'The Hateful Eight'
When you think about the Christmas movie season and the heartwarming populism therein, a blood-soaked Quentin Tarantino Western isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind. Yet ‘The Hateful Eight’ marks the second time that a violent trip to the Old West delivered by the movie-obsessed auteur has made it to screens in time for the festive season. Weird? Sure. Appropriate? Not really. However, when the guy can make movie-drunk entertainment this satisfying, it’s hard to complain.
Tarantino’s gorgeously glossy 70mm intimate epic kicks off on with a stunning title shot of a snow-covered field as a stagecoach races towards the camera. We soon meet John Ruth (Kurt Russell), a blowhard bounty hunter handcuffed to his latest conquest, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). There’s a tidy sum of cash in it for Ruth to see her hanged, so he’s a little cautious when rival bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) pops up with three high priced corpses of his own looking for a ride in the stagecoach. They form an uneasy alliance and are soon joined by Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), the joyfully racist future sheriff of the town that will pay their bounties.
The three men agree to let their differences slide and soon end up at an isolated cabin where they hope to spend the night while waiting for a storm to pass. Inside the building are a collection of worrying souls like Tim Roth’s goofy hangman, Michael Madsen’s loner cowboy, and Bruce Dern’s former Civil War general who doesn’t take too kindly to a black man’s presence. It’s clear that the night will be a long one filled with paranoia. And what’s that? Channing Tatum is also in the cast list? I wonder how he’ll factor in?
As with any Tarantino film, ‘The Hateful Eight’ is defined as much by cult and forgotten movies of the past as the writer/director’s own creations. This time he makes allusions to Sergio Corbucci’s bitter winter Spaghetti Western ‘The Great Silence’, Tarantino’s own ‘Reservoir Dogs’, John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’, and oh-so-many others. (One song is even pulled from ‘Last House on the Left’). It’s an amusingly diverse collection. The ‘Reservoir Dogs’-style bloody, claustrophobic dick-measuring contest between slimy souls with secrets is an intriguing point of comparison for Tarantino since he’s referencing himself. In another filmmakers’ hands, that might feel a bit cannibalistic, but for QT it’s an oddly appropriate career shift. However, as much as that self-fellating reference hangs over the proceedings, it’s the cold (in all senses of the word) paranoia of ‘The Thing’ that resonates the most through ‘The Hateful Eight’. This is an ugly movie filled with horrible people that would be tough to stomach were it not for Tarantino’s masterful direction, amusing characterizations and hilarious dialogue. Somehow, all the unpleasantness proves to be joyfully entertaining… until it’s not.
Having only seen the 70mm roadshow presentation, the movie has an interesting structure. Tarantino spends the first 90-ish minutes before the intermission laying track and setting scenes. All the characters on screen feel like they can’t be trusted. Aside from being a collection of outlaws and scumbags, they all carry secrets that make them even worse. The first half of the film is almost a game played between the characters, with no one backing down or revealing too many of their cards. Everyone studies everyone else and the audience is very much invited to join in. The ultra widescreen presentation in this first half is filled with gorgeous snowy landscape shots that really show off the beauty of the format, but also a collection of deep focus compositions featuring a variety of characters and telling a variety of truths/stories within each frame. It’s a deliciously clever setup spiked with barbed rounds of dialogue and it peaks with the first big act of violence before the intermission.
When the audience return to their seats, all bets are off. The setup is complete and now Tarantino is playing ‘Twelve little Indians’, filled with his trademark tonal shifts, dark humor, and unexpected flashbacks revealing secrets the audience didn’t even consider. It’s also an utter bloodbath as Tarantino toys with every type of on-screen violence imaginable and how audiences respond. Some deaths are slapstick silly, others disgustingly gruesome. Some are deserved, others accidental. It’s a rollercoaster, with earned shock and dramatic value since so much time was spent setting up this world.
Eventually, it all ends with an intriguing final murder. On the one hand, it’s one of the most morally and narratively earned deaths in the story. On the other hand, it’s by far the most difficult to watch, making catharsis difficult and forcing the audience to contemplate why they enjoyed all the bloodletting in the first place. It’s a clever way for Tarantino to wrap up a tale of cowboy betrayal and bloodshed, as well as one of his most intriguing explorations of violence in a career defined by such things.
The performances are of course excellent. Kurt Russell dons his mightiest facial hair since ‘The Thing’, but his performance feels rooted in another Carpenter classic: ‘Big Trouble in Little China’. Once again, Russell plays a big blowhard who believes his own hype more than anyone else and he’s even doing that John Wayne impression again. It’s a fantastic turn from the actor, one that’s hopefully part of a career resurgence.
Samuel L. Jackson gets his meatiest Tarantino role since ‘Jackie Brown’ and steps up to deliver a delightfully disgusting and charming outlaw. Walton Goggins offers some deceptively complex work, initially seeming like a comic relief dummy before unexpectedly growing into the moral center of this immoral tale. Madsen, Roth, Tatum, Dern and the rest of the gang all get their own multilayered liars and cheats, each with at least one scene that’s theirs to steal. But it’s likely Jennifer Jason Leigh who steals away the film in a mostly silent performance that seems to be uncomfortably victimized for much of the running time, until she proves otherwise. Leigh has always been an underrated actress and it’s nice to see her finally get the Tarantino treatment.
Now, as beautifully shot (seriously, see it in 70mm if you can), perfectly acted and nastily, hilariously written as ‘The Hateful Eight’ might be, it would be a lie to declare it a perfect movie. For one thing, it is just too damn long. While Tarantino amuses himself (and viewers) by stretching his tease and shock tactics to the breaking point with this generously lengthy effort, it really needs a little editing out of butt-numbing mercy. It’s an indulgent film, particularly when Tarantino provides his own distractingly unnecessary narration at one point. It’s odd that a filmmaker so influenced by stripped-to-the-bone exploitation cinema never seems to follow that editorial efficiency in his own work. Hopefully that’s something he’ll embrace one day (especially since he only has two movies left to make, in accordance with the inexplicable ten movie limit he’s imposed on his career).
Likewise, after toying with ancient revenge storytelling conventions and cleverly subversive historical fiction in his last few outings, some might find the content of ‘The Hateful Eight’ to feel a little slight. Though there are moments exploring racism, sexism and other dark sides of human nature, the movie is more a work of entertainment than a cinematic treatise. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s worth mentioning given that folks (myself including) tend to hold Tarantino movies to a higher standing than most.
Thankfully, the flaws of ‘The Hateful Eight’ are easy to ignore in the face of all the movie’s delightfully dirty pleasures. The Western has treated Tarantino well over these last two movies. It’ll be interesting to see what genre he slides into next, but if he stays in the land of spurs and ten gallon hats, that’s fine by me. They suit each other well and it’s nice to have someone out there keeping the genre alive.