Saturday 23 January 2016

The Hateful Eight is scuppered by the underwhelming mystery that lies at its heart


The Hateful Eight
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Kurt Russell, Samuel L Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Running time: 167 mins (digital)/187 mins (70mm)

If you smush the two volumes of Kill Bill together it's just about possible to buy The Hateful Eight as director Tarantino's eighth movie (as the pre-publicity grandly declared). What is somewhat harder to accept, however, is that it is anything like one of his best.

Now, don't get me wrong; there's an awful lot to admire here. The soundtrack (Ennio Morricone's first western score for 34 years) and cinematography (courtesy of Kill Bill/Django Unchained's Robert Richardson) ooze class, while the elongated running time is never an obstacle; these characters are unpleasant to a man/woman but you never tire of them. There are terrific performances all round, too, especially from Jackson and Leigh. The former's exclusion from the Oscars' Best Actor category is one of the most egregious nomination blunders of the lot this year, especially when the likes of Eddie Redmayne and Matt Damon have made it onto a fairly unimpressive short list. 

Set a few years after the end of the American Civil War, in wintry Wyoming, the plot sees bounty-hunter John Ruth (Russell) escorting convicted killer Daisy Domergue (Leigh) to the town of Red Rock where he intends to see her hanged. To get out of the increasingly appalling weather, Ruth's stagecoach heads for Minnie's Haberdashery - an all-purpose convenience store-cum-staging post - and along the way picks up another bounty-hunter, Major Marquis Warren (Jackson channeling Lee Van Cleef), and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a former confederate soldier who claims to be Red Rock's new sheriff. 

Arriving at Minnie's they encounter not the titular owner and her husband as expected but four strangers - hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Roth), taciturn cowpoke Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), the store's Mexican caretaker Bob (Demian Bichir) and former confederate general Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern). With a blizzard raging full tilt outside, the eight hunker down for an evening of racial tension, bitter recrimination and, because Ruth believes one of the men intends to spring Domergue from his custody, escalating paranoia. Suffice to say, it isn't long before matters come to a head and the blood starts spilling. As you'd expect there's rather a lot of blood. And brains. And viscera. 

Unfortunately, the film's biggest shortcoming is the mystery it sets itself up to solve – what is Domergue's plan of escape and which of the ne'er-do-wells gathered in the snowbound haberdashery is in on it with her? If you spend the best part of two hours slowly and meticulously building to that big moment, when it arrives it had better be a doozy, and the one Tarantino spins here really isn't. Instead, it feels like a cheat - an entertaining cheat but a cheat all the same. Unlike the Agatha Christie/Ellery Queen-style 'locked-room' mysteries with which this has been compared, the pay-off lacks ingenuity and invention. Yes, the director employs a bit of misdirection but nothing you wouldn't find in any number of mediocre detective pot-boilers published in this or any other year. You don't jump out of your seat when Tarantino finally reveals his hand, you just sort of shrug and think, 'Oh, okay...'

If that were the only problem with the script it would probably be forgivable, but it isn't. There's also a horribly clunky moment after Tarantino goes to great pains to set up a relationship between Mannix and Smithers. The would-be sheriff is in awe of the much older man, who he considers a hero of the confederacy, and is clearly protective of him. Only, a few minutes later, Warren taunts Smithers with a lewd story about his son's death before killing him. Mannix, a man we'd just been led to believe held Smithers in enormous regard, says or does precisely nothing about this terminal turn of events and Tarantino hastily cuts away to something else. You'd probably throw a shoe at the TV if you saw such sloppiness on a soap opera, let alone in a film by a man lauded with garlands for his abilities as a screenwriter. 

In those moments when Tarantino gets it right, though, his undeniable talent is still clear and unambiguous. The lovably despicable Daisy Domergue is one of the man's finest creations - a wretched ball of racism, profanity and insolence brought to spitting, cussing life by Leigh. I'd much rather watch a movie about her and her gang set before The Hateful Eight than Kill Bill 3 or the horror movie Tarantino has vaguely mentioned doing next. 

For all the beauty of its cinematography (those early scenes of Ruth's stagecoach crawling through the Wyoming snow must be breathtaking in 70mm), The Hateful Eight is an ugly movie featuring ugly people doing ugly things to each other. Of course, that's par for the course with Tarantino, only this time the fallout from the recent Civil War takes that poison to a whole new level and the director revels in it. It's been a very long time since I saw a film in which paranoia, mistrust and mutual loathing were so palpable they were practically characters in their own right. 

And, once the big mystery is out the way, the director rallies to give us a superb final 20 minutes as two former Civil War enemies unite to thwart a common foe and together face certain doom. If it wasn't for the brutal and shocking execution they mete out, or the fact they're slowly bleeding to death and in agony, it might even be quite uplifting.

Rating: WW½
The Hateful Eight is in cinemas now

WWWW - Wonderful
WWW - Worthy
WW - Watchable
W - Woeful

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