A bastard’s work is never done.
I get the feeling I’m going to be a while on this one, so take a break in the middle if you want. Here are the salient details: I’m going to talk about thismovie for a while without spoilers and then critique it and praise it with spoilers, but I’ll give a warning before we change to spoiler territory.
Anyway, I’ve been looking forward to this film ever since I first heard about it. It’s a wonderful bottle film concept, a melding of an old-time Western with Agatha Christie as a group of strangers, some of them perhaps not what they seem to be, find themselves stranded in a mountain cabin in a blizzard. And what a cast. Let’s just talk about the best things first. Kurt Russell is perfectly cast, perfectly visualized and perfect in his performance as John Ruth the Hangman. Jennifer Jason Leigh, having a really fine year with this film & Anomalisa, is quite brilliant, career best I’d say, as the sociopathic murderess. They’re particularly good in their atypical scenes; a scene of Russell listening to Leigh singing an old folk song is beautifully performed by them both. Walton Goggins points up one of the greatest things about Tarantino’s career, which is the way Tarantino takes really astonishingly great character actors, actors that you typically only get to see in small supporting roles, and really lets them have some serious time to be brilliant. Goggins’ performance is maybe my favorite in the film; more on that in spoiler territory. Samuel L. Jackson, once again, gives a fully committed performance for Tarantino; we’ve gotten so used to seeing Jackson play this kind of part on autopilot for other directors in other films, that it’s easy to forget just how genuinely compelling he is when he’s full throttle, as he is here. Bruce Dern is fantastic here, as an ex-Confederate General; he’s an unrepentant racist and a wholly unlikable character, but there’s a lengthy scene he has with Samuel L. Jackson that Dern just tears into and shows us what a pro he still is. By the end, his performance is mainly reacting without speaking, but Dern manages to let us see the pathos of this old man, at the end of his life, having lost everything that he’s believed in, bitter and hateful because he has nothing else to be. Dern is really the other contender here for best performance. He’s far better and more layered here than he was in his Oscar-nominated turn in Nebraska. And a word for James Parks, the ninth, and apparently thus the only non-hateful, character in the film. It’s a thankless role, but he’s quite good in point of fact. Less successful are Tim Roth and Demien Bichir. Roth plays it extremely big, but his performance gets better as the film progresses. Bichir is, unfortunately, kind of wasted with little to do. Last and most certainly least, Michael Madsen gives a performance that’s strange and utterly drained of energy. I was looking forward to seeing Madsen again, especially in a Tarantino film; his definitive performance, his best by about a hundred miles, remains his turn in Reservoir Dogs, but there’s none of that firecracker energy and psychopathic menace here. It’s very odd, really. He’s really awful. Sad. All things considered, I might have recommended cutting his character completely.
As to the other elements of the film, Tarantino does a basically excellent job as director. He creates a real atmosphere through the film, even before the story reaches Minnie’s Haberdashery. The sequences in the stagecoach were really beautiful and visually striking. Later, he manages to make the Haberdashery feel absolutely real, thanks to some great set dressing and production design of course, and spending something like two hours in the place never gets tiresome, at least in terms of his direction and the visuals. The Hateful Eight is, I reckon, his slowest, most methodical film since Jackie Brown and his technical skill is on great display with the way he moves his camera to capture everything that’s happening here. That said, the film is nearly three hours long and I venture to say that this story perhaps didn’t need to be that long. There are places to tighten, I think; eliminating the Joe Gage character would do a lot. All I’m sure about is that by the time the film gets to that final standoff, it starts to feel a little long. That whole conversation, and no spoilers yet, of everyone facing off across the cabin just goes on too long for these people; at some point, one of these psychos would have just started shooting. There are those who have compared this movie to Reservoir Dogs and the comparisons are easy to make: a group of mysterious, violence characters; ulterior motives; an isolated location. But in this movie, there isn’t a single onscreen death until over ninety minutes into the movie. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but ninety minutes into Reservoir Dogs, it was ****** over. There’s a tightness to that movie that this film lacks utterly.
But I guess I’ll go ahead and get into spoilers.
To kind of round off what I was saying above, I really loved Goggins’ performance because his character really has the closest thing to an actual character arc in the film and I found it very compelling. To take the ex-Confederate racist and end the film with him being the only one standing by the side of Samuel L. Jackson was a stroke of genius really. And Goggins communicates this very serious journey from being a racist, juvenile opportunist to being a truly moral & decent man without any huge dramatic moments and while also retaining a strong line of comedy. It’s a verynuanced performance really. That final moment with the letter is an absolutely pitch perfect ending.
But let’s get to the most troubling thing about this film. It’s an issue that always comes up for debate when Tarantino releases a new movie. It is, of course, his treatment and use of violence. I don’t think I’ve ever discussed it in relationship to a Tarantino film except to say how well uses it. I’ve never, to my memory, criticized this element of a Tarantino film before. I’m not opposed to graphic violence or even graphic comedic violence. But something doesn’t work here in the way Tarantino uses violence. Case in point: the poisoned coffee. There’s a great build-up to that scene. Part of the reason the song scene works so well is because it has the undercurrent of the poisoned coffee going on at the same time. That’s all fine. And it is, I will absolutely admit, a striking, shocking and bold decision to kill off Kurt Russell so early in the film. Prior to this, he seems to basically be the main character and so it’s stunning when he actually dies at the end of the second act. But the actual death scene goes on an insanely long time of essentially nothing but Russell and Parks writhing around on the floor vomiting great fountains of blood. It’s a pure reveling in gore for the sake of it that I really didn’t take to at all. It’s a disgusting scene; it goes on way longer than it should; and it seems to be aimed for comedic effect. It’s odd to say this in regard to a director so skilled at incredibly visceral and graphic violence, but it was strikingly and annoyingly unsubtle. Think about the artful way in which Tarantino delivers his ultra-violence; the ear scene in Reservoir Dogs, the horrifying rape sequence in Pulp Fiction, the dog attack scene in Django Unchained. Tarantino is able to deliver violence in a way that is simultaneously artful, visceral and deeply emotionally effecting. Whether he’s working for a cathartic release of thrills or a genuine sense of horror and discomfort, Tarantino’s violence always lands. But this scene had no real emotional resonance; it was just gross and I felt like Russell’s character deserved a much better send-off.
Later, just so you can see what I’m talking about, there’s a wonderful flashback scene to the massacre at Minnie’s that started the day. It’s a perfect example of Tarantino’s mastery at this kind of thing. He cranks the scene tighter and tighter with tension and suspense and then, when the violence finally erupts, it’s disturbing and haunting because Tarantino has managed to make us like these characters in just a tiny amount of screen time. It’s Tarantino using violence to disturb as only he can. There’s not a hint of comedy when the shotgun rider on the stagecoach plucks at Channing Tatum’s pants leg as she dies. Tarantino is the master of contrast, I suppose, but the violence here feels a little forced and a little frivolous, except in that flashback sequence. And I confess that I’m likewise not sure how I feel about Daisy’s death. Anyway, there’s more to talk about (Channing Tatum! Kurt Russell somehow doesn’t check the cellar! Annoying Narration!), but this is like two pages in Word, so let’s wrap it up. I’ve heard people call this Tarantino’s worst film. I would call it his weakest, because, for all the criticisms, it’s a load of fun and entertaining for almost the entire running time and “worst” seems an inappropriate word for a movie this good. Because it is a good movie at the end of the day; I’m a little harsher maybe because it is Tarantino, a certified (and certifiable) genius. But, yes, I’d say it’s his weakest, my least favorite of his films. Caveat: haven’t seen Death Proof, which I kind of suspect I might rank lower than this one. Still, it’s a lot of fun, features an astounding cast and entertains like only Tarantino can. 3 ½ stars.
tl;dr – brutal Western is overlong and seriously flawed, but an amazing ensemble, striking direction and compelling characters keep it engaging and entertaining anyway. 3 ½ stars.