The Hateful Eight (2015)

Directed by Quentin Tarantino

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The Hateful Eight has not aged well.  Early in the film, as the credits begin to roll, in big letters come the name “WEINSTEIN.”  There’s something obviously disgusting about the prominence of Harvey Weinstein’s name on any film, but particularly a film like this.  Tarantino’s films have all been released through Miramax or the Weinstein company (both run by Weinstein), and because of that, this is all just a little… gross.

It’s at least a little flashy.  Very flashy, in fact.  When this movie begins, it already feels too showy.  We’re told that this is “Quentin Tarantino’s 8th picture,” before we’re told much else.  This isn’t just a story, it’s a Tarantino story, a Tarantino-Weinstein story.  This film is as much about the titanic figures behind it than the people onscreen.

And The Hateful Eight is a titanic picture.  It’s long, almost three hours, with a script that had been leaked online before Tarantino said he wouldn’t make the film.  Then he did.  People were aware of the goings on of this film because, like certain other directors, people really care what Tarantino will do next.

The Hateful Eight might finish off a sort of trilogy among Tarantino’s last three films, including Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained.  Besides all being period pieces, they’re all revenge films of some sort.  The characters’ motives are clear, and the story works hard to put everything into place for a big, entertaining climax.

They all look very similar, beautifully shot and scored, and they all feel… I guess, fun?  They’re fun movies, but at time The Hateful Eight feels like an imitation of a Tarantino film, albeit an imitation only Tarantino himself could pull off.  It’s like when something becomes too self-aware, which is made much easier today with heightened fan engagement and meme culture.  Take, for example, the Netflix show Stranger Things.  It was a hit upon its release, and with all the buildup for the second season, the showrunners made a conscious effort to give fans what they wanted.  There were memes about the character ‘Eleven’ and her love of waffles and about Dustin, the adorable kid with the missing tooth or something.  The fans were vocal in their adoration for the show, and the creators of the show would have to be blind to miss it.  So, what do we see in the first few episodes of the new season?  A lot of Eleven being cool with her waffles, the adorable kids being adorable, and there’s even a scene of a cop dancing which I guess went viral but which the creators had to have known would go viral.  The show seems to have been made with an amount of fan service, giving people what they want.

And The Hateful Eight feels this way.  It’s a greatest hits of Tarantino’s work.  The premise itself is similar to his first film, Reservoir Dogs, and so many of the actors are recognizable from his past films, like Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Michael Madsen, Tim Roth and stuntwoman Zoe Bell.

Tarantino is a great filmmaker, and he knows how to build suspense.  That’s most of what this movie is.  There is some snappy dialogue to get us through the exposition, but the majority of the film is simple set up so we can get to the point where the dominoes fall.  In some cases this suspense is created early, whether from a particular character’s suspicion of another, and in others it’s created simply from us knowing the outcome before the characters do.

Of the five chapters that make up the film, the fourth is entirely a flashback to only hours before the plot began.  This whole sequence is ripe with suspense because we know that half of the characters aren’t around when the flashback ends, so we simply wait for the inevitable to happen.

And that’s what suspense is, right?  There are a few instances of surprise violence, but for the most part, it’s just the unravelling of a plot we already anticipate.  There is that famous Hitchcock quote about the difference between suspense and surprise.  To be surprised, a bomb could just go off, startling you like in a jump scare.  With suspense, we’re shown the bomb before it goes off.  In an early Hitchcock film, 1936’s Sabotage, there is a scene with a boy on a trolly carrying a package he doesn’t realize is a bomb.  We know it’s a bomb, and to remind us, Hitchcock cuts to close ups of the package while the music ratchets up in intensity.

That’s suspense, even though the character doesn’t feel what we feel because he doesn’t know that he’s transporting a bomb.

The Hateful Eight is a suspenseful movie with the occasional surprise.  For the most part, though, every death is built up to by a long preamble, maybe a character’s monologue or a series of close ups on sinister expressions.  When a trigger is finally pulled, it doesn’t feel like a surprise, even if the sudden and loud violence contrasts with the long silence that often precedes it.

At times I think Tarantino tries to get too cute.  His characters are very broad and meant to be funny.  This is all a game, the violence is cartoonish and the characters are big.  Tim Roth’s Oswaldo Mobray is slimy and mysterious, and his apparent charms make him an engaging figure.  Walton Goggins’ Chris Mannix is amusingly frightened most of the time, but the script tries to make him too much of a funny character.  It never seems like we’re supposed to care for anyone (after all they’re the “hateful” eight), but they’re also not always as interesting as Tarantino believes.

In this case I suppose suspense is meant to stand in for audience empathy, but in a scene like the one linked to above, part of the suspense comes from not wanting to see a kid and a dog get blown up.  There’s suspense here, but does it really matter if so and so gets their face blown off (which happens twice)?  It’s more about the spectacle than the action, though it certainly is quite a spectacle.

Like the shootouts in Basterds and Django, the violence in Eight is pretty awesome, both gruesome and oddly playful.  It’s not all that hard to watch because it’s so silly.  Tarantino gets creative with these scenes in how he shoots them, always trying to find a new way into the violence to which we might already be desensitized, but this violence works regardless of context.  It’s about the images, the sound effects and the choreography more than it is about the storytelling and the acting.

I think you could cut this movie in half and achieve mostly the same effect.  Like in the Cassavetes movie I just wrote about, Faces, there is a lot of good in this movie, but it’s too long, and at a certain point the delightfully weird characters and dialogue yield diminishing returns.  Tarantino must enjoy watching these talented actors have fun with his strange dialogue and the characters he’s created for them, but it’s not quite as fun as he thinks.  There isn’t much of an arc for each character.  We meet them quickly, understand what drives them and what makes them tick, and then we watch them come into inevitable conflict.  So each scene that isn’t some kind of violent spectacle just tells us more of the same.  We know who these people are within five minutes of meeting them, but we’re forced to spend too much time with them before we get what we paid for.

Up Next: Nadja in Paris (1964), Philadelphia (1993), Rachel Getting Married (2008)

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