Movie review: The Hateful Eight
Quentin Tarantino creates a self-conscious cartoon that puts a bullet through the brain of western myth
The Hateful Eight
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Dern, Damien Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Walton Goggins, James Parks
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Running time: 168 minutes
MPAA Rating: Restricted
By Katherine Monk
Quentin Tarantino is a 52-year-old man, but his movies still feel like something birthed from the imagination of a 14-year-old boy.
Self-conscious, violent and unrepentantly imitative, Tarantino’s work has never been deep or particularly intelligent, but it’s always entertaining — the way a class clown has a talent for amusing his peers by appealing to juvenile sensibilities with fart noises and raunchy jokes in a vulgar bid for popularity.
The Hateful Eight is no different. It’s just longer, and as a result, a little more self-important — for no good reason. A nearly three-hour western set in postbellum Wyoming, this new movie starring Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Dern and Tim Roth even has a 70mm road show version that features an instrumental prelude and an intermission — just like the old days, when movie palaces were the Everyman’s place of worship, and larger-than-life heroes roamed the open plain.
The Hateful Eight seems to be Tarantino’s attempt at recapturing the magic of the golden age, a tip of the Stetson to Hollywood and the implicit moral code of the western itself, where the likes of Henry Fonda would stand up to bad guys with a six-shooter in his hand and a silver star on his leather vest.
You can feel Tarantino crushing on Howard Hawks and George Stevens and John Ford in every frame of this weirdly engaging epic. The characters are big. The horses are real. And the quiet promise of the American Dream is always palpable. But there’s one significant, and perhaps redeeming difference between the old west of yore and this revisionist cartoon.
The traditional western was nothing if not sincere as it pitted good against evil with all the black and white certainty of an Old Testament anecdote. The Hateful Eight is a comic book without a single handsome hero in a spotless white hat. As the title suggests, everyone in this movie is somewhat loathsome and full of hate.
The first person we meet is John Ruth (Kurt Russell), a bounty hunter hoping to cash in on a big reward. Looking like a live version of Yosemite Sam with his walrus moustache and Dr. Zhivago fur hat, John Ruth is taking his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the nearest town where she’s destined to hang.
John Ruth doesn’t trust anyone, so when a lone black man appears on a snow-covered road without a horse, Ruth would rather let him freeze to death than let him on the stagecoach. But this man wears a Union uniform and carries a handwritten letter signed by Abraham Lincoln. Ruth feels the bristle of a close brush with fame, and before long, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) is sitting in the coach alongside Ruth and Domergue as the snowflakes swirl.
At this point, we’re looking for a scene change, a narrative edit that trims the fat and takes us to the next dramatic moment, but it never comes. Instead, we’re introduced to another stranger in the snow: Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a former Rebel soldier who needs a lift, but can’t stop himself from muttering racist remarks when he sees Warren cozied up with Ruth.
The stagecoach scene goes on, and on. And nothing really happens. So when we finally reach Minnie’s cabin — a place where the travellers can rest and relax with a tin cup of coffee — we’re relieved at the change of locale until we realize the whole set looks entirely fake.
It’s almost as if Tarantino rips a page from Henrik Ibsen and throws us into a modernist play populated by cartoon characters in raccoon caps. It’s a strange sensation, and maybe it’s the novelty of it all that tempers the dramatic inertia, because as monotonous as it soon becomes, we’re still inexplicably rapt by the action.
Tarantino creates suspense with little more than fake snow and fake drama, teasing us into submission with the expectation of explosive violence and grotesque gore.
He doesn’t disappoint his fan base, but it takes forever to even sense a climax as the characters are eventually forced into a contrived slice of whodunnit.
For the viewer, these are the most enjoyable scenes because the actors finally get a chance to interact and behave like real people instead of action figures animated by Tarantino’s boyish imagination.
It even looks like they’re having a good time strutting across the fake stage, delivering lines with gleeful abandon and chewing the scenery like so much beef jerky. Jackson and Russell are the ones who look the most comfortable taking exaggerated strides, but Jennifer Jason Leigh wears her prosthetic teeth with a devilish grin, and Tim Roth does what he does best: Looks menacing while remaining impeccably polite.
Dern looks like he’s still dotty and lost in Nebraska, Madsen seems to be wearing Liberace’s hair piece and the highly talented Damien Bichir does practically nothing — yet miraculously remains a presence.
They’re all trying so hard, they manage to lift the moronic lines off the page and give them life. But like everything Tarantino has ever done, it’s all Frankenstein collage — a quilt of other people’s work stitched together and animated through shock value. It’s Kurosawa, Hawks and Saturday morning B-movies sewn into an oversized movie monster.
There’s no grace to the action. No poetry to the lines. But in every grunt of expression, we try to decipher a sense of meaning — as though the whole movie were an elaborate riddle to be decrypted in the final scene.
Tarantino never articulates what his purpose might be, if he even had one, but it doesn’t matter because in the very act of making this silly movie with self-important swagger, he destroys the very thing he’s celebrating — namely the myth of the American frontier and its Judeo-Christian concept of heroism.
These Hateful Eight are ugly, self-interested liars who kill for money. So whether he meant it or not, Tarantino succeeds in blowing a hole clean through the cranium of frontier myth and lets the body bleed out before our very eyes. It’s not a rewarding experience, but it still leaves a splinter that’s bound to fester.
THE EX-PRESS, December 26, 2015