Review: The Hateful Eight (2015)

“The 8th film by Quentin Tarantino.” This is emblazoned all over the promotional material for The Hateful Eight; it’s even in the title card of the film. It’s a showy proclamation that feels a tad pompous, and such a feeling is evoked in the experience of watching the film. Is that good? Debatable. Spoilers to follow.

Tarantino’s branding of his film either rejuvenates fans who have been hibernating since Django Unchained, or causes naysayers to groan at such a self-reflexive – and kind of pretentious – observation. Because he does make films filled with self-importance.  It’s obvious in his scripts, which are generally unapologetically pompous. He’s so in-your-face about being offensive in an effort to make a point. Luckily for us, he does actually have things to say by the end of his movies, even if it takes a while for us to get there. And that much is very clear about The Hateful Eight.

Running for 167 minutes when I saw it (there’s apparently a 187-minute cut of the film out there), the film is split into six chapters, told chronologically. It’s, in spirit, a rather straightforward whodunnit, with a variety of Tarantino-style twists and gore to really get audience members squirming in their seats.

From the moment the first trailer for The Hateful Eight dropped, I had a sneaky suspicion it would be quite like Reservoir Dogs. Some clues for this include the film’s largely male cast and its relatively contained setting. It’s almost like a chamber piece, or a series of very long, drawn-out ones stitched together to make a feature. Immediately, this is somewhat of a disadvantage to Tarantino. Somewhere along the line after Inglourious Basterds – his first truly “historical” film – Tarantino’s directing style slowed down immensely. Maybe it’s the ever-present void left by master editor and collaborator Sally Menke, but his films simply aren’t as punchy as they used to be. Tarantino’s always made long movies, but they’ve never felt as self-indulgent and excessive as The Hateful Eight does.

This isn’t even because “nothing happens” in the movie. Plenty happens in every scene – you just have to get to the next chapter to finally figure that out. You have to listen very carefully to what every character is saying. However, it also depends on how much roundabout tomfoolery one can take from such a large number of wholly unlikeable characters. What made Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds so much easier to watch was that they had characters that contained Tarantino’s abrasiveness, but were more obviously protagonists. People you could root for.

This isn’t to say that films with unlikeable characters are duds – far from it. They’re interesting because your allegiance jumps to and fro throughout the course of the story, and that certainly happens in The Hateful Eight as well.  But that sort of storytelling combined with scenes that are only bulked up by expletives and epithets gets tiring to watch – especially if it’s your first time viewing the film. The film’s first two chapters feel like such a steep, uphill trek – possibly mirroring O.B.’s feelings as he tries to get that stagecoach to Minnie’s Haberdashery while transporting four very hotheaded passengers. You only realise what’s good and somewhat complex about those scenes much later on. My thinking is there is probably a shorter way to tell this story though. I also can’t help but wonder what it would be like if it was told in a nonlinear fashion instead – which is admittedly what made something like Reservoir Dogs so intriguing.

But then comes the question of whether any of the twists and reveals would be as fulfilling or repulsive without all that setting up. I suppose one is inclined to side with Samuel L. Jackson’s Major Warren for a portion of the film because of the obvious bigotry exhibited by the other characters towards him. Daisy Domergue experiences something similar but because she doesn’t say as much for a lot of the film, she turns out a lot more enigmatic. It barely mattered for me because I personally found them all pretty abhorrent. Warren is later revealed to be a very good liar and fully capable of being extraordinarily cruel anyway. Most of the characters undergo such a turnaround throughout the film, to varying degrees. I think the only ones I remotely liked immediately were Oswaldo Mobray (for Tim Roth’s highly amusing performance) and Joe Gage (for being so OBVIOUSLY SHADY AND UNTRUSTWORTHY), the latter of which didn’t even really change that much after over two hours of story. Oh, and O.B. of course. I felt very sorry for him.

Either way, in the end, when everyone dies, it’s an absolute relief. Nobody from that crop should be allowed their fresh start at Red Rock simply because they’re all so darn hateful. I’m not sure if I would call the film a character study, though. It sort of goes into that territory with its more psychological twists but none of the characters really stand apart from each other; they only work in this ensemble and I don’t necessarily find any of them as iconic as Vincent Vega or Mr. White. I’m not sure that’s an entirely good thing either.

However, I do want to discuss Daisy at some point, perhaps comparing her to other Tarantino women in a different blog post. I’ll just say for now that Jennifer Jason Leigh did a fantastic job portraying every facet of Daisy, but she is one of the most difficult female protagonists in Tarantino’s films to even like, let alone love. She isn’t The Bride with an obvious heroic, familial arc, nor is she any of the ladies in Death Proof who have to be collectively strong in order to defeat the one male evil tormenting them. She is very clearly a villain or an anti-hero of some kind, and definitely inherently a leader. I have to rewatch the film to properly determine this and where I stand with her.

That said, The Hateful Eight is – along with Django Unchained – probably more difficult to constantly revisit, simply because it isn’t very typically humorous for Tarantino. In fact, the historicism attached to the setting and images he chooses to portray in those films in particular add weight to them. Of course he includes certain things like the voiceovers in The Hateful Eight that cut the drama considerably. This could have been done in an attempt to establish its containment as a singular story taking elements of the past and vamping it up to create one of his usual blood fests. Stylistically, I can see how that works.

However, even though the film itself is theoretically interesting, it falls flat in the experience of watching it. It’s okay to bank on an audience’s discomfort levels even to the extent that it feels imprudent, but the problem here is there is little to no pay off. And “pay off” could be good or bad. Sometimes you see films to feel satisfied and whole, and at other times you want to be deeply perturbed by something. It’s never good to feel like you could have done without seeing a movie because it simply doesn’t affect you, especially when it was clearly on a mission to do so. This is the EIGHTH film by Quentin Tarantino, for goodness’ sake! It just sounds important enough to make that happen!

Ultimately, I came away from The Hateful Eight feeling very little except blankly exhausted. It’s far from a bad film, but it’s difficult to love.

★★★

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