Over the years it’s been incredible to watch legends and fables from the North American frontier play out on the big screen. With every passing age, we find more and more complexed and intricate stories to dig into. We begin to find virtue in the vice: there were killers with a conscience, and beauties with hearts of stone.
However at the end of it all, we are usually telling the same story over and over.
So what happens when a wordsmith like Quentin Tarantino tries his hand at things?
Our story begins when Major Marquis “The Bounty Hunter” Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) intercepts a stagecoach on its way to Red Rock, Wyoming. Looking to catch a ride, Warren appeals to the good nature of its driver O.B. Jackson (Michael Parks) and its passenger, John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell). After some convincing, Ruth decides to allow Warren along, and introduces him to his travelling companion Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
Domergue is a criminal with a $10,000 bounty on her head. Ruth is bringing her to Red Rock to collect the reward and see her hanged. Several miles up the road, another passenger is taken on in the way of Chris “The Sheriff” Mannix (Walton Goggins). Both Ruth and Warren are leery of him, however after some convincing – and a minor post-Civil War argument or two, the group are back on their way.
However, a blizzard is right on the heels of the five travellers, forcing the stage to stop for a few nights before it reaches Red Rock. The foursome finds themselves pulling into Minnie’s Haberdashery…though curiously, Minnie isn’t about.
In her stead is a Mexican named Bob (Demián Bichir), claiming that Minnie has gone away for a short while and that he has been left to mind the shop. Keeping warm inside of the cottage are three other misfits:
An Englishman named Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), saying he’s the Red Rock hangman.
A cowboy named Joe Gage (Michael Masden), claiming to be on his way to his family’s for Christmas.
Finally, a weary old man named Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), a Confederate general who has paid for board in the cottage.
Suspicious of all the strangers gathered around him, Ruth spells out just what his intentions are with Domergue and disarms the four strangers before him. But this is the wild west, where greed is backed by the way of the gun. Just how long can we expect one criminal, two bounty hunters (one of them black), and two Civil War veterans to play nice in one cabin while a blizzard rages outside?
As it trundles along, THE HATEFUL EIGHT seems nice enough. In the background, a gorgeous Ennio Moricone score comes and goes, and now and then one of the characters says something clever. Sporadically, we get a neat moment between two characters, and from time-to-time one of them says something witty. By-and-large though, this movie is three hours spent in close spaces with a bunch of crusty strangers…much of it unmemorable. There are no white hats, no black hats. We have no hero to cheer for, no villain to fear. Everybody inside of that cabin seems like they somehow deserve to be in that purgatory, leaving us nobody to truly identify with in the epidemic of cabin fever that unfolds.
With such things missing, the overall experience of THE HATEFUL EIGHT is one that leaves the audience with very little impression to take with them.
It’s almost impossible to talk about this film and not bring up its use of 70mm film. By employing the tool, Tarantino was trying to underline what film as a medium is turning into as it moves into the digital age. He wanted to show the subtle artistry that we are leaving behind as we abandon the format, and likewise its presentation. However, in taking up this mantle, Tarantino forgot about something – he forgot to build a story that would really show-off the technology. He got so caught up in the medium, he forgot about the message. In the moments when the stagecoach winds across the snowy plains, what we see is nothing short of breathtaking. The tonal quality of the image, the range from light-to-dark that it can capture, the detail in those lights and darks…all splendid.
But for ninety to ninety-five percent of this movie, we are inside a stagecoach or a cottage. Besides being able to see the fingerprints on John Ruth’s spectacles, there is no moment where one might think to oneself “Golly, I wish Hollywood made more films in 70mm…”. There might have been a way to make everything old new again where large format film is concerned, but it isn’t watching nine people sit in a cottage and mutter to each-other.
That’s the larger problem with THE HATEFUL EIGHT; there’s precious little story, and a great disrespect for the western as a genre.
Tarantino has made his name by creating colourful characters: Mia Wallace, Lt. Aldo Raine, Calvin Candie, Hans Landa, Mister White, Beatrix Kiddo…and that’s just for starters. These are personas you can close your eyes and envision, and every one of them were given lines and dialogue that can instantly bring you back into the world they inhabit when you hear them spoken aloud. Nobody in THE HATEFUL EIGHT will have their number hanging from the rafters alongside those QT all-stars. Nothing from this movie will be quoted by nerdy film students in the years to come. Much of it seems to have been created with a want for that sort of legacy, but that’s just the problem – an artist can’t try to make something iconic, it just has to happen naturally to that which an artist creates.
The western is a genre almost as old as cinema itself. It has aged curiously; creating legends that seem quaint at best and flat-out offensive at worst. At its core it is also one of the simplest of genres; an inciting incident leads a a very long and very slow build to one flash point of a resolution, and then things wrap-up quick. THE HATEFUL EIGHT abandons that structure, but doesn’t put anything inventive in its place. There is no mystery about what’s happening in Minnie’s Haberdashery, no tension over who will walk out in the morning. What there is is a lot of hateful speak, woman-beating, ultra-violence, caricatures, and hyper-violence. It doesn’t adhere to the rules of the genre, and doesn’t bend the genre in new ways.
It wastes the set-up the same way it wastes the technology, and eight features into Tarantino’s career, that’s just not acceptable.