The Hateful Eight – Quentin Tarantino (2015)

I was so excited when I heard that Quentin Tarantino was making his first Western. Now, Tarantino is not one of my favorite directors by a long shot – in fact, he has yet to make anything close to a great film. He has always been a very facile director, and never fails to entertain; what sets him apart from other directors is that he thinks cinematically, and makes use of a wide variety of cinema’s formal devices to aid in the task of entertaining us. Noted for his distinctive voice and his ability to write gobs of dialogue that snap and pull us along, Tarantino has, all the same, failed to apply that voice to the task of saying something. His films are about little more than the experience of watching films; at least until recently. While I am in the distinct minority that finds Deathproof to be his best work, a vehicle where he finally unleashed all his energy as a purely genre filmmaker, generating little more than 90 minutes of adrenaline, it is nonetheless true that Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained both were exceptionally good films, and marked a turning point for him in terms of narrative concern. Both of those films took as their subject a certain historical revisionism, but one that revised history by way of playing with and detourning the tropes of past films which were themselves already revisions of historical “fact.” I found Inglourious Basterds exceptional in the parts where Tarantino departed most from being Tarantino, where we almost forgot we were watching a postmodern pastiche and instead slipped into a kind of serious art film about World War II (the parts with Christoph Waltz, that is, and not the idiotic stuff like the intrusive ’70s exploitation freeze frame on Eli Roth swinging a baseball bat). “If only Tarantino would ditch his shtick and make a straightforward, serious historical film,” said I. Well, Django was resolutely not such a film, but it was an incredible one nonetheless, containing some of the most perverse and jarring questioning of racist representations, and their presence at the core of our national self-conception, that any director has posed. It was also very funny and rousing, giving us a black hero who finally begins to revenge himself on the stupidity of past screen representations; Tarantino deconstructs our own expectations, almost making fun of us, while also entertaining us. Given that upward trajectory, I was quite hopeful that The Hateful Eight would be more along those lines, a take on the Western genre that both satisfied as a genre film while also having something to say about how those films relate to our still unquenchable thirst for manifest destiny, male desire, etc etc. Instead, Tarantino gives us a three hour “Agatha Christie” Western. Why has nobody thought of such a hybrid before? Perhaps the answer is self-evident. I must give Tarantino credit for such a radical conception, as it assuredly fits the formal mold of his more recent efforts. If only it were any good…

Okay, maybe that was a bit low. It is good enough, in the sense that all his films are good enough – it is entertaining. Mostly. Along with Kill Bill: Vol. 2, though, it is the most leaden and boring of Tarantino’s output. The plot is a kind of Ten Little Indians without any suspense or “mystery.” Eight scummy Western varmints find themselves trapped together in a small mountain cabin during a blizzard. There is John Ruth (Kurt Russell), a bounty hunter noted for bringing his captives in alive, so the hangman can get his due, and his captive, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a feral woman who, we eventually learn, is leader of a nasty gang of thugs. There is Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), also a bounty hunter, and a former Union officer, who begins the film by hitching a ride with Ruth in his private stagecoach. There is Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), newly elected sheriff of the town of Red Rock, purported destination of all involved, and a former Confederate soldier, who also hitches a ride with Ruth. At the cabin (really a store – Minnie’s Haberdashery), we meet Bob (Demian Bichir), a strange Mexican with little to say about his past; Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), an English hangman, headed to Red Rock to start work; Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a lone wolf cowpoke; and General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a Confederate officer who doesn’t like people yelling in his ear while he sits under a blanket. Is that eight? I hope so. Well, once everyone is all snuggled up together, we get treated to a long session of Ruth making the circuit of the cabin, asking everyone about their origins, and then the characters hash over the veracity of said origins, in a style that feels like Tarantino channeling Encyclopedia Brown. Everyone is not who they say they are – imagine that! What is the mystery afoot? Basically, who will get their head blown off, or their testicles shot through, and when. Told in chapters, the film jumps back and forth somewhat in time, building “tension” through withholding information that, if presented chronologically, would make for a straightforward tale of treachery and revenge. It would still be a tale which we have little stake in, but at least it would dispense with the pretension that there is some puzzle to be solved. Even though we have copious backstory on each character, we don’t care about their fate, as they aren’t real to us; only Samuel L. Jackson succeeds in making his character (really the main one) sympathetic, to the point that we do care about his fate. I dare not say much more about the course the film takes, as it would “spoil” it, but there is very little to this movie – after you’ve seen it once, I can’t see the need to revisit it. Does it have any relationship to the Western as a genre? Barely. The tone is of a piece with Django, a kind of unconcealed glee at the nastiness of its subject matter, but in Django, the subject was a revenge rightfully deserved, and it implicated the audience in a very intelligent way. The Hateful Eight is grim, nihilistic, borderline misogynist, and, in the end, dreary. There are good performances – Walton Goggins is a standout alongside Jackson – and a few intelligent points about race, but you leave the theater wondering what the necessity of any of it was, the mood souring the longer you dwell on the ending. Even the original score by Morricone is uninspired and quite conventional. I must admit, I didn’t see it in 70mm, which might have at least provided some further diversion during the tedious middle 45 minutes, but really, why Tarantino pulled out those stops for this picture is the real mystery.

Two stars out of five

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