The Hateful Eight (2015): Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demain Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, and Bruce Dern. Running Time: 167 minutes (187 minutes if you are watching the Roadshow version).
Trying to review a Tarantino movie is never an easy task for the uninitiated, often because one can’t escape the sense that his movies contain layers of meaning and potential “in-jokes” that you just aren’t getting. And if there’s a reason for that, that’s because that is often exactly what’s going on- Tarantino’s profound knowledge of the history of film, especially lesser-known pulpy subgenres, is already legendary, and far exceeds that which most people will ever have in their lifetime, so for all the controversies he sparks with his choices of subject matter, it’s hard to argue with the fact that he is clearly one of the smartest filmmakers in the game today, even if that can sometimes work against him.
Tarantino’s ability to weave subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) themes of the art of storytelling itself into the narratives of his films was something I was not yet able to appreciate when I saw Inglorious Basterds (a movie I owe it to myself to revisit) but that did strike me profoundly in both Pulp Fiction and his previous work, Django Unchained. His newest foray into self-referencing film history, The Hateful Eight, takes this to a whole new level by centering almost entirely around the stories our characters tell about both themselves and each other, and since neither those on-screen nor those of us sitting in the audience have any solid evidence for anything we are told, deciding what to believe rests entirely in our own hands.
Any such judgment must be made carefully, of course, since the core eight characters of our little yarn are, as the title implies, very hateful figures indeed (and that word itself is probably putting it lightly), so there is no real reason to trust much of anything they say. Forced to take shelter from an approaching blizzard out in the middle of Wyoming, John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) decides to wait out the storm in a small mountain hideaway called Minnie’s Haberdashery with his bounty, a crude-mouthed murderess called Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Along the way, he picks up two stragglers; Major Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a former Union cavalry officer in the recently-ended Civil War (and now a fellow bounty hunter), and Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins), the son of a Confederate fanatic who specialized in laying waste to freedman towns of former slaves.
When they arrive at the Haberdashery, things seem off. The door is broken and has to be nailed shut, and instead of finding Minnie and her husband sitting around as usual, they instead find a lone Mexican (named “Bob”) who claims to be in charge of things. There are also 3 additional guests, which particularly irks Ruth, since he wants as few people as possible knowing who he has chained to his wrist and why. These include an oily-sounding Brit claiming to be the local hangman, a former Confederate general famed for massacring captured black soldiers (so as you might expect, both Mannix and Warren recognize him on sight), and a lonesome-looking cowboy named Joe Gage, who prefers to sit off by himself. They bring us to our total of 8 “hateful” characters- the driver Ruth hired doesn’t really count, as he seems to be the only decent soul around for miles. Not that that will spare him the fate reserved for nearly all who inhabit a Tarantino film.
Having made an uneasy alliance with Warren to protect each other’s bounties as long as they are traveling together, and harboring a mutual hatred and mistrust of strangers in general (and Mannix specifically), they both agree that at least one person in the house, if not more, has lied about their identity. Ruth is convinced that the rat (or rats) is an associate of Daisy’s, looking for a chance to free her. Obviously, this is not the sort of environment one would willingly bunker down into, but as we learned at the beginning, there’s a fierce blizzard a-comin’, so everyone is stuck there for at least a day or two until the weather clears over, and the game is afoot to see who will blink first.
That’s the premise at its most basic form, but as anyone who has seen more than one Tarantino film can tell you, it’s just a jumping off point. Sticking to one kind of story per film is the sort of thing Tarantino is incapable of doing, so once the main pieces are in play, things veer off in wildly different (and, of course, horribly violent and/or crude) directions by the time the inevitably blood-and-brains-soaked conclusion arrives. The trailer bills the film as a Western, but it enthusiastically mixes in elements of closed-room mystery yarns, exploitation flicks, and psychothrillers. It is such a meticulously crafted piece of work (as indeed all of Tarantino’s films are) that it’s worth seeing just to see the level of remarkable artistry in play, even if you can’t get past or find any sense of redemptive purpose in the tremendous amount of carnage he forces you to endure. Without spoiling anything, it must be acknowledged that this movie has the highest casualty rate of anything I saw in or out of theaters in 2015.
A big part of how the film itself is made and presented lies in Tarantino's particular choice to use 70 mm film, which was much-trumpeted in the marketing, and serves mostly to highlight an incredible amount of detail in the world around the characters. Film is, in so many ways, the art of illusion- we always know we are seeing something fake, something being acted out in front of us, but only the best films are able to wholly override such knowledge during their run times, and make us feel like we are seeing real people in real places. This is strengthened in The Hateful Eight by (and this is also par for the course with Tarantino) an absurdly well-put-together cast. Everyone delivers perfectly on their respective characters. You all know Samuel Jackson will be great (although here he doesn’t play nearly as sympathetic a character as some might want to believe at first), but Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern, and Jennifer Leigh in particular all match him beat for beat, and Walter Goggins redefines the concept of “scene-stealing” with almost every line he utters.
I must admit that I did find myself wishing as I walked out of the theater that the movie had been a bit more thematically heavier than it actually is. Part of this is the nature of the story itself that is being told. Pulp Fiction deliberately ended with a twist revelation that lent an air of possible moral rescue from the morbid scenes we had seen earlier in the movie, and both Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained deliberately touched on hugely emotional and broad historical and cultural themes that lent greater symbolism to their every story turn. The Hateful Eight does not rest within such a larger framework. Yes, the setting and time period, plus the forced co-existence of a black Union officer and two holdovers from the defunct Confederacy, means that race plays a HUGE factor in a lot of the dialogue and character interactions (and is also key to the fate of at least one of the main "hatefuls"), but unlike in Django, there’s no message attached to it- it’s just there. Taken as a whole, the film’s setup of throwing 8 of the worst examples of humanity together (Matt Zoller Seitz explicitly compared them in his review to a bucket of scorpions) into a confined space just to see how things play out is precisely what we get. There is no salvation for anyone here. There is no broader message. Just a lot of death to behold, make of it what you will.
I don’t mean this as a criticism of the movie itself, but I think it is fair to say that it makes the film less memorable in some ways than Tarantino’s last two works, which will have a big influence on how it’s remembered outside of the realm of dedicated cinephiledom. There is also the particular question of how the film treats Jennifer Leigh’s Daisy, the only female included amongst the main cast. There is already some backlash against the film being indefensibly exploitative of her character- Ruth and Warren beat her mercilessly several times, she has snow and food thrown in her face, is called the “B-word” as often as Warren is called the “N-word,” and is deliberately shown in the ugliest, most unflattering light possible- but while I feel that these scenes were merely meant as confirmation of the irredeemability of everyone else on screen, the lack of any clear moral framework within the world itself makes that hard to parse out, and I feel I can’t fault anyone who disagrees and finds it excessive.
Ultimately, though, it’s hard to deny this movie its due- The Hateful Eight is another masterstroke by one of the best insane geniuses in the world of cinema today, one of the most thought-provoking works to come out in a year filled with thought-provoking works, and the sort of film I highly recommend seeing with in a group so you don’t have to think through it alone afterwards.