THE HATEFUL EIGHT (Cert. 18)
Director-Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins
Rating: * 1/2 (out of 5)
Well, we can’t say we weren’t forewarned. The eighth film by Quentin Tarantino, as he himself proudly bills it in the opening credits, is as hateful a movie experience as I can remember.
Given the film’s admittedly enjoyable Roadshow throwback presentation – its screen-stretching 70mm projection bolstered by an opening Ennio Morricone-scored Overture and mid-point Intermission – it’s mystifying that Tarantino has chosen for his grand gesture filmmaking such an ugly, dragging, rehash of old ideas gussied up in new ways to shock and gore. He’s always been an entertaining showman / front man for his films. Part of the kick they deliver is his unapologetic delight and belief in heaving his disreputable, amoral, repurposed B-movies into A-list award contenders. Yet any one of his previous seven films would have been a worthier candidate. Hateful is by some distance his slightest work.
It’s also clearly, and deliberately, his most perverse. Why resurrect a long-defunct cinema format, redolent of epic widescreen panoramas, for what turns into a stage-bound, single-set chamber piece? Why carefully select a melting-pot octet of America – male and female, Unionists and Confederates, black and Hispanic – and have them to a man (and lone woman) be a posse of blustering, murderous vipers? If this is, as is claimed, Tarantino’s most overtly “political” film, using the historical Western to reflect modern social issues, then it’s not just the nihilism that’s depressing, but the shallowness. He takes the infamous 1992 victim of police brutality Rodney King’s plea “Can’t we all just along?” flips the first two words, removes the question mark and sits back to admire the ensuing carnage.
The overwhelmingly positive US reviews (with some notable exceptions) suggest that stateside critics, enraged by America’s recent spate of killings of young black men, often at the hands of law enforcement, see Tarantino reflecting the brutal realities of its country’s egregious ongoing race relations and pulling no punches. It’s hard to get into specifics without giving away major plot spoilers, but cross-racial alliances formed here are laughably unconvincing. Worse still is what unites them: the gleeful destruction of yet another minority (within the film’s warped world). You’d call it misogyny if the wholesale misanthropy didn’t trump it.
There are things that make Tarantino a natural born filmmaker: pretzeled narratives that keep you guessing, grandstanding street-poetry dialogue, wonderfully left-field soundtracks, a genius for casting wrongfully ignored actors, his affinity (some might charge, appropriation, particularly for black culture) for empowering the marginalized. Nuanced cultural commentary, however, isn’t one of them. His sledgehammer sociology – witness the obliterating fate of Nazis and slavers in his two preceding revenge fantasies, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained – are like a grindhouse Stanley Kramer, purveyor par excellence of ‘message movies’.
But surely The Hateful Eight’s set-up demands something more than just turning into a splatter movie? Sam Jackson’s bounty hunter protagonist is the only character granted a sense of why he role-plays – a long-time fascination of Tarantino’s – and the origins and motivation of the letter he carries from Abraham Lincoln is arguably the film’s lone complexity. The mystery of who everyone else says they might or might not be is, frankly, a bore that’s resolved in a grim, unrevealing flashback. The old Tarantino trope of “getting into character” barely furnishes his actors with genuine characters to play. Compare this ensemble – and the presence of Michael Madsen and Tim Roth encourages such a reading – to the vivid pack of Reservoir Dogs and though the hateful eight do plenty of barking, they lack – – Jackson and the excellent Jennifer Jason Leigh as prisoner / punching bag Daisy Domergue aside – dramatic bite.
Tarantino’s much-lauded facility with dialogue too largely fails him here too. The exchanges and speeches, bar Jackson’s outrageous monologue to close out Act I, are flat and long-winded, notably the protracted opening carriage ride to Minnie’s Haberdashery. Tarantino has been many things over the years, but, until now, never dull. There’s a ninth constant character here, and I don’t mean James Parks’s unfortunate driver O.B. When Tarantino jumps in himself to deliver some clever-clever narration midway, it’s clearer than ever that he’s been allowed to run amok and confuse importance with self-importance.
The Hateful Eight, finally, does what Tarantino detractors have long accused him of doing: empty posturing and wanton sensationalism. Yet the film is not a total about-face for him. Anyone who’s admired his work and is now angered at the malevolent glee with which he dispatches some of protagonists surely needs to reckon with their previous acceptance that this is just one of the things Tarantino digs – violence played for laughs. Remember Reservoir Dogs and Mr. Blonde’s macabre mid-torture dance? Travolta accidentally blowing off Marvin’s head in Pulp Fiction? DeNiro’s impromptu dispatching of a nagging Bridget Fonda in Jackie Brown? Violence is an aesthetic choice for Tarantino; or a ‘Gotcha!’ plot point, not a moral one. And it never was.
What has mitigated against this rather juvenile perspective, was that the discomfort such scenes engendered always found a counter-balance in other aspects of the narratives or themes. The sweet, tentative romances between Mia Wallace and Vincent Vega, or Jackie Brown and Max Cherry; Beatrix Kiddo’s maternal yearning. King Schultz’s slowburn, weary enlightenment in the true face of slavery. You know, humanity. Something that’s sorely lacking here.
Tarantino-philes will doubtless claim that such a take misses his point entirely; that the “frontier justice” speech, about killing without dispassion as unlawful, is exactly what The Hateful Eight enacts, without endorsing. I’d counter that the fact said monologue is given by a character who reveals himself and his credo to be a complete fraud, gives a much more accurate depiction of where Tarantino’s really coming from. It is, of course, the filmmaker’s prerogative to deliberately provoke audiences by trapping them inside a pressure cooker of mankind’s worst impulses and actions for three hours. And it’s ours to call him on it. To argue that his take on racial and sexual politics is about as insightful and useful as a KKK hood worn back to front at a #BlackLivesMatter rally. And to sum The Hateful Eight up in terms that Tarantino – a filmmaker supremely aware, and proud, of his cinematic legacy – really understands, and hopefully feels, his eighth film is his first that feels artistically deadweight. His first fiction worthy only of being pulped.