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The Hateful Eight
by Jordan Canahai
Among the weekly rush to review the latest releases before their weekend openings, critics are often put in the difficult position of having to articulate their feelings on films based only on our initial impressions. This limitation generally doesn’t matter too much when dealing with the standard entertainments that Hollywood churns out week to week, but proves far more problematic when a critic has to wrestle with the few difficult works that leaves one feeling decidedly undecided. I’ve had some time now to make sense of my mixed feelings towards writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, one of the hyper- violent, exquisitely crafted, and bloated westerns currently in theaters (the other being Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s The Revenant) and after much thought and multiple viewings, it pains this longtime Tarantino fan to say it stands as his weakest feature to date.
Playing like an odd, not entirely successful combination of Tarantino’s debut crime drama Reservoir Dogs and his previous western Django Unchained, the director’s eighth feature opens amid a harsh winter in post-Civil War Wyoming as a black Union veteran-turned-bounty hunter (Samuel L. Jackson) encounters and proceeds to request a ride in the stagecoach of fellow bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell). Ruth is traveling to the town of Red Rock where his fugitive prisoner (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is set to be executed. The group winds up taking shelter from the blizzard in a mountain pass stopover populated by an assortment of mysterious travelers (played by character actors Michael Madsen, Tim Roth, Bruce Dern, and Walter Coggins, among others.) All the discourse and dismemberment that one would expect from a Tarantino picture follows in equal measure as the various gunslinger’s conflicting loyalties and motives as well as Reconstruction-era racial tensions turn the confined inhabitants against each other.
Checking off the many influences that renowned cinephile Tarantino frequently alludes to throughout his films is standard course, and on paper The Hateful Eight seems to be the director’s most overt homage to the legendary westerns of Sergio Leone (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) and Howard Hawkes (Rio Bravo). More surprising to note, however, is the influence of John Carpenter’s claustrophobic horror masterpiece The Thing, whose confined wintry setting, bloody set pieces, paranoia-fueled narrative, and central performance from Kurt Russell The Hateful Eight also shares. As with his World War II film Inglorious Basterds and the previously mentioned Django, The Hateful Eight finds Tarantino once again recontextualizing the trademarks which defined much of his early work towards addressing real historical subject matter. Unfortunately, were his mashing-up of seemingly disparate movie genres, marriage of high and low culture signifiers, over-the-top violence, profanity-laden dialogue, and casual treatment of racism and misogyny felt fresh and exciting once, here they come off feeling forced and tired throughout much of film’s overlong 167 minute runtime (187 for those viewing the film in Tarantino’s preferred 70mm Roadshow version). In particular, an extended monologue delivered by Jackson’s character at the film’s midpoint struck me as more desperate than shocking. I was also put off by Tarantino’s harsh treatment of Leigh’s character, especially in light of how much I’ve enjoyed his work with actresses previously (as in Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, and the underrated Death Proof).
That said, The Hateful Eight isn’t a film without its virtues. Masterful composer Ennio Morricone’s original score is phenomenal, perfectly conveying a tone of dark, driving menace that lends extraordinary power to Tarantino’s suspense sequences. Cinematographer Robert Richardson’s widescreen compositions beautifully capture both the unforgiving Wyoming wilderness and the stagecoach stopover interiors. The cast, comprised mostly of character actors, is also uniformly strong. Particularly impressive is Kurt Russell as the film’s moral center, providing a more hardened, mature variation of his knowingly sly John Wayne-inspired persona familiar to those who rightfully love him in Big Trouble in Little China. Despite all that, The Hateful Eight frankly remains a disappointingly boring, one-note exercise in style over substance. Tarantino’s usually fantastic pop-savvy dialogue falls flat here, containing not a single quotable line, and the film’s various plot twists offer little emotional payoff and mere “A-ha” moments of satisfaction instead. While The Hateful Eight may not be an outright failure, it’s definitely a disappointment coming from one of our most consistently reliable filmmakers.
Watch the trailer for The Hateful Eight
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