For even some of his most avid fans, THE HATEFUL EIGHT, felt like a bridge too far for Quentin Tarantino. And I have to agree up to a point, as the film is certainly overlong, and a truly indulgent homage to Italian Spaghetti westerns of the late 60’s and early 70’s. No writer and director working today has a more devoted fan base than Tarantino, one he has earned fairly, starting with RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION, the latter being the single most influential film of the 90’s, and for many film buffs, the equivalent of a rock show. His subsequent films, with the possible exception of JACKIE BROWN (an Elmore Leonard adaptation), have been greeted with adulation by his ever increasing fan base, captivated by Tarantino’s ability to steal from the best of grindhouse cinema, be it Italian or Japanese or Hong Kong or low budget Hollywood, and make it something uniquely his own, with amble helpings of violence and profanity. I count myself as a big fan, more than happy revisit his bad asses, vengeful Mommas, psychos, and just plain no accounts time and again. Nobody can write dialogue better, and absolutely nobody can stage a big set piece showdown better than Tarantino. But THE HATEFUL EIGHT really begs the question, is too much of a good thing really wonderful.
The plot is a mashup of a paperback western and Agatha Christie, as it most of the action takes place on a stagecoach traveling the Wyoming countryside, and at a way station called Minnie’s Haberdashery, in fact, almost all the action takes place at the latter during a furious snow storm. The film opens with a stagecoach carrying Kurt Russell and Jennifer Jason Leigh, he plays the lawman, John Ruth, and she is his prisoner, Daisy Domergue, a vicious gang leader Ruth is taking to town of Red Rock to hang. On the way they pick up two strangers, Major Marquis Warren, played by Samuel L. Jackson, a bounty hunter who brings them in dead rather than alive, and Walton Goggins, as Chris Mannix, a Confederate veteran, who claims to be on his way to Red Rock to be the new sheriff. The weather turns bad and the stage is forced to ride it out at Minnie’s, where they find four strangers in charge, played by Tim Roth, Bruce Dern, Michael Madsen, and Damien Bicher, all of whom, may or may not be who they claim to be. None of them really trust each other, as Ruth suspects that some of Daisy’s gang are going to try and free her, while Northern veteran Warren is wary of Southerners Mannix and and Dern’s General Smithers. Tensions simmer and boil, and the bad side of everyone comes out, and all the characters get a chance to prove just how “hateful” they truly are before they meet their end.
The first instance of Tarantino being indulgent comes in the opening sequence on the stage, which runs nearly a half hour, where introductions are made as the characters, talk, and talk, and talk, and lots and lots and lots of exposition heavy dialogue is exchanged. Even if a lot of it is delivered in great Southern accents by Russell and Goggins, it plays incredibly slow, especially on a second viewing. Even worse is the pause in the middle of the film, which tells its story in “chapters,” where we hit reverse, and it is revealed what happened before the stage arrived, including a bunch of gruesome killings, the introduction of a totally new character, and way more exposition. Nothing is left to the viewer to figure out; everything is foreshadowed to death, and at three hours and change running time, that’s a lot of explaining. And a lot of excess, especially when it comes to the nihilism at the dark center of this story, where everyone lives down to their worst aspects, as at the end, when the racist former Confederate, Mannix, and the black former Union officer, Warren, unite in the their mutual hatred of Daisy Domergue to string her up by a rope, and calmly watch her choke to death, even as they breathe their last. There is always a dark heart at the center of Tarnatino’s films, where even those we root for are sadists who show no mercy, where any and all moral codes are utterly ignored, where vengeance is a religion. But in HATEFUL EIGHT, it is taken so far that even heretofore avid Tarantino supporters like myself, question whether he has not only gone to the well once too often, but dug this particular well way too deep to start with.
Still, speaking strictly as a cinephile, my admiration for Tarantino knows no bounds, for no director working today knows what he wants better, and gets it all right up there on the movie screen. I love how he shot in 70 MM, creating wide vistas even while keeping the action indoors, letting some of the protagonists take center stage in some scenes, reducing others to be merely extras. Nobody sets a mood better, and HATEFUL EIGHT hits the right note in the opening credit sequence set to Ennio Moriconne’s magnificent Oscar winning score, which is more suitable for a horror film than a western, and right off the bat begins to build tension. This is great visual storytelling without uttering a word, and if I complained about too much dialogue, that doesn’t mean it is not worth listening to, as most of the protagonists are revealed to be liars who can’t be trusted, or as in the case of Major Marquis Warren, a very unreliable narrator – see his story about the Lincoln letter or his tale to General Smithers about the fate of the General’s son. There are the little ways characters are revealed, as when Roth’s Mobray drops his proper British accent when he is shot, and reverts to a cockney one. Tarantino has built himself something of a stock company, which now must include Jennifer Jason Leigh, who gives a fearless performance as Daisy, a hate filled bitch, who in the course of the film, is punched in the face, and then has blood, brains and puke splattered across it. Tarantino’s choice of music to punctuate the story is still spot on, here using the long forgotten Roy Orbison tune, “There Won’t be Many Coming Home” perfectly. Even in this overlong movie, the actors clearly got in rhythm with each other, even those like Dern, whose taciturn charater has less to say when compared with the others. I do admire the way Tarantino does not bow to his SJW critics; he makes sure his characters talk as hateful as they act, and how he doesn’t make Jackson’s character, the lone black among a bunch Reconstruction Era whites, into some kind of heroic avenger, he may not be the worst among this eight, but not by much.
And best of all, I enjoy the homage to (or theft from) great film makers of the past; in THE HATEFUL EIGHT we see the clear influence of John Ford’s STAGECOACH, Budd Boetticher’s THE TALL T, and Sergio Corbucci’s THE BIG SILENCE. I wonder if I am the only one who thought the name of the character Jackson plays was a shout to Charles Marquis Warren, the ubiquitous producer of many a TV western, such as RAWHIDE, from back in the day.