Monday January 25, 2016
Movie Review: The Hateful Eight (2015)
Halfway through, I felt something I rarely feel in a Quentin Tarantino movie: Boredom.
Tarantino’s movies are like “My Dinner with Andre” directed by Sam Peckinpah: they're long conversations punctuated by violence. And if the conversations are good (and usually they are), and the violence isn’t too excessive (well...), then I leave the theater happy and energized. Here, the stories are kinda lame and the violence over-the-top.
Kurt Russell may be at fault, too. He plays John “The Hangman” Ruth, a bounty hunter who is taking a prize catch, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh, welcome back), worth $10,000, to Red Rock, via stagecoach that’s trying to stay one step ahead of a blizzard. Along the way they pick up two separate passengers in the middle of nowhere: Maj. Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), another bounty hunter, and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), whose father used to run a post-Civil War Confederate gang in the west, and who claims he’s going to Red Rock to become its next sheriff.
Eventually, the blizzard catches up to them and they’re forced to lodge at Minnie’s (Dana Gourrier), but, oddly, Minnie isn’t there, and Ruth takes a long slow look at the other guests: the flamboyantly British Oswaldo Mobry (Tim Roth), who claims to be the hangman of Red Rock; the quiet Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), sitting near the fire and writing his life story; and Gen. Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a cranky old Confederate officer who was responsible for a massacre in Louisiana.
Holding the floor
It’s a movie about shifting suspicions and loyalties. Of course Mannix (named for the ’60s TV detective played by Mike Conners) and Smithers (for Waylon?) don’t much like Warren, while Warren is suspicious of Bob (Demian Bichir), a Mexican who claims to be running Minnie’s in her absence. Warren, you see, knows things. He’s privy to information. So are most of the others. (In this Wyoming standoff, in fact, who isn’t holding secret intel? I think just Ruth and Mannix.) And it all comes to a boil when Warren goads Gen. Smithers to go for a gun. He does this by telling him a story.
That’s classic QT: In a Tarantino movie, the one with the story is the one in control. You hold the power by holding the floor. Sadly, Maj. Warren’s story is hardly a classic.
Seems Gen. Smithers’ son was in Wyoming to kill Warren—a notorious Northern renegade with a bounty on his head—but Warren got the upper hand, marched the kid naked through the snow; and when the kid begged for a blanket, he forced him to go down on him; then he killed him anyway. We never know if this story is real or designed to mess with the aged mind of Gen. Smithers, whom Warren despises, but either way the General listens to the story way too long to feel real. He would’ve gone for the gun much earlier. When he does, of course, he’s dead. And in the meantime, with everyone distracted, someone’s poisoned the coffee, and both Ruth and the stage coach driver suffer a long, horrid, blood-spewing death from it. That’s when Warren really takes over the movie.
And this is when it gets interesting. So it made me think that either Kurt Russell isn’t charismatic enough, or his character, Ruth, is too grumbling and irascible to be the main guy. In the first half, he held the floor and the result was “meh.” After his death, Maj. Warren holds the floor, we get Sam Jackson’s clear voice ringing out, and I was intrigued.
It helps, I suppose, that by this point the movie has become a whodunit. Who poisoned the coffee? To what end? And who will be the last man standing? (Full disclosure: no one.)
What about Bob?
“Hateful Eight” shares other Tarantino tropes. The enclosed nature of the standoff is like “Reservoir Dogs.” Like in “Pulp Fiction,” there’s a man with a gun (Daisy’s brother, played by Channing Tatum) hidden away as Sam Jackson rages on; unlike in “Pulp Fiction,” the hidden guy doesn’t miss his mark. We get an extensive flashback to make sense of what’s going on—as in “Dogs,” “Fiction,” etc.—but it’s wholly unnecessary here. We get it: Daisy’s gang came in and killed Minnie and the others. Onward already.
My favorite part of the movie is the detective work. Bob says Minnie left earlier in the week to visit her mother, but Warren knows: 1) Minnie hates Mexicans, and 2) the stew tastes like Minnie’s stew, which means she couldn’t have left earlier in the week. So why doesn’t he share this info with Ruth? More, why does he go after the toothless general first—allowing Gage to poison the coffee that kills Ruth? Once we know the whole story, Warren’s actions don’t make much sense.
“Hateful Eight” is long on runtime (167 minutes), long on viscera, and short on wit. It's lesser Tarantino. Possibly least Tarantino.