I really, really wanted to like THE HATEFUL EIGHT. I’m a fan of various Tarantino works, despite his various nervous tics as a director. I absolutely love DJANGO UNCHAINED — I think that’s his masterpiece. INGLORIOUS BASTERDS is a great time, and I even like the KILL BILL movies, which, despite the great length, work really well. PULP FICTION, of course, endures as a staple of 90s moviemaking. So, I had high expectations of THE HATEFUL EIGHT. I was all-in, got tickets to the 70mm roadshow and all of that stuff.
Go West, Not-So-Young Man
Unfortunately, I was disappointed in this movie, and I didn’t want to be. I wanted to love it, and I just couldn’t. Took me a bit of time to sort out why, exactly. One of Tarantino’s quirks as a director is he has a real knack for staging masterful scenes — I mean, some of this scenes are just stellar, anchored by great dialogue and following a narrative arc that delivers memorable moments.
And, I think Tarantino knows this, which is why he likes to break up his movies into chapters — it lets him focus on his strong suit, which is, of course, powerfully and meticulously constructed scenes. He then strings those scenes together (or shuffles them) and you end up with a movie.
When it works, it’s a delight, even if the overall movie doesn’t necessarily deliver a whole greater than the sum of its parts. In lesser Tarantino movies, the scenes may not be strong enough to carry the entire movie, and I think that’s the problem with THE HATEFUL EIGHT.
The dialogue doesn’t pop enough, the characters aren’t well-realized enough, and the scenes just don’t sparkle enough for it to work. What you’re left with is a bunch of reasonably disagreeable characters blowing each other to bits — the trademark Tarantino violence — and for what, exactly?
I think DJANGO (and even KILL BILL) gave Tarantino a real taste for Ronin/Western kind of action. He wanted to do a proper Western, and likely thought he’d be able to bull through it the way he has with other genres. But I think the nuances of a proper Western were lost on him, here. He was able to pull it off with DJANGO because it operated under the shadow of the monstrous evil of slavery, but in the great wide West, I think Tarantino got a bit lost.
You can’t just throw buffalo hides and hats on people and give them some six-guns to have it be a Western. Tarantino is an exhaustive movie buff — I can’t imagine him not seeing various classic Westerns to really conjure up the vibe of them. It’s more than vistas, it’s more than harsh landscapes and desperate souls — a Western is a complex cinematic genre, and the ones that excel in it justifiably deserve their place among the cinematic canon:
- The Unforgiven
- Red River
- The Searchers
- True Grit
- High Noon
- The Good, The Bad & The Ugly
And so on. Even SILVERADO and TOMBSTONE, more pure-entertainment, revisionist type Westerns, get a lot of it right in terms of the feel. As does PALE RIDER (which is really more of a ghost story wrapped in a Western, but much of the themes of a proper Western are in there). THE HATEFUL EIGHT felt more like a group of actors pretending to be in a Western than it was an authentic Western.
Black Hat, White Hat
I think Tarantino squandered the assembled acting talent he had in there. I mean, he made a point to cast Bruce Dern, who is a legendary actor, and I felt like Dern was way underused in the story. I mean, Dern’s character in THE COWBOYS killed John Wayne’s character, for god’s sake!
That infamous act earned Dern hatred from John Wayne fans for a generation, and few actors this side of Jack Nicholson carried as much vibe as Dern, so to have him there, I know why Tarantino wanted him (the cameo in DJANGO was a coup for him), but I don’t think he quite knew how to make the best use of him in this movie.
Kurt Russell is another one who wasn’t fully utilized in the story. Russell radiates charisma as an actor — you want to like him in any role he plays, but his John “the Hangman” Ruth wasn’t his strongest or most likable character. Again, the scenario, the dialogue, the situation, it didn’t quite fully click, which was a shame, because Russell looked fabulous and had a great turn in TOMBSTONE as Wyatt Earp. I wanted to root for him, but felt like he wasn’t done full frontier justice in THE HATEFUL EIGHT.
Samuel L. Jackson delivered as he always did, with power, charisma and credibility, and he was one of the high points of the movie, despite some various scenes that sapped his character of worthy depth, in my opinion. His character was diminished by the circumstances, instead of enhanced. Not quite a hero, not quite an antihero, not quite a villain. If the eight are, indeed, hateful, his character’s one of the most hateful, at least for much of it. There’s some bloody redemption in the mix, but is it worth it? Not sure.
Walton Goggins makes the most of his quirky style, running hard with the role that Tarantino gave him (again, another Tarantino alum, like so many of the others), but it’s hard to really pin him down — the actions in the scenes don’t quite draw him out that much as a character, and his guy’s something of a dolt to begin with, so he’s not entirely heroic, so much as he is blunderingly brutal.
The other actors seem to basically phone it in within their comfortable wheelhouses — Tim Roth’s odd turn as a Brit who is garbed in what looks like Christoph Waltz’s backup clothing from DJANGO (I really felt like Tarantino might have approached Waltz for Roth’s character, but Waltz wisely abstained, and Tarantino couldn’t let it go, carried some of that look through this character). Michael Madsen gruffly growls his way through a fairly standard don’t-give-a-shit desperado kind of vibe.
Isn’t that a Daisy?
Jennifer Jason Leigh’s dreadful Daisy Domergue approaches the closest to pure, scene-stealing villainy, but, like all the rest, it’s hard to fully pin her down in terms of motivations, and it’s painful to watch her undergo the various humiliations she has to suffer throughout the movie. Although, JJL does a great job selling (or sawing) the hand she’s forced to play in the movie, and the assorted actorly business she does always tends to upstage the other actors, to her credit. Still, she’s thoroughly repugnant, a true villain, and ends up splattered with more gore than Bruce Campbell in an EVIL DEAD movie (truly! I can almost hear Tarantino wanting to out-Raimi Sam Raimi in the blood-and-gore department with her makeup).
I don’t want to give away “spoilers” for this movie, if you’re sensitive to such things. I will say that the first half of the movie felt slow to build, like Tarantino took way too long to set things up for what’s ostensibly a fairly straightforward dark Western. The second half (post-intermission, I mean) was far stronger than the first half, and if Tarantino had tightened his focus around that, maybe he’d have come out with a stronger movie.
The problems were: the scenes weren’t strong enough to carry it, the dialogue wasn’t good enough, the situation was too static (one set for most of it — made it feel like a stage play), the characters weren’t relatable enough or deeply characterized enough, the pacing was off (way too slow), and a lot of the Tarantino tics and tropes were so evident throughout as to make the movie feel like an exercise in self-parody.
I’m hoping that Tarantino buckles down and sorts himself out for his next movie, because THE HATEFUL EIGHT unfortunately wasn’t close to his best.