The Hateful Eight (2015) Film Review, a movie directed by Quentin Tarantino and starring Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demian Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, and Bruce Dern.
Audiences were guaranteed to flock to see the The Hateful Eight after the critical and financial success of Quentin Tarantino’s previous effort, Django Unchained. Seduced by the rapid-fire dialogue, gripping drama, and yes, the trademark Tarantino gore and violence in that film, viewers were undoubtedly excited for the next installment in the director’s oeuvre. This is to say nothing of the opportunity to see one of contemporary cinema’s most influential auteurs offer his take on that most classic of genres, the Western. Regretfully, however, while The Hateful Eight promises all four of the aforementioned elements, it only delivers three of them.
The film starts off suitably enough, with a tilting shot of a wooden statue of Christ on the cross in the middle of nowhere. The figure looks forlornly into the wasteland surrounding it as a snow storm rages and a menacing Ennio Morricone theme plays. Before long, a stagecoach races by, leaving the statue far behind. It is no coincidence that the film literally rushes past such a recognizable symbol of goodwill and humanity because in The Hateful Eight, there is little of either. In fact, the closest thing to “good guys” in the movie are John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), an impressively-mustachioed bounty hunter who savagely beats the murderer in his custody, the bigoted Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a Civil War veteran and Indian-killer who was drummed out of the Cavalry after burning down a Confederate prison camp and killing Union POW’s.
Of course, villainous characters generally tend to be interesting ones, and if the rogues in this movie are anything, it’s interesting. One can tell simply by the energy between the actors that they enjoy not only working with each other, but working with each other in these particular roles. One scene between Ruth and Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) is especially illustrative. When Ruth and his fellow passengers reach the cabin where the majority of the film’s action takes place, he approaches the small table where Gage is sitting silently. As “The Hangman” questions the imposing cowboy, the tension and unease felt by both characters becomes palpable. Clad in black and speaking in a gravelly voice, Gage, the very picture of the archetypal Western “bad man,” claims with a straight-face that he is on his way to visit his mother, remaining seated all the while as a skeptical Ruth stares incredulously down upon him before firmly warning the mysterious stranger to stay away from his prisoner. The way I describe it, it comes across as a farce, but the way Russell and Madsen play it, it comes across as a drama, and a terrific one at that.
The tragedy of the previous scene is that the film never capitalizes on it. We never see Ruth and Gage go at it. For that matter, we never see Gage truly emerge as the “bad man” the plot and dialogue build him up to be, with the character dying unceremoniously at the hands of greenhorn sheriff and Confederate sympathizer Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins). This misuse of such an intriguing character is representative of the film’s larger wasted potential. Despite the Western setting and trappings, the film opts for a narrative that is eventually revealed to basically be a rehash of the one in Tarantino’s first film, Reservoir Dogs. It’s presented as a twist this time around, but the idea is the same: a gang of criminals nervously waits in an isolated location as they worry about intervention and infiltration by law enforcement. So Gage isn’t the bad man after all. He’s just a member (albeit a memorable one) of a much larger outfit whose goals and objectives are different from his own, effectively rendering him a red herring in the grand scheme of the movie. For such a powerfully-realized villain, this is nothing short of a crime.
Confining most of the action to the cabin also deprives the film of perhaps the key element of any Western: the West itself. The iconic, vast expanses of dry desert and rolling plains are almost a character in-and-of itself in Western films, but here, the blizzard that forces the cast to take shelter at Minnie’s Haberdashery prevents the film from using the environment in any meaningful way. True, the events that transpire in the cabin do not necessarily require that every Western trope be utilized to their fullest extent, but if you’re going to tell a story set in the West that could easily be set in the present day, why not make the most of the genre you’re working with and make it as distinctly Western as possible?
If The Hateful Eight was released twenty years ago, it would have been a masterpiece. Not only would it be a fresh take on a genre long thought to be extinct, it would have been a fresh take on cinema itself. Throw an engaging cast and unconventional narrative on top, and you would have easily had one of the most important movies of the 1990’s, if not the 20th century. But The Hateful Eight didn’t come out back then. Reservoir Dogs did, and it did the same thing with a different setting and different characters. In the present, emphasizing the Western elements would have been a novelty, but unfortunately, it seems Tarantino decided to avoid doing that and thus consigned the film to the lower rung of his impressive output. That being said, even if it falls short of the high bar set by Tarantino’s previous works, The Hateful Eight is a solid film with some very memorable performances and easily worthy of a look while it’s still in theaters.
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