The Hateful Eight
(SPOILERS) Just when you thought Quentin Tarantino couldn’t get any more self-indulgent, he only goes and outdoes himself. Maybe even Harvey Weinstein (not for nothing monickered Harvey Scissorhands) will think twice about leaving him be and meeting his every whim in future, given the box office disappointment of The Hateful Eight, its accompanying Ultra Panavision fanfare and bloated running time. As with most of his 21st century fare (barring the execrable Death Proof), there’s a great movie to be found in his latest, but it desperately needed someone to tell him “No”, both in terms of the over-extended screenplay and the stylistic and performance choices. The wundergeek is in no danger of coming close to Pulp Fiction’s abiding classic status any time soon.
Probably the best fit for the director’s cine-geekdom of late was Inglourious Basterds, in that it was a virtual compendium of cartoonishly goofy/ cool pose-striking in highly self-aware mode, right down to that “Let’s kill Hitler” ending. Its pretentions at saying anything – as much as Tarantino every really “says” anything – came in a movie-conscious revenge wrapper. Generally, though, the more his adherents vouch for Tarantino as the engineer of depth beneath his pictures’ seductive surfaces, the less I’m inclined to buy into them.
The Hateful Eight at least comes with a historically literate background to its post-American Civil War milieu, versed in its motivations, divisions and repercussions. In part, what the movie’s “about” is right there in the title; hate, be that hate identified through political, racial or misogynistic inclinations. And, as you’d expect from the Oscar-winning screenwriter, Tarantino weaves a series of masterful little, and some not so little, vignettes and scenes to illustrate his point.
But he’s simultaneously become an enormous windbag, loving the sound of his voice so much (was there any doubt; he still loves to put himself in his movies, despite a million voices crying out in terror and not being suddenly silenced) that he has no discipline or economy of word and action. More cripplingly – and this is where I tend to disagree most with his advocates – he continues to indulge in flagrant shock tactics at the expense of a unified whole, be it the studious use of the n-word, a preposterous penchant for ultra-violence or just plain waving his dingus about. Proponents will say such devices are there to make you think, and questioning their use highlights your own preconceptions. I’d counter that the majority of them merely represent the same juvenilia he’s been preoccupied with from the start of his career but, as he becomes ever-more feted and respected, the dissonance between these ever-present cheap shots and his designs on commentary becomes more acute.
The good, then. Samuel L Jackson is great, and it’s at least gratifying that Tarantino can remind you why there was such rapture about him initially (this is a particularly necessary enema, as I last witnessed him wilting the virtual sets in the Star Wars prequels). Kurt Russell is likewise a delight; such a master of delivery that, when he’s given material this delicious, you could watch and listen to him all day (making it a shame he exits at the point he does).
Walter Goggins is as weasily charming as usual, essaying a slippery character who appears to be whatever anybody wants him to be at any given moment, blowing in the wind. It’s a pleasure to see him used as well on the big screen as he has been on the small (the line "Are y'all having a bounty hunter's picnic?" is an instant classic). Bruce Dern is as fantastic as ever, and at 80 he’s still buzzing with that wiry eccentricity he always was. Demiàn Bichir, who I’m not so familiar with, is very funny, a marvellous addition to the Tarantino rep company. Jennifer Jason Leigh is likewise hilarious, while carrying a genuinely unnerving edge in her scenes; I was a huge fan of her back in the early to mid ‘90s (her Dorothy Parker and Amy Archer in The Hudsucker Proxy are must-sees) but I seem to have missed much of her more recent work.
The original Ennio Morricone score is also a joy, what there is of it (he composed 25 minutes of original music, although some report it was 50), jumping right back into the western genre like a duck to water after more than 30 years’ absence. The opening chapters of the film are spellbinding, before the arrival at Minnie’s Haberdashery (even if the grandstanding Leone wannabe opening shot is exactly that, lacking the master’s instinctive facility for the operatic), as the snow-bound stagecoach carrying Russell’s John Ruth and Leigh’s Daisy Domergue picks up first Major Marquis Warren (Jackson) and then “Sheriff” Chris Mannix (Goggins), all en route for Red Rock.
And the scene setting in the Haberdashery is intriguing too, Tarantino enjoying positioning his players, right up to the expertly teased-out poisoned coffee set piece. But this is also where you start to feel the gears shifting, rather than enjoying the smooth ride. He’s put himself in a highly theatrical arena here, and the switches between conversation starters become too apparent, other characters sitting or standing around passively on the side-lines, waiting for their cues to re-enter the proceedings. He’s got so many toys to play with, he’s a bit overwhelmed, and can only juggle so much at once.
This means you question the actions of the Domingray gang, and their strategy, in retrospect, because it feels like, having the advantage, they pull their punches somewhat. Which is partly because Tarantino’s all about the instant impact; finessing a whodunit isn’t really his strong suit (which is why Warren playing Poirot isn’t nearly as intricate as it sounds).
A couple of sequences stand out in terms of the film’s intended themes. The revelation that the Lincoln Letter is a fake, one Ruth swallowed hook, line and sinker, undermining and humiliating him in front of an entire group and leading him to lash out with the same racial epithets he appeared to have progressed beyond, is one such. How much this is evidences Ruth’s innate racism and how much it’s simply his capacity for attacking anything that threatens his sense of order, control and self-regard is up for debate. Certainly, Ruth’s attitude to Daisy is not dissimilar. When she undermines him, he beats her, but at other times he shows unlikely consideration, pouring her drinks and wiping food from the side of her mouth (and, when she attempts to tame the beast through a sing-song, he smashes the guitar in fit of temper).
For Warren’s part, a consummate liar and devious provocateur despite being our nominal protagonist, his letter – which he explains is his passport in a racist land – is met with instant disbelief by Mannix, which rather raises the question of how many people would actually believe it was real (while Ruth is right to be paranoid about those in the haberdashery, he’s also clearly far from the smartest guy in the room). It’s a nice touch that, on reading it, both Ruth and Mannix are taken by the mention of Mary Todd calling the President to bed; there’s a ticklish self-congratulatory quality of Tarantino taking pride in his own genius, both from someone who thinks his writing means something (Ruth) and someone who just admires the verbiage (Mannix).
The hanging of Daisy is also an interesting sequence, as Tarantino clearly doesn’t intend Mannix and Warren ghoulishly meting out “frontier justice” (as Roth’s English Pete calls it, objecting to the practice, in a florid discourse while posing as Red Rock’s hangman Mowbray) to be something for the audience to get behind. Aside from Ruth – and he was trying to kill her at the time – we don’t actually see Daisy’s much talked about Machiavellian skills, so she hasn’t altogether provoked a feeling that she deserves it, even leaving aside the off-putting glee taken by her two self-prescribed hangmen. The director’s point – a nihilistic one, and hardly meriting three hours to get there, but a point nonetheless – appears to be that even these two polarised men can set aside their racial differences to “hang the bitch”; there’s a greater enemy, hate spawns hate, with only that preeminent hatred bringing a divided people together (governments know this well of course, hence the continued popularity of war).
Like most of Tarantino’s thematic content or commentary, in The Hateful Eight these elements are either over-foregrounded or get lost amidst his fascination with making movie-movies. Much as I love Morricone, I found the over referencing of The Thing in this picture incredibly irksome, detracting from the overall experience. Tarantino clearly can’t see the line where an homage begins to invasively corrupt the viewing experience. Not only do we get repeated use of Morricone’s score from that movie, but we have its star, Kurt Russell, the isolated, snowed-in setting, guide ropes established to clamber through the blizzard, rampant paranoia, and even an end-of-the-world scene (in which the last men on earth are now despicable racists and cackling killers). A couple of nods would be fine, but it becomes overbearing – maybe not to the extent of Neill Marshall’s Doomsday and Mad Max 2, but this is definitely the guy who decided it would be a good idea to make a Grindhouse double bill.
This not knowing when to rein things in for the benefit of the overall narrative is evident elsewhere too. Tarantino’s always had a problem grandstanding, and it’s not going away any time soon. The cock-sucking scene (or dingus-gobbling) has attracted a lot of attention as a piece of classic Tarantino, but I found it tiresomely obvious. This is very much the same guy who hasn’t moved on from the “fuck machine” monologue in Reservoir Dogs (much celebrated, but probably my least favourite bit of the movie, although Quentin delivering it was probably part a big part of that). It’s evidence of a filmmaker incapable of maturing, playing to the crowd, ever-enamoured all things puerile. That scene could have really worked if Warren had cleverly roused the ire of General Smithers (Dern) rather than brandishing the first, most obvious, lowest common denominator, idea that came into the writer’s head (he even crows about his "inventiveness" in the narration "captivating the crowds with tales of black dicks in white mouths"; of course he does).
It’s the same with the exploding heads; this the perpetual 14-year-old Tarantino who thinks that kind of thing is really cool. It wouldn’t matter if this were a Robert Rodriguez movie, as he doesn’t know any better, but so many moments in The Hateful Eight are really good, it’s frustrating that he continually undercuts himself. I was rather lost prior to this, to be honest, at the copious vomiting of blood; Tarantino was apparently inspired by the pie-eating contest in Stand by Me, and succeeds in taking his audience out of the picture, having so completely caught them in his web. In so doing he highlights how inferior this is to its idol The Thing, where the perma-oppressiveness was never broken for a minute; of course, others would argue it’s the intention to take you out of it. Hence the Quentin voiceover.
Ah yes, the nigh-on superfluous flashback. “No, it was essential”, comes the rebuke. Sure, it shows an unlikely state of Old West multi-cultural bliss broken by the intrusion of the Domingray gang, but it illlustrates nothing that couldn’t be achieved in 90 seconds (just ask Edgar Wright). Disrupting the narrative in the way the sequence does, at a crucial point, would only work if what followed was just as engrossing, if we forgot all about the current altercation, but it isn’t; we know what happens and, aside from enabling Tarantino to lazily position a hidden gun (of which, I was sure the dumping in the dunny would lead to a reveal that someone had assembled a firearm from the shitty pieces residing within; that at least would have been impressive crudity), it tests the patience.
Earlier, as soon as his chatty, over-familiar summary of the story so far intrudes on us, despite our minding our own business and deserving at least to be rewarded with a non-show by the director flourishing his acting hat, there’s a sinking feeling. Of acting hats, perhaps he continues to cast Zoë Bell - a stuntwoman of note, no doubt - as a talisman to ward off claims he’s the worst performer in his movies; she unfortunately stinks out the haberdashery, inadvisably doing an excruciatingly perky Calamity Jane routine. As complaints go, I wasn’t overly impressed with Tarantino’s use of slow-motion preceding the flashback either, but Channing Tatum at least proved surprisingly decent as Jody Domingray.
Of the other actors, Roth and Madsen are back, celebrating nearly 25 years with their wunder-auteur, but neither are all that venerable. Madsen’s Joe Gage is a bit of non-role, with a memorable bit about visiting his mother but otherwise merely glowering the way Madsen is want to do. Roth, well English Pete is something of a nonsense of a character (how smart is he supposed to be with his erudite discourses, and why does he even affect the silly accent?) I’m not sure it really works to have Roth showing off this way, doing a turn of a character doing a turn doesn’t excuse it being a bit crap. Better just to have got Tim Curry in.
Yet, for all that there’s much to find fault with here, there’s even more to enjoy. The Hateful Eight is often very funny (the repeated gag with the door, Daisy being punched out of the stagecoach and taking Ruth with her, James Parks’ frozen O.B. grabbing the biggest fur he can find and curling up in front of the fire). Even bloated and indulgent Tarantino is entertaining Tarantino and, aside from the flashback sequence, I was never tempted to look at my watch. If his transitions are sometimes patchy, pretty much each new verbal confrontation is captivating. That touch is natural to him, the source of all his power, so he doesn’t really need the kryptonite of nerd-referencing and attempting to impress the real alpha-males that he’s cool. It’s a bit late for that now, in your sixth decade. In the end, his latest is, like his last few, too splattery and trivial, too scattershot and invested in the coolness of itself, to resonate. It’s just another Tarantino movie, basically. The eighth one.