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The Hateful Eight

D: Quentin Tarantino / 167m

Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Demián Bichir, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, James Parks, Channing Tatum

It’s post-Civil War Wyoming, and a stagecoach trying to outrun a fast approaching snowstorm (in already treacherous weather) is stopped by an unexpected encounter with a bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren (Jackson), stranded on the road to the nearest safe haven, a staging post named Minnie’s Haberdashery. On board the stagecoach is another bounty hunter, John “The Hangman” Ruth (Russell) and his prisoner, Daisy Domergue (Leigh), heading for the town of Red Rock so she can face trial. Once bona fides are established between the two men, Warren is allowed to journey on aboard the stagecoach. Later they pick up another stranded man, Chris Mannix (Goggins), who tells them he’s also heading to Red Rock where he is to take up the post of sheriff.

At Minnie’s Haberdashery, they find that an earlier stagecoach has taken shelter there, and there are four men waiting out the impending snowstorm. One is a Southern general, Sanford Smithers (Dern), who’s come to Wyoming in search of his missing son. Another is Joe Gage (Madsen), a cowboy heading home after being away on a lengthy cattle trail. The third introduces himself as Oswaldo Mobray (Roth), on his way to Red Rock to act as hangman should Daisy Domergue be found guilty at her trial. And then there’s Bob (Bichir), a Mexican who tells Warren that Minnie and her husband, Sweet Dave, have gone to see her mother, and that they’ve entrusted the upkeep of the staging post to him. But Warren is unconvinced.

Once everyone is inside and introduced to each other, Ruth is quick to make it clear that he believes at least one person there isn’t who he says he is, and that it’s likely they’re going to try and free Daisy (though he doesn’t say why, or how he knows). Warren believes him, and they agree to join forces and keep an eye on the other men. But things begin to go wrong when Warren recognises Smithers, and he realises why the old man is there, and so far from home.

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The eighth movie by Quentin Tarantino is ostensibly a Western, but thanks to its writer/director’s penchant for being a movie magpie, it’s also a thriller, a revenge drama, an old dark house-style mystery, and yet another movie where he assembles a great cast only to give preference to some – Jackson, Russell, Goggins – while neglecting others – Leigh, Bichir, Madsen. That Tarantino wants to stuff his movie with references to other movies has always been a part of his movie making raison d’être, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that The Hateful Eight isn’t just a Western. But this time around, the end result is a movie that struggles to find its identity, and thanks to the novel-style approach of Tarantino’s script – it’s made up of six Chapters – it feels much more artificial than it should be.

As Tarantino nudges along his characters in the wake of Jackson’s central character, and takes in issues of racism and post-War guilt, and a very occasional stab at the morality behind the execution of women, it becomes clear that these characters are mere cyphers, lacking in development and free from any real, appreciable insight into their motives. Given this lack of investment by Tarantino’s script, and despite the detailed and often hypnotic rhythms of the dialogue he grants them, it’s left to his very talented cast to make up the shortfall. Some achieve this with aplomb – Goggins in particular – but even the likes of Russell and Leigh can’t elevate the shallow nature of their characters. Russell bellows like an absurdist bully, while Leigh at one point is reduced to the kind of playground boasting that was outmoded even in the 1860’s.

Spare a thought then for Tarantino regular Jackson. Having landed the lead role in the movie, and been given the kind of back story that most actors would relish getting their hands on (or teeth into), it must have been dispiriting to see the final product and realise that for all the blood and thunder involved, it was all for nought given how the character is treated in the movie’s final chapter. There’s a lot to be said for a movie of this length when it exposes some of its maker’s more crueller narrative decisions and forces its audience to wonder if its wunderkind creator is quite the impressive writer/director he’s reputed to be. And this is where The Hateful Eight is most successful: in showing that the hype surrounding Tarantino isn’t always deserved.

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Take one scene in particular, the beginning of Chapter Four, entitled Domergue’s Got a Secret. Unable to introduce a major plot development in any other way (apparently), Tarantino resorts to the use of an offscreen narrator (voiced by himself) who not only explains what Daisy’s secret is, but clearly signposts for those in the audience who may be hard of understanding, what this means in terms of what follows. It’s like someone stopping a theatre production of Macbeth and stepping forward to explain that when Shakespeare says Macbeth can’t be “killed by man born of woman” he actually means he can be killed by someone born via Caesarean. Got it? Then let’s move on.

From there on The Hateful Eight swiftly unravels in a welter of violence and bloodshed that throws out all the groundwork made to get this far, and concentrates instead on bumping off its cast of characters. But any fascination or sympathy the viewer may have had for anyone is eroded by Tarantino’s decision to go for a bloodbath rather than a tense showdown. And then there’s the final chapter, so awkward and clunkily written that the viewer can’t help but wonder if Tarantino didn’t know how to end his movie, and settled on the first thought that came to him – and then didn’t even bother to polish the finished script. For once, Tarantino relinquishes control over the material, and the camerawork by Robert Richardson – up til then one of the few consistent positives about the movie – is undermined by the kind of reckless scissor-happy editing that you’d expect from someone having to deal with far less filmed material and an impossible deadline (and the movie’s editor, Fred Raskin, is a much better editor than that – check out his work on another 2015 Western, Bone Tomahawk, for proof).

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When all is said and done, The Hateful Eight isn’t a movie that works; at least, not entirely. If anything, the movie never proceeds to anywhere successful once Chris Mannix boards the stagecoach and they arrive at Minnie’s Haberdashery. Up til then, Tarantino does what he does best: he introduces his characters through his trademark intricate dialogue, and he sets the scene for the rest of the movie. But once in Minnie’s Haberdashery, the plot has to take over, and it soon runs out of steam. The addition of a flashback in Chapter Five feels even more awkward than the revelation that Daisy has a secret, and makes scant use of Channing Tatum into the bargain.

And finally, as if to rub salt into the movie’s wounds, we have a score by Ennio Morricone that has no impact throughout, and isn’t in any way memorable (there are times when it doesn’t even feel suited to the material). When your favourite movie composer can’t even make a difference then you just know that it’s not going to work. Sometimes – and this applies to anyone who writes and directs their own movies, or who have carte blanche from the studio that writes the cheques – having an idea isn’t enough. And building on that idea isn’t enough. And writing a screenplay isn’t enough. Sometimes you just have to let an idea go. Often it’s the kindest thing you can do for everyone.

Rating: 6/10 – narrative glitches aside, Tarantino’s eighth movie proves lacklustre both in terms of its visuals and its attention to its characters, leaving the viewer without anyone to sympathise with or warm to; The Hateful Eight is also the first of the writer/director’s movies to feel incomplete in terms of his investment in the project, and while he may argue otherwise, there’s a distance between him and the final product that hasn’t been there in any of his other, seven movies.