Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” is a violent, bloody piece of work drenched in stylish excess and vicious black humor. This aspect will not surprise you if you are familiar with many of Tarantino’s sensational works, but this eighth film of his is quite mean, brutal, and ruthless even in his standard. After establishing its cold, snowy ground with a bunch of various untrustworthy characters stuck within a closed space, this savage western film mercilessly and relentlessly strikes us hard with how much its unlikable characters are literally hateful to the core, and you will be gripped by its ambitious take-no-prisoner exercise in bloody nihilism for more than 2.5 hours – or repelled by its relentless serving of simmering murderous hate and barbaric remorseless violence on its big, wide canvass of 65 mm film.
Its set-up is simple. After the ominous score by Ennio Morricone is played over the snowy winter landscapes of some rural area in Wyoming during the 1870s, the first chapter of the movie opens with the accidental meeting between two bounty hunters Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and John Ruth (Kurt Russell) on the road to a small town named Red Rock. Because the weather is getting worse, Warren, who had been stranded on the road before coming across Ruth, needs any possible ride for him and the corpses of three recently deceased outlaws, and, after some cautious negotiation process between them, Ruth lets Warren into his stagecoach, which has been only occupied by him and his feisty outlaw prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) while being driven by a driver named O.B. Jackson (James Parks).
Ruth has to be very careful about his ride, for it is highly possible that Daisy’s gangs are going to ambush him for her rescue at any point. While he trusts Warren to some degrees because they met each other before, Ruth is suspicious of another guy they come across later. Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) says that he is going to Red Rock as the newly appointed sheriff of the town, but this Southern guy does not look that reliable from the start, and his blatant racist attitude certainly annoys and offends Warren, a black man who fought for the Union during the Civil War while gaining some notoriety for his ruthlessness on the enemies.
And then Ruth and Warren come across more things to worry about. As the weather gets far worse than expected with a freezing blizzard, the stagecoach stops by Minnie’s Haberdashery, and they and others in the stagecoach have to spend at least a few days in this place until the blizzard is attenuated. Ruth and Warren become more watchful than before as they notice a few strange things in this place. They are told that the owner of the haberdashery is currently absent due to a family matter, and the haberdashery is being taken care of by a Mexican guy named Bob (Demián Bichir). In addition, there are Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), a British hangman who will probably execute Daisy as a certified professional; Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a cowpuncher on the return trip to his home; and General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), a former Confederate general who seldom moves on a sofa near the fireplace in his numb, flaccid state.
While this is indeed a classic locked-space mystery setup originated from Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians”, a.k.a. “And Then There Were None”, the movie is also clearly influenced by that cold, claustrophobic paranoid mood among a group of isolated characters in John Carpenter’s sticky SF horror thriller film “The Thing” (1982). Tarantino even uses the unused portions of Morricone’s score for that film, and there are also a few visual nods to Carpenter’s film as the movie emphasizes the blistering cold weather encompassing the haberdashery and the characters inside the place.
Not so surprisingly, it slowly turns out that this typical situation is not just a simple matter of vigilance as Tarantino’s screenplay begins to twist the situation through the diabolical mechanism of hate and hostility among its main eight characters. Although O.B. may as well be the ninth member of the group, I guess he cannot be included in the group because 1) he is really who he seems to be on the surface and 2) he is not hateful enough to join the club.
If many of the characters in “The Thing” have tentacles or claws to be sprung out of their bodies, all of the main characters in “The Hateful Eight” have each own detestable sides to be spewed from their racist/misogynistic minds, and this is not a pretty sight at all. As usual for a Tarantino film, the dialogues in the film are frequently rude and profane with lots of swears, but Tarantino is a talented writer who does know how to write good dialogues to grip our attention, and we come to follow his plot with morbid fascination as we dislike his pretty unlikable character more and more. Sure, there is not any character we can root for in the film in contrast to other notable Tarantino’s films including his best work “Pulp Fiction” (1994), but we instead find ourselves wondering about how much Tarantino will push the characters and their tense, volatile circumstance further.
And, boy, he does push his materials quite hard into his own pulpy area fueled by those trashy violent exploitation films he dearly loved. Once everything is set during its first part, the movie goes all the way for blood and violence along with a number of nasty turns for shock and awe, and Tarantino is clearly having a naughty fun with smashing and pulverizing genre elements to pieces as he previously did in “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) and “Django Unchained” (2012). I do not dare to go into details, but I can warn you that there will be lots of mayhems besides several merciless killings to be committed inevitably (is that a spoiler?), and you will definitely cringe at some of these very violent moments.
Although their characters are more or less than stereotype puppets to be shot or maimed as required, the performers in the movie play their unsavory characters with gusto, and most of them have each own despicable moments to savor. While Kurt Russell has a fun with his obnoxiously brash character, Samuel L. Jackson is still as commanding as his Oscar-nominated turn in “Pulp Fiction”, and he and Bruce Dern have a stupefying showstopper scene as Jackson’s character sadistically taunts Dern’s character for a dastardly purpose which is very clear to everyone in the haberdashery. It is delightful to see Tim Roth and Michael Madsen being together on the screen since Tarantino’s debut work “Reservoir Dogs” (1992), and Demián Bichir and Walter Goggins are also solid as wielding sneaky sides along with their co-stars.
The standout in the cast is Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is utterly feral and ferocious as hurling herself into many brutal moments which will remind you of her fearless performance in “Last Exit to Brooklyn” (1989). While her hellcat character frequently feels like a casual punching bag in the film as often beaten or punched by the other characters in the film who have no qualms on showing their misogynistic view, Leigh is totally committed to her thoroughly unrepentant character, and it is oddly interesting to see how her treacherous performance intensely clashes with the racist/misogynistic elements in the film, which are pungently presented with cold disgust. As I think more about its story and characters, most of the characters in the film are not wholly innocent in its bitter nihilistic picture regardless of whether they can be defined as victims or victimizers, and the movie sometimes feels like an evil twin of Paul Haggis’s “Crash” (2004). The haberdashery can be viewed as a microcosm of the American society, and the finale of the film comes with one hell of nasty bloody irony involved with how two opposing racist views come to find a common area of hate and join together for that.
It comes to my mind that the movie may be Tarantino’s own “Barry Lyndon” (1975). Like Stanley Kubrick, Tarantino confidently, or arrogantly in some people’s view, believe that he can hold our attention as long as he wants, and he shows here that he is capable of that through his mastery of storytelling and filmmaking techniques. As widely publicized, the movie was shot on 65mm film using Ultra Panavison 70, and Tarantino and his cinematographer Robert Richardson effectively utilize the format. While the movie usually stays around inside the haberdashery, it seldom feels stuffy as its main space are fully presented on the widescreen of 2.76:1 ratio, and you can appreciate the details of Yohei Taneda’s production design and Courtney Hoffman’s costumes on the big screen. I only watched the film through the digital screening (the digital release version of the film is 20 minutes shorter than the 70mm roadshow version, which Tarantino prefers), but it still looked impressive to me, and Richardson did a beautiful job of establishing its wintry atmosphere along with the occasional shots of vast snowy landscapes to watch.
Shamelessly excessive and self-indulgent, “The Hateful Eight” could be shortened to be a more taut and impactful experience, and I do not like it as much as Tarantino’s more, uh, likable works, but I felt both excited and exhausted as walking out of the screening room at last night. Since “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction”, there have been countless imitators of his style during last 23 years, but Tarantino is still around the top of his game, if not at the top of it. I still feel rather ambivalent about the film, and I think he will soon have to find another breakthrough if he wants to keep going on, but, for now, I interpret my reaction to this film in a positive way.