In the last year or so, a few prominent filmmakers have released movies that have unfortunately highlighted their creators’ weaknesses. This fall’s Steve Jobs was less a movie than An Aaron Sorkin Movie, more interested in spitting out rapid-fire dialogue than in creating three-dimensional characters or resonant situations. Last year’s Interstellar exacerbated Christopher Nolan’s problems with shoddy storytelling, herky-jerky pacing, and on-the-nose dialogue, without really highlighting any of his strengths.
But Quentin Tarantino, who helmed of one of my favorite movies of all-time, has outdone them all—by which I mean, he’s made the worst film of the bunch. In fact, if someone ever tells me that The Hateful Eight was his pick as the worst film of 2015, I’d immediately like and respect him more. This movie flings Tarantino’s weaknesses at you as though they’re in 3D, making you want to wretch or turn away—or walk out of the theater.
I would say that there are spoilers below, but a) this movie is essentially un-spoilable, and b) I don’t have the energy to give a thorough plot breakdown. The story is set in Wyoming shortly after the Civil War. During a blizzard, a group of disreputable individuals—bounty hunters, sheriffs, and the like—gather at a haberdashery for an evening of distrust and general mayhem.
Problems arise right from the inauspicious start. A full eight minutes pass that consist of nothing more than a red screen upon which the word “Overture” is printed, followed by the credits. Quentin, I’d rather watch dancing popcorn and candy than a static screen for three minutes. (The subsequent credits carry the additional burden of spoiling things: because you see so many names listed, you know there’s a third act twist coming with people we haven’t met yet. This is reason #284 why movies should skip opening credits.)
Then, before we’ve even met a character, a garish title card spells out that this is “the 8th film by Quentin Tarantino.” This sort of narcissism augured trouble—who gives a shit how many movies the creator of the one you’re watching has made?—and that nagging worry was soon validated. I counted three scenes in the first act that should have been cut with no loss to the narrative; I counted none in the entire movie that featured a line of dialogue worth remembering. Mostly, the opening hour consists of bloated, terminally slow exchanges that introduce the characters without any of Tarantino’s typical panache, wit, or charm.
The scenes that did deserve inclusion should have been half as long, but even calling for them to have been shortened is misleading; it implies that there’s a good story underneath the fat, which is a bald-faced lie. What this movie does have in abundance are disturbing ethical undertones; conversely, what it lacks are compelling characters and some form of a center—as in a protagonist or notable goal—to hold onto. Being trapped in that damn haberdashery seems to have utterly stymied Tarantino. There’s no one to care about and no central conflict driving the story forward (everyone planning on staying in town for 2-3 days makes for minimal urgency). Worse yet, it becomes clear that Tarantino hasn’t come up with compelling backgrounds for his characters. Oh, sure, some of them have secrets, but the twists and turns register with a yawn, weighed down by clunky predictability and blinded by uncomfortable violence that seems designed for nothing except to transfer popcorn from your mouth to the floor.
In other words, there’s no there there. Tarantino has somehow created a structure that feels contrived and ‘writerly’ while also affording no meaningful dramatic tension. All of the suspense, the intrigue, that hope that something unusual or brilliant will happen vanishes with every desultory moment. When a character sits down at a table that has a gun hidden underneath, you wonder how skillfully the old Tarantino would have played the suspense—and the ultimate reveal. Now, there’s nothing to feel when that gun inevitably comes out. When someone slowly walks towards a hiding spot where a wounded foe lies, the soundtrack rising in anticipation, you keep assuming that something interesting will happen. But no—he’s just going to amble over, stop for a beat, and shoot him in the head. That’s it. Tarantino’s rapidly becoming more simplistic, more cartoonish, more disgusting with every movie, but what’s remarkable is how much he expects us to eat it all up as evidence of his brilliance.
As an example of both his Tarantinoness and his weakening grasp on storytelling, let’s take a look at the sequence surrounding the blessed intermission. After we return, we suddenly hear, for the first time, unexplained voiceover (always a flashing neon sign indicating a flailing screenwriter). It recaps what just happened—a heated exchange between Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Dern—as though we didn’t see it ten minutes ago. (On second thought, perhaps I should credit Tarantino for recognizing just how forgettable this all is. Maybe he’s more self-aware than we realize.) Then we learn that someone was secretly poisoning the group’s coffee supply during that showdown; it’s the first—only?—interesting moment in the film, but QT apparently thinks we won’t understand it without seeing it AND hearing the voiceover mention it. We should have just watched Jennifer Jason Leigh watching the perpetrator, without the Nolanesque over-explanation. Even better, we should have seen this act during the Jackson/Dern showdown, and not afterwards; that would have increased the stakes of the face-off, while also providing a tantalizing question to tide us over during the intermission. It’s pretty surprising that Tarantino’s instincts miss this.
[pullquote]The Hateful Eight is so bad, it makes you wonder whether he chose this time period simply to allow for this avalanche of racism and sexism to pass by without too much judgment. I hate to speculate on something like that, but these are the sorts of theories you ponder while you sit, bored senseless, in your hardening theater seat, digging in your cup in a vain search for a speck of lingering soda, absorbing another epithet or piece of misogyny, praying for the sweet release of the credits.[/pullquote]
In his rush to create the kind of violence designed to make 17-year old boys cover their mouths and go “Ooooohhh” (and that happened a few times next to me), QT has forgotten how to craft characters or write in a way that allows actors to place their stamps on them. This is hardly the greatest cast ever assembled—it’s considerably less accomplished than in most of his films—but even quality actors like Jackson and Michael Madsen are forgotten as soon as they’re out of sight. Previous QT films showcased ferocious performances illuminating vivid individuals. Here, with everyone hidden by hats, scarves, bulky clothing, and nondescript characterizations, the actors simply recede into nothingness. (Exceptions include Dern, who’s hilariously bad especially when he yells out his epithets; and Kurt Russell’s character, who is one of the more irritating beings we’ve seen on screen in a while. His death has the same effect as dunking your face in water when your entire body is on fire; you’re still in agony, but at least it’s better than before.)
After we return from said intermission and dispense with that moronic voiceover (don’t worry, it comes back), the second half devolves into an absurd collection of cold, illogical, and childish violence. As Vulture put it, it’s “cruelty for cruelty’s sake,” especially when Tarantino seems to derive so much giddiness from having his characters insult, manipulate, maim, dismember, or kill women and Mexicans. (I’m not sure a single character in any QT film has ever been treated worse than Jennifer Jason Leigh’s is here.) I found Django Unchained to be weak and lacking in conflict, but at least, if there was a point to it all, it was of a tortured minority exacting vengeance. That’s a lot more palatable than whatever the hell is going on here. In fact, The Hateful Eight is so bad, it makes you wonder whether he chose this time period simply to allow for this avalanche of racism and sexism to pass by without too much judgment. I hate to speculate on something like that, but these are the sorts of theories you ponder while you sit, bored senseless, in your hardening theater seat, digging in your cup in a vain search for a speck of lingering soda, absorbing another epithet or piece of misogyny, praying for the sweet release of the credits.
For as much as has been made about Tarantino shooting this film in 70mm, which allows for wider portraits, that technique ends up adding nothing. The claustrophobic setting doesn’t help, but Tarantino just doesn’t seem particularly interested in showing you multiple things in one shot. The best thing he does is avoid over-cutting his scenes, but there’s little that’s visually arresting about this movie.
The greatest pleasures from this will be watching the media writhe while trying to pretend that it’s better than it is. Case in point: A.O. Scott of The New York Times writes that “none of [Tarantino’s] other films venture so far into tedium” and “much of it seems dumb and ill considered, as if Mr. Tarantino’s intellectual ambition and storytelling discipline had failed him at the same time.” Metacritic (which I usually really like) converts this review to a score of 60 out of 100. Does that sound accurate to you?
If you skip H8, all you’ll miss are a boring parade of repetitive and mundane dialogue, storytelling techniques that a first-year film student could out-do—I’ve got it, let’s put somebody below the floorboards!—and revolting violence (much of it gleefully directed at the only woman in the main cast). I don’t know about anyone else, but none of that is my idea of a fun Friday night. If you’re in the mood for a movie, just watch Die Hard again. Watch Christmas Vacation. Watch Lethal Weapon—which feels especially fitting, since, even though I’m not yet 30, I’m clearly too old for this shit.
Or, to put it another way, I’d rather endure the punishments the characters in this movie face than sit through it again.
Merry Christmas, everyone.
Image courtesy of film’s official Twitter account.