The Hateful Eight
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
"Well, well, well. Looks like Minnie's Haberdashery's about to get cosy for the next few days."
The Hateful Eight is the least accessible of Quentin Tarantino's films. It is also his most deceptively simple. Set in essentially two closed spaces, a stagecoach and Minnie's Haberdashery's one room, with relatively little escape from either claustrophobic environment, The Hateful Eight seems very theatrical, very much a filmed play. On the surface a drawing room murder mystery, the kind of thing Agatha Christie might have written, a closed room murder and no shortage of suspects. And Then There Were None set in the mythic American west, but with slightly more cussing. The Murder on the Orient Express with slightly less casual racism. Under the surface, though, there is rage and hatred and Tarantino's most overt statements on race relations and feminism in America.
Tarantino's become more deliberate, more thoughtful, less glib since the death of Sally Menke in 2010. Ms Menke was his editor and creative partner on all of his films up to Inglourious Basterds. The dark seriousness that cast a shadow over Django Unchained is present in The Hateful Eight as well, but even more so. The Tarantino of the past, with his pop culture allusions and playfulness and black suit cool, might be gone. Tarantino in his 50s is more meditative, more patient in his story telling. As others, much smarter than I am, have pointed out The Hateful Eight might be the first Tarantino film to be considered a drama. It's not that the movie is a complete downer, there are some funny moments. It's just that some of the funny moments are also moments of extreme brutality and violence. Tarantino has always loved to put his audience in that awkward position, laughing at something that really, honestly, should not be funny. Where we laugh and laugh and then sit uncomfortable with the knowledge we just laughed at something that we should have been horrified by. It's just that this time around, in this film, some of those moments are shockingly dark.
I first became a fan of Tarantino about a thousand years ago when Reservoir Dogs hit the culture like a ton of bricks wrapped in Hong Kong movie posters. And I've honestly loved every single one of his film, to varying degrees, but I have loved them all. Hell, if pushed I can defend Death Proof for hours. I owe my love of black ties (I own about a dozen) and surf music to Tarantino. I have explored Hong Kong crime movies and film noir and b-movies and have an unhealthy addiction to film trivia that I can trace back to Tarantino. There is no exaggerating here - Tarantino gave film geeks everywhere validation. The love of film became its own validation. If a film geek could be nominated for an Oscar, there was little the rest of us couldn't achieve.
Over the past couple of decades I've watched what seems like a half a million imitators try to recreate and fail at what Tarantino did in his first two films. I've watched his early scripts be turned into masterpieces by some directors, pure drivel by others. And through it all I've sat and watched as Tarantino achieved the impossible - he never, ever repeated himself. Sure, Hateful Eight is his third film to use Western conventions but they have all been different takes, different explorations of the genre. The same way his first three films explored American and Hong Kong crime films but never repeated beats, the way they peeled crime films and exploitation films like onions to find the different layers, the different themes waiting underneath the surface. That being said, however, it is hard not to compare The Hateful Eight to Res Dogs, what with the reunion of Michael Madsen and Tim Roth and the single room setting and the mystery of who is really who. At times it feels a bit like a return to the well, not too often, but there is a familiar aroma at times to the stew.
And maybe that's part of my problem with The Hateful Eight, the familiarity. It's something I'm not used to feeling in one of his films. Sure, there have been criss crossing character names and relations in the past - Alabama from True Romance is referenced in Res Dogs, and then there's the Vega brothers and Apple cigarettes. Tarantino has never shied away from the notion of a shared universe. But I don't think I've ever detected a hint of unoriginality from him before. And yes, I'm aware of City on Fire and The Killing and the rest of them so calm down. It's just that, in the past, one of Tarantino's strengths was taking moments from other films and tossing them into the mix and creating something new and unexpected. This faint whiff of Res Dogs, this returning to an old well, it's not overwhelming, it's doesn't detract from the artistic achievement that is The Hateful Eight. It's just seems a little, I don't know. Obvious?
There are other problems with The Hateful Eight. Some of the dialogue feels unfinished, it's missing that Tarantino sheen. And sometimes it feels like filler, like unnecessary exposition. Tarantino's usually a king of exposition, somehow able to make it feel necessary and poetic. This time around, it feels at best rough, at worst needlessly repeated. For example, Kurt Russell gives nearly the same speech maybe four times. At least four. There is a point in the room at Minnie's when he says it to separate characters individually and then repeats it to the group. For no reason it seems than other to fill up some space in a nearly three hour movie. Another problem, for me, is the nihilism that permeates this film. It is, at times, overwhelming. But, maybe that is what makes the ending so powerful. Maybe that nihilism and dread is needed for that ending to work as well as it does.
But the ending doesn't fully redeem the movie. I don't fully understand why it was shot in Ultra Panavision 70mm, it is for the most part set in enclosed spaces where the expanse and depth and scope of the process is lost. The interior of a stagecoach is not really the best setting to show off your new toys, or rather the old toys that you're getting to work with. This is the first film since Khartoum, in 1966, to be filmed this way. And while I did appreciate the beauty of the Colorado mountains and the depth of the cabin room and the way the shadows fell or the way the snow blew in around the door, I just kinda feel that filming this particular story in this particular manner might have been a case of Tarantino buying into the hype of his own genius. A smaller story, like this one, might have been better served with a smaller scope.
Now, let us discuss what works. For the most part, the acting is very good. Especially Jennifer Jason Leigh. As Daisy Domergue, she takes a lot of physical abuse but never once shows any weakness, never shows anything other than an inner strength that is both very impressive and very, very scary. Her teeth knocked out, quite literally covered in blood and gore, when she grins the temperature in the room drops by about ten degrees. Samuel L. Jackson plays Major Marquis Warren as the best damned poker player of ever, never showing what he's hiding, never even hinting that he is hiding anything at all. Kurt Russell does his best John Wayne, a giant of a man, a force of nature who tenderly unfolds his glasses when he has to read. Walton Goggins is going to be the surprise here for anyone who missed out on Justified. A good old boy, all smiles and racism and southern pride, his Chris Mannix is a steel edge tempered with black comedy.
One of the big surprises awaiting anyone who sits down to watch The Hateful Eight is the score. For the first time Tarantino commissioned an original score for one of his films. Ennio Morricone, at 87, turns in a beautiful and haunting score. The score is what tells us that all is not what it seems in the story, that there is a darkness hiding behind the blue skies and blinding white snow. The film begins with a stagecoach racing along in the mountains, the sky ahead is blue and the size of the whole outdoors, behind it is grey and ominous. The score tells us the weather isn't the only threat to our comfort and peace. Morricone has created a lot of truly beautiful music in his lifetime and I think, in my oh, so humble opinion, that his score for The Hateful Eight stands head and shoulders with some of his best.
Anyway, I need to wrap this up.
I have very conflicted feelings about The Hateful Eight. On the one hand, I feel that it is among Tarantino's lesser work and my reasons are listed above - some of the writing feels unfinished, the running time is unnecessary, the money spent is way too evident. But, and this is one big but, it also at the same time feels like one of Tarantino's great artistic achievements. Only a director with superhuman patience could have pulled this off. The first bullet doesn't fly until after the 100 minute mark. And then he pauses the film for a moment to let us in on what we should have been watching when we were busy looking at something else. And then he pauses the film again during the climax to bring everyone up to speed on what is going on. Tarantino has always been a master of the slow burn, of building up tension. But this, this is a whole new level.
I wanted to just write off The Hateful Eight when I started putting together this thing, but I just can't. It's far from perfect, but damn, if it isn't a hell of a piece of filmmaking.