Quentin Tarantino has always worn his passions on his sleeve. From Westerns to kung fu movies and blacksploitation, his reference points are invites to the viewer to make note of his homages and the ways he employs them to suit his oft-imitated style. The ultraviolent elements and frequent use of the N word have never been controversy free, but even at his most blatant in films like Django Unchained, there remained a clear element of structure and consistency in tone that carried the story through. It also helps that Tarantino is an immensely talented craftsman, one who loves and has studied the medium with a gleeful eye. The Hateful Eight contains many of those stunning displays of skill, and it’s those bright moments that serve to highlight just what a letdown the entire film is.
Set in post-civil war era Wyoming, The Hateful Eight pits a group of amoral criminals against some equally ruthless lawmen in a snowbound cabin as they wait for the blizzard to die down. There’s bounty hunter and war of the confederacy Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson), introduced to us in the first half hour before the Haberdashery Showdown as he becomes the travelling companion to his colleague in the field, John ‘the Hangman’ Ruth (Kurt Russell), who himself is transporting wanted criminal Daisy Domergue to Red Rock to be hanged. They’re soon joined by outlaw turned sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), and find themselves reluctant lodgers with a ragtag group of mysterious men, including Tim Roth, Demian Bichir, Michael Madsen and Bruce Dern. With the party containing a mixture of North and South, confederates and former slaves, and without a speck of ethics in the room, sparks are bound to fly.
Tarantino has always been a film-maker willing to indulge his creative desires, regardless of industry trends and changes in audience tastes. It’s what separates him from the film-school kids who dream of being Tarantino. Filming in 70mm when the story is almost entirely set in one room is audacious and something you can really only get away when you’ve proven time and time again that you’ve earned the right to do so. To the film’s credit, there are some truly beautiful moments. The opening credits appear to the backdrop of a snowy landscape, accompanied by a beautiful Ennio Morricone score, and you find yourself enraptured. They don’t open movies like that anymore.
It’s just a shame there’s no story to match it.
Let’s get it out of the way – this film should not be 3 hours long. There are several scenes throughout that serve no purpose beyond reminding you the film was shot on 70mm, and they simply drag out an already thinly stretched plot further. Tarantino has never been one to adhere to tight plotting, but he balanced that out with real tension and political verve. In this instance, the stagey conversations about war, violence and justice feel painfully superficial and unsatisfying. There’s no moment of nerve shredding equivalent to the bar scene in Inglourious Basterds or even the dinner at the plantation in Django Unchained. For me, this was the first time I truly felt as though Tarantino had entirely stumbled with the tone. There are parts where conversations get tense, the beautiful music kicks in and you swear something big is going to happen, but nothing does. Then those conversations take what you assume is meant to be a sinister or shocking turn, but you can’t help but roll your eyes.
And then there’s the violence.
This isn’t Tarantino’s most violent – that’s Django Unchained – but this is certainly the ugliest. The shootings and blown off faces feel aimless and completely unrooted in any particular style or morality. A story about an ensemble of entirely terrible people isn’t a terrible idea – indeed, it presents many intriguing opportunities – but here everything is skin deep. Brutality happens simply because it can. It’s boring. It’s also hard to watch the sole woman in the story – played with relish by Jennifer Jason Leigh – be hit repeatedly in the face, lose a couple teeth and be reduced to the ‘bitch’ punching bag. Daisy is not a good person, yet when the equally villainous men in the story are attacked, those moments aren’t framed as funny. Nobody giggle or cheers on any of the dudes being punched. Her punishment never seems earned – she’s racist and giddy in her lack of moral compass, yet she doesn’t do anything that matches her male counterparts in terms of provocation.
Tarantino has defended his use of the N word as being reliant on context, and that can be justified in many of his films, notably Django Unchained, but even for a film set after the Civil War and populated by confederates, its overuse here feels notably egregious. Every 4th or 5th word seems to be the N word, and literally every character says it. I’m sure many will defend this with cries of “but they’re all bad people”, but if this is one of your defining characteristics to remind your audience that a character is bad, perhaps you need to redraft.
The Hateful Eight is intricately crafted in terms of visuals and music, and has a top notch cast doing some stellar work (notably Goggins, Leigh and Jackson), but ultimately it feels like you’re being yelled at by someone who’s not as smart as they think they are. It’s goading you into offended while presenting itself as a future masterpiece. In reality, it’s shockingly lazy and boring. There’s no structure, no wit, no framework or reason behind its never-ending brutality or aggravations. I came for civil war Agatha Christie showdowns: What I got was South Park with added pretentions and without the laughs.