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Movie review 'The Hateful Eight': Wild West comedy of manners

DECCAN CHRONICLE | SUDARSHAN RAMANI
Published Jan 16, 2016, 1:38 am IST
Updated Jan 16, 2016, 7:12 am IST
A still from The Hateful Eight
 A still from The Hateful Eight

Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Demian Bichir, Channing Tatum, Bruce Dern
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Rating: 3 stars

Set in the cold mountainous state of Wyoming, The Hateful Eight is a violent drama of chance encounters gone wrong. John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is transporting dangerous criminal Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock via stagecoach. Along the way, he meets Major Charles Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), an African-American veteran of the American Civil War, who gets a seat in the coach as well as Charles Mannix (Walter Goggins), the future sheriff of Red Rock. At the onset of a blizzard, they arrive at a rest stop called Minnie’s Haberdashery. There they find other mysterious characters: an English traveller (Tim Roth), a silent cowboy (Michael Madsen) and an old racist Southerner (Bruce Dern). Nothing is as it seems as characters begin to share stories and discover old secrets.

The credits inform us that this is the eighth film by Quentin Tarantino, which justifies the pun in the title (“8ful 8”). In many ways The Hateful Eight is a return to his roots. The film is a great deal like Reservoir Dogs, set almost entirely in one location, dealing with betrayal and secrets. Tarantino is fundamentally a writer first and a director second. His movies derive most of their strength from giving actors his famously loquacious and digressive monologues.

When we think of Westerns, we think of stark landscapes, we think of dusty, dry scenery and we think of communities. In Tarantino’s film, we have a stagecoach and an inn. For landscape, we have snow-covered lands and cliffs. Tarantino borrows some elements (chiefly a wonderful score from Ennio Morricone, composer of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), but scales it down to stock characters from Western movies (The Outlaw, The Cowboys, The Sheriff) with a very slim plot and story.

That the film is still entertaining is largely down to the performances. Samuel L. Jackson chews the scenery with relish. One monologue, which he shares with Bruce Dern, represents perhaps Tarantino’s most gutsy and audacious gimmick yet. It is shocking, violent, crude and absolutely hilarious. The film is worth watching for that scene alone.

Among the other actors, Jennifer Jason Leigh is excellent in her role as the thoroughly psychopathic Daisy. On account of the constant abuse she endures, she becomes strangely endearing. The number of times she gets beaten or splattered over makes her a comic foil, and Leigh enjoys the hell out of the part. Channing Tatum shows up in a key cameo and does very well with his limited screentime.

The Hateful Eight can best be appreciated as a comedy of manners forcefully enacted by a cast of violent psychopaths. We know from the minute the characters meet that they will turn on each other and start killing one another. Tarantino distracts us by forcing them to enact a façade of civility, via a great deal of redundant exchanges and rituals, often featuring characters repeating dialogues twice, or repeating what the other characters say, all of which needlessly prolongs the action.

The strength and weakness of the film is the dialogue. Shot by the legendary cinematographer, Robert Richardson (who has won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography for JFK, The Aviator and Hugo), but fundamentally, this is a very stagy film. Indeed, Tarantino has announced plans to convert the film into a play.

The plot is essentially about the heroes walking into an ambush, and it’s never quite made clear why the bad guys take so much time to enact their retribution. One entire flashback sequence towards the end struck me as being overlong and unnecessary, revealing nothing we could not already infer from what we had seen and heard before. It destroys a great deal of tension in the process while making the characters’ actions more inexplicable.

One of the virtues of Reservoir Dogs was its ability to maintain tension via claustrophobic confinement and relative economy. It’s a little disheartening that after 23 years Tarantino has in some sense regressed.

The writer is programmer, Lightcube Film Society

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