T 187 minutes, The Hateful Eight is an indulgence. But few do indulgence better than Quentin Tarantino. Here the film, unfurled as “chapters”, feels like an actual short story for a cold winter day. Each time someone enters a room from a blizzard, you can imagine reading the anxious occupants shout those instructions out to “nail the broken door shut”. They speak together and over each other, like people one has known before thrown together by circumstances. Earlier, four of them share an uncomfortable but never uninteresting ride on a stagecoach straining under the tension within and the snow without. Again, it is a delayed introduction and you can’t wait to see what happens when the four do get off. Add to that the breathtaking landscape of this western shot entirely in snow, and the music to which the horses plough through the cold, and it is cinema of the ambition that few do better than Tarantino.
The director even chooses 70 mm film format and then decides to go entirely indoors, locking the characters together in a haberdashery that becomes almost as familiar as the rest of the characters by the time The Hateful Eight gets around to its ending. Note the use of the word haberdashery, as each of its corners, bottles, fireplace, chairs, bed and particularly the coffee pot get a life of their own.
If only the rest of the Tarantino film lived up to its smashing first hour and a half, or the pre-interval. If this period is Tarantino at his best, where plausible and implausible effortlessly hold up each other, the second half brings out the worst of the director with the characters, dialogues and the gratuitous violence there, one suspects, more for his benefit. The violence is the most disappointing, whether directed at the film’s only woman protagonist or not. Never one to shy away from blood and gore, Tarantino knows the value of it as a catharsis, making you revel in it sometimes against your better judgment.
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Here, there is none of that. One imagines where the eight hateful ones from Tarantino’s pen are headed from the start, and so once that question is out of the way — though the film is described as a mystery, there is little of that — it is really about how they reach there, and while it is expectedly not pretty, it is unexpectedly too unwholesome.
There is a sense that the overriding idea is the aftermath of the American Civil War, and the wounds it has left behind. And while there is a constant mention of a letter written by Abraham Lincoln to Samuel Jackson’s Major Marquis Warren, and a mention of John Wilkes Booth, the north-south divide is more a plot ploy than a serious examination of the racial divide. The N-word though is freely used — as often as in the better Django Unchained, to lesser purpose — enough for it to lose its potency.
The eight comprise firstly the two bounty hunters, John Ruth (Russells) and Warren. Ruth captures his bounties alive, and waits around to watch the law hang them. Warren only gets them back dead, and in one of those typical touches of ridiculousness of a Tarantino film, when he hitches a ride on Ruth’s wagon wheel to get out of the snow blizzard, the three bodies he is hauling are strapped onto its roof. Ruth has with him the dreaded criminal Daisy Domergue (Leigh). On the way they give a ride to Mannix (Goggins), who once fough on the side of the renegades against the north, and who claims to have been voted in as sheriff of Red Rock, to whose jail they are all headed. Ruth doesn’t believe a word of what Mannix is telling him.
They meet the other four at the haberdashery where they have to take a break as the storm worsens. The rest include a general from the confederate army, Smithers (Dern), an Englishman with the improbable name of Oswaldo Mobray (Roth) who proclaims himself the hangman, a quiet cowboy, Gage (Marsden), and a Mexican, Bob (Bichir), who is strangely running the haberdashery in the absence of the regular owner Minnie.
As the plot drags on, sometimes propelled by a Tarantino monologue and the smart use of rewinds and flash forwards, you realise that this elaborate set-up towards an ending isn’t all that convincing.
In fact one can’t help but wonder if the ordinary folk of the haberdashery had hung around a bit longer to give this film a change of mood, and a dash of plausibility.
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Samuel L Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walter Goggins, Demian Bechir, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, Tim Roth