Quentin Tarantino has said that he plans to retire after completing his 10th film, and if things go his way he will win an Oscar for Best Original screenplay at least two more times before that happens. The first of what may be his final three films, The Hateful Eight, has more social commentary than any other title in the director’s post-2000 cannon. It’s ripe with layers of beautifully scripted dialogue delivered by seasoned professionals acting at the top of their game, but as a feature the story fails to resonate with viewers in a way that compares to the filmmaker’s previous works.
During a harsh Wyoming winter in the years following the end of Civil War, John “Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) has come across a bounty worth $10,000 if delivered to Red Rocks. The criminal’s name is Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a female serial killer who isn’t afraid to be just as violent as any man. Her trip with Ruth is interrupted when the pair encounter another bounty hunter (Samuel L. Jackson) and a man who claims to be a sheriff (Walton Goggins) amid a blinding snow storm. Together, the foursome make their way to Minnie’s Haberdashery, a tiny stopover in the middle of nowhere. It’s not much to look at, but it provides shelter from the storm, as well as the company of four strangers with questionable motivations.
It doesn’t take long for Ruth and Domergue to question whether or not they will ever reach their destination, and the same can probably be said for the others in their situation. Tensions within Minnie’s Haberdashery are on the rise from essentially the first moment our cast comes together, with discussions fueled by race and sexism adding rage to already frustrated minds, and before long there is an ominous promise of grisly violence in the air. There is no way everyone can leave this room alive, especially with the addition of a former rebel soldier, a lonesome cowboy and an actual hangman with far too much snark for his own good. Tarantino wastes no time making clear that these strangers were not meant to be friends, and from there he forces his characters to spend the better part of two hours trying to figure out if even one can walk away unscarred.
All Tarantino films are violent, but there is a sense of spite laced throughout The Hateful Eight that toes the line between intrigue and overbearing with all the grace of a drunk college freshman. With all his typical cultural references absent from the 1800s-era dialogue, the mean-spirited nature of the characters is bold from the first moment any one of them chooses to speak. Cynicism overtakes wit nine times out of 10, with everyone treating everyone else as if they are a wild animal found foaming at the mouth at a children’s party, and they never really come around to feeling any warmer toward them. These feelings are understandable to an extent, as any situation forcing you into closed quarters with strangers would obviously raise suspicion of security, but they are expressed in such unbalanced fashion it’s hard to feel as if the film ever finds a groove.
Though The Hateful Eight was shot using a gorgeous 70mm panoramic film stock it’s hard to shake the idea that the story would perhaps be best experienced as a stage play. All of Tarantino’s films have been broken into chapters, which in a way play out like acts, but with essentially every moment of this story relying on two or more people to be talking while others go about their devious business as quiet background players there is rarely much to look at that demands cinematic projection. It’s a beautiful film, and that is a fact no one can deny, but one could argue this pedigree is an unnecessary one as everything that transpires could work just as well as a radio play from the 1940s (albeit one with far more profanity than people of the time would have appreciated). Tarantino’s wit has finally eclipsed his eye as the most interesting aspect of his talent, and it’s not hard to imagine this fact boring certain moviegoers.
With visual offerings at a minimal, The Hateful Eight’s savior is its numerous Oscar-worthy performances, which is highlighted best by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Her turn as Daisy is endlessly enthralling, pulling you in with a hesitant curiosity that builds wonderfully until the final sequence. Likewise, Goggins, Russell and Jackson are at the tops of their respective games. Goggins certainly doesn’t have the pedigree of Russell or Jackson, but when placed side by side with two of Hollywood’s all-time best he more than carries his own with a unique take on the classic rebel-turned-sheriff motif. There are no small players in a story like this, and the rest of Eight certainly deliver as if they know this to be true. Bruce Dern, who last made critical waves with Nebraska, manages to pull you in without ever standing up. Channing Tatum, perhaps the most surprising addition to Tarantino’s work, manages to appear as if he’s been a part of the filmmaker’s cinematic universe for years.
There is still no proof that Quentin Tarantino is capable of making a bad movie, but The Hateful Eight does feel like a rare misfire for the legendary filmmaker. It’s too long, overwritten and performed in a way that feels meant for the stage far more than the world of film. When the story works, the narrative and characters play as well as any other great film in recent memory, even those in the director’s cannon. Unfortunately, those moments occur intermittently, and everything in between plays like exhausting exposition in need of another edit. Tarantino has never been one to leave us wanting more, but this may be the first time viewers walk away wishing they had gotten less.