Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Demian Bechir, Bruce Dern
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Running Time: 2 hours 47 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Quentin Tarantino is a showman, a pastiche artist, a film-geek, and above all else, a passionate believer in the power of cinema as transformative art. How else can one explain his latest three-hour Roadshow Western (shot in 70 mm, no less) other than as an extension of his unbending belief in the theatrical experience? Well, ego and self-indulgence is one way to look at it, and there's certainly some of that here; this is Quentin Tarantino, after all. But beyond his unabashed love for shooting on film stock over digital and the sacred space of the darkened theater, The Hateful Eight represents a turning point for the notoriously controversial filmmaker. It's a film which recycles elements of his past work; (most notably Reservoir Dogs and Django Unchained), but then grafts on a political framework involving race and the perversity of the American dream. Even more surprising, though, is the fact that this is the first Tarantino picture in which his juvenile fixation on depraved characters as harbingers of cool is put under a microscope.
To say The Hateful Eight is Tarantino's best film since 1997's Jackie Brown will likely bring out a string of trolling apologists, but there's little doubt that his last few ventures have been at the very least, exceedingly problematic. If Inglorious Basterds was his juvenile revisionist history lesson and Django Unchained an epic riff on Italian Westerns and blaxploitation dressed as a treatise on slavery, then The Hateful Eight is what happens when Sam Peckinpah is fused with giallo horror. There's also some Agatha Christie thrown in, with the majority of this thing unraveling like a murder mystery in which Tarantino's patented dialogue--dense, repetitive, vulgar, often uproariously funny--is the main draw. But what really surprises is the way he presents ruthless characters trying to survive frontier life and then refuses to worship them.
Being a pastiche artist (something Tarantino has openly admitted) certainly has it's drawbacks; one of which is the idea that riffing on what you grew up on is the worst kind of self-massaging hubris, but QT has mostly been able to take homage and successfully instill his own sensibilities into it. That he's made a film populated by ugly and cruel characters doing ugly and cruel things isn't that shocking. What is interesting, however, is that he removes the glimmer of admiration for his characters; resulting in a sadistic, deeply troubling cinematic experience that's also spiked with macabre humor and an almost gleeful representation of nihilism. In yet another perverse take on history, Tarantino attempts to reconcile the North and South following the fallout of the Civil War. In a sense, one could view The Hateful Eight as a spiritual sequel to Django Unchained.
Truthfully, Tarantino is going for something far more intimate and pulpy than the broader scope of his last film, introducing us to a motley crew holing up inside a shop called Minnie's Haberdashery during a blistering snow storm. There's bounty hunters John Ruth (Kurt Russell, channeling John Wayne), and Col. Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson, channeling Sam Jackson), who are dragging along apparent murderer Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to be hanged at nearby Red Rock. Already inside are an english dandy (Tim Roth, channeling Christoph Waltz) a mysterious stranger (Michael Madsen), an aging War veteran (Bruce Dern), apparent sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) and Demian Bichir's Mexican caricature Bob, who is looking after the shop while MInnie is away. What transpires is a series of nearly 3-hour variations on the opening sequence from Basterds; with characters lying, double-crossing, speaking in repetitive circles, and carefully delaying the bloodbath which inevitably occurs in Tarantino fashion.
Many will complain that Tarantino takes too much time unraveling the mystery, or that the mystery, such as it is, isn't even all that compelling. Others will wonder why he decided to shoot his film in 70mm Panavision and then set the majority of the action inside a single snowbound location. There will also likely be think pieces written about his overly fond use of the "N" word and attitude toward women (Leigh's Daisy Domergue gets repeatedly punched in the face by Russell's bounty hunter), but this isn't all that surprising given the director's consistent methodology. Courting controversy and making the exact kinds of films he wants without compromise has been his mission statement from the genesis of his career, and why would he stop now? If 2015 was the year in which political correctness and liberal ideals of movie characters as sympathetic with message-driven narratives was all the rage, then Tarantino has predictably given a fuck-off to good taste. If his structural choices remain dubious--the decided change during the latter half involving a flashback and Tarantino's own voice delivering cutesy narration robs the film of it's growing sense of menace--then such flaws aren't completely detrimental to a film that's as talky as a David Mamet play and as gloriously bloody as a giallo horror-fest.
The Hateful Eight is as uncompromising a vision of Tarantino's signature style as anything he's mounted since the mid-90s. It's certainly more focused than Django and has more pure narrative tissue than Basterds without ever falling into fan-boy pastiche like the Kill Bill pictures. It is, in a way, a more mature effort from a filmmaker who is undoubtably repeating many of his past thematic concerns, but with a firmer grasp on stripping away the "bad-ass" veneer of his characters and making the violence even more stomach-churning. In a sense, we are invited to at first snicker at and then be horrified by the depraved acts of carnage brought about by a group of people for whom all glimmers of sympathy have been eradicated by the end. During the film's final scene, there's a bizarre poignancy to the idea that the remaining characters are trapped inside an idealized version of the country that simply doesn't exist, even to this day. If this is the future hope for America, Tarantino seems to be saying, we are all supremely fucked.