#540: The Hateful Eight
Caution: Spoilers ahead.
Initial release: December 7, 2015
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Quentin Tarantino rarely does the same thing twice. While his seminal classic Pulp Fiction is arguably an evolution of the vibe he was trying to evoke with Reservoir Dogs, it’s still fundamentally its own thing with its own tricks and that unique narrative structure it’s famous for. Just because Kill Bill was divided into two movies doesn’t mean it’s not one film — Tarantino has privately screened a 4-hour cut titled Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair for years, though a home or streaming release has yet to materialize. And while The Hateful Eight might be another western immediately following Tarantino’s iconic revenge revisionist western Django Unchained, it’s a very different beast that in some ways goes back to Tarantino’s roots.
The Hateful Eight starts out simply enough. Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson, back again with the man who made him an international star) is a bounty hunter and Union veteran still wearing his army coat, dragging three corpses across the snow of a Wyoming blizzard. He crosses paths with a stagecoach, the occupants of which are “Hangman” John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his bounty, murderess Daisy Domigue, who is handcuffed to Ruth and being hauled to Red Rock, Wyoming to be hanged. Ruth is paranoid and uncooperative, not wanting anything to jeopardize his safety or his bounty, and treats any strangers as potentially attempting to rescue Daisy, likely at the cost of Ruth’s own life. Daisy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is chipper and sassy in spite of a tendency to incur Ruth’s wrath, which would likely explain the black eye she sports. Warren, and later a fast-talking ex-Confederate dork named Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) do manage to talk their way into getting a ride, but it’s a tense one as politics — and the actions of both Warren and Mannix’s father during and after the war — inevitably comes up in discussion.
Eventually they arrive safely at a halfway point some distance from Red Rock; by now, the blizzard is in full force, and Minnie, the proprietor of the stagecoast rest, is nowhere to be seen, nor her husband Sweet Dave. In their place is a Mexican man named Bob (Demián Bichir), who claims that Minnie and Dave went to visit her mother on the other side of the mountain and won’t be back until after the storm clears, and that Bob is looking after the place in her stead. Inside are three other men: Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth, doing his best to imitate Christoph Gans’ performance in Django Unchained), Joe Gage (frequent Tarantino collaborator Michael Madsen) and Confederate general Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern.) There’s candy on the floor, the coffee is bad, and the front door has a broken latch and must be nailed shut every time someone passes through it. Warren is suspicious, but says little. As the group tries to acclimate to each other, knowing they’re going to be stuck at the stagecoach rest for a few days, tensions begin to rise, largely due to the repercussions of the Civil War and the reasons it was fought, but also because Warren’s suspicions about Bob, and Ruth’s suspicions about everybody, color every interaction. When Warren goads the general (who committed an atrocity against an all-black Union unit) into pulling a gun on him so that Warren can shoot him in self-defense, it serves as an inflection point from which the rest of the movie begins to violently unravel.
As the bodies begin to pile up, secrets are revealed, and the cabin begins to get more and more blood-soaked, the film begins to more closely resemble some of its thematic ancestors: Sergio Corbucci’s 1968 film The Great Silence, Joaquín Romero Marchent’s 1972 film Cut-Throats Nine, and — scoff if you like — John Carpenter’s 1982 film The Thing. (This latter comparison is due to the presence of Ennio Morricone as composer, the use of unused compositions originally Ennio made for the Carpenter film, Kurt Russell as a bearded paranoiac on a mission, and the tension that comes from knowing that at least one person in the group is not who they say they are.) The use of violence is frequently sudden and intense; poisoned characters vomit blood without warning, a character is showered with someone else’s exploded brains, looking for all the world like someone dynamited my mother’s sloppy joes. In my review for Cut-Throats Nine I talked about it sometimes being billed as the Most Violent Western Ever Made, and I’m just going to say it: The Hateful Eight is a far more legitimate contender for that title.
As is often the case with Quentin Tarantino (I once joked that he loved three things: revenge films, the N-word and feet) race is a big part of the film and has to be discussed. While it’s not the all-encompassing theme like it was in Django Unchained’s slavery-ridden South, racism and the legacy of the Civil War play large roles in how the characters interact with each other. Daisy greets Warren with a “Howdy, [n-word,]” to which Ruth helpfully says “Now Daisy, don’t you know [n-words] don’t like to be called that no more?” While the use of the N-word doesn’t reach the absurd heights of Tarantino’s previous film, there’s still a deeply racially charged element in the film’s characters, their interactions, and the plot. Warren embodies an image of black vengeance, empowered through violence on white people. Okay, fine. Common enough theme (Jim Brown infamously gave up a football career to film a movie where he got to slaughter Nazis en masse — the kind of white folk nobody would ever feel bad about getting their just desserts.) But mixed with the subtle and unsubtle misogyny of Daisy’s treatment at the hands of John Ruth, the sheer scope of the violence, and the ham-fisted way Tarantino tries to call attention to the deeper cultural divide between North and South and how they might unify (Warren and Mannix, bleeding out, make their collective last act the slow, painful hanging of Daisy, captured in its entirety in unblinking 65mm, the specific nature of her crimes pointedly never being revealed) all suggests one thing: it’s all just window dressing, isn’t it? At its core, it’s a film about mistrust, paranoia and secrets, and how they can destroy a group. All the rest — North vs. South, what Daisy might or might not have done — is inherently unimportant, post-hoc justifications for absurd amounts of violence (including the wanton destruction of an antique guitar that, while supposedly accidental, got a genuine reaction out of Leigh that Tarantino was apparently pleased with) and 45-plus uses of the N-word.
So with all that in consideration, does Tarantino’s eighth film work? Well, sometimes. Perhaps even most of the time. Tarantino remains a reigning king of dialogue, his script carried out by an all-star cast acting on all cylinders; the isolated, almost singular location of the stagecoach rest is a different approach from Tarantino’s usually more wide-ranging selection of shooting locations, with nearly all the action taking place inside one room, ramping up the sense of isolation and claustrophobia as the storm rages outside. But there’s a sense that The Hateful Eight is, at least to some extent, Tarantino going through the motions. Most of what this movie does, he’s already done before in one film or another.
There’s two (well, two and a half) versions of the film. The theatrical cut is the version pretty much everyone has seen by now; the roadshow cut is a nearly 4-hour extended version that saw limited release until it was split into episodes and put on Netflix. With about 18 minutes of new footage, it mostly serves to add more characterization, especially to John Ruth, telling us what we already knew: he’s a paranoid, mean bastard. It doesn’t add a lot of significance, but it does make for a slightly more expansive portrait.
I do not regret my time with The Hateful Eight, and like all of Tarantino’s movies I will likely return to this film in the future. But while I came out of it feeling overwhelmed — it’s a lot! — I couldn’t help but also feel slightly disappointed. The Hateful Eight is indeed a lot, but it’s also missing something. It lifts so much from Tarantino’s past body of work, but it feels like a remix rather than anything new. And while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, I think Tarantino is at his best when he’s keeping his audience guessing.