film a weight that I’ve not really seen before outside of the best quality 3D movies.
So now that we have the characters locked into a confined space the rest of the story plays out and this is where the film becomes uneven for me. The cast are on great form, with virtually all of them giving fantastic performances. Samuel L. Jackson deserves special mention for showing off all his best traits that any fan of Tarantino has come to love. Not since playing Jules Winnfield has he broken out his trade-mark angry stare with such vim, but he also hasn’t been given the chance to be this disarming and amusing in a long time as well. Everyone on screen is clearly having the time of their life playing these characters whilst really getting their teeth into the Tarantino-dialogue. Everyone gets at least one soliloquy, most get more, and everything from race, to politics, to coffee gets blasted with the fast-talking back and forth that made a name for this director in the first place. The script is littered with references to history, both cinematic and real, and really grabbed me in a lot of places. Unfortunately this is where we come to the thing that really took me out of this movie; the amount of script there is. Tarantino has never been one to shy away from getting his characters to talk, and as I mentioned before it is the reason that he has got to be one of the most famous director/scriptwriters on the planet. The thing he has always suffered from though, in my opinion, is a lack of editing and this is more true of the Hateful Eight than pretty much any of his previous films. Coming in at one hundred and sixty seven minutes (one hundred and eighty seven if you see the road show version) this is a very, very long movie and one that is unfortunately not sustained by the script throughout its hefty run-time. There were points where I had been watching the characters interact for a good twenty minutes before something happened to advance the plot and I remember thinking to myself “all of that could have been cut without taking away from the plot, characters or the film in general”. It feels as though Tarantino has forgotten that although his trade-mark scripting is very entertaining when its at its best, getting it to be that way for the best part of three hours is a massive challenge and one that he has failed at in this film. With some serious editing I believe that there is an incredibly taut and amusing thriller to be had from this movie, but as it is the film is massively overlong and very self-indulgent.
Finally, it would not be a Tarantino movie review without a discussion of the violence on display. As with all of his movies when it comes he does nothing to shy away from it, but unlike a lot of his previous films I found that a lot of what was happening on screen seemed to be designed to shock rather than to serve the story as it has in the past. There may be a point to the over the top syrupy sprays of blood that happen now and again, but I’m not entirely sure what it is. Possibly the film is designed to follow the completely over the top bloodshed of Jacobian melodramas? It also would not be a Tarantino movie review without there being a bit of controversy mixed in. For me this came in the form of the violence towards Daisy Domergue, which I found to be uncalled for in a lot of places, however, I do accept that this may well be something that is supposed to be “of the era” that the film is set in. The same could be said for the sheer amount of talk about race and racism that this film delves into. Undoubtedly this was a time of major change in American and world history when it came to slavery and its abolition, but I found myself unsure if this was meant to be something that Tarantino was trying to make a point about, or if it was more of a reason for him to allow himself more leeway with the language of racial prejudice that his films normally play with. Either way, both of these elements regularly pulled me out of the flow of the movie to make me reassess how I felt about them, which may well be the point!
So, to sum up I would say that this film has many, many plus points, but for me they were somewhat crushed under the sheer length of the film and its regularly dubious politics. With some judicious editing this could have been Tarantino’s crowning glory, as it stands it is a reminder of why the film-going public love his work so much, but also how easy it is to have too much of a good thing.
Two Moons out of Five. A bit of a disappointment.