Brutal, Bloody And Grim: For These Eight, Hateful Ain’t The Half Of ItPosted: January 2, 2016
At this point I think we all have a pretty good idea of what to expect from a Quentin Tarantino film. You’ll get your opaque cult cinema references, your flowery dialogue, your jet-black humor and your bloody ultraviolence, all linked together by the fearless audacity of Tarantino’s frantic cinematic voice. The Hateful Eight certainly has all of these ingredients present and accounted for, and I am not surprised to see some critics already complaining that it is standard QT fare. But to dismiss The Hateful Eight in this way ignores two new ingredients in this particular pot of Tarantino: the deliberate pace, and the unshakable nihilism. And with that in mind, I say that The Hateful Eight shows Tarantino forging new ground in his filmography, while still staying true to that audacious voice that has made him a modern cinematic master.
The film is an exceedingly simple high concept: a blizzard traps a bounty hunter and his captured quarry in a frontier store with a surly cast of characters. The bounty hunter is John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his captive is Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). There’s also fellow bounty hunter and former Union soldier Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson) and soon-to-be-sheriff and ex-Confederate Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) who rode in the same coach as Ruth and Domergue. In the store we meet hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) and Confederate general Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern) who are already waiting out the storm. And then there’s Bob (Demian Bichir) who’s minding the store for the owners and OB (James Parks) who was driving the coach. And yes that’s nine and not eight, because math is less important than a good title.
The most obvious difference between The Hateful Eight and all other Tarantino movies is the careful and deliberate pace that marks most of the film. The first act of the film — with Ruth, Domergue, Warren, and Mannix in the coach — takes its time in exactly the way you might expect of a good Western. There are some gorgeous scenic shots to frame the conversational interplay amongst the initial quartet, and very little violence to speak of. Once the coach arrives at the storefront, the scope shrinks while the interplay among the cast heats up. It’s not until the midpoint that things really explode, and from there Tarantino just keeps escalating all the way to the climax. What’s most impressive about this slow-burn tension is that it is accomplished purely through dialogue and context; Tarantino uses the slow pace of the first half to establish exactly who each of these characters is so that we have a (supposedly) clear understanding of where they stand throughout the shitshow that follows.
Once things do go off the rails, though, the pace and energy of the film becomes entirely different. The second half is a mix between Ten Little Indians and The Thing, but with a great deal more vulgarity (and compared to the latter, about the same amount of gore). It’s a whodunit locked-room mystery, with a major twist and an unlikely alliance peppered in for good measure. This late-second-act stretch was my favorite part of the film, not because of the increase in action but because it was thrilling to see Tarantino’s intricately-constructed set-up pay off in such an impactful way. But of course, the prolonged payoff wouldn’t mean anything if it weren’t for the slow build that preceded it, and this careful construction is what unifies these otherwise-disparate portions of the film. Once we get to the ugly, dehumanizing finale, it does feel like Tarantino leans a little too much into his usual bag of violent tricks, albeit with some added weight and darkness. I found the finale a little less satisfying than the rest of the film on first viewing but it still worked well thanks to the almost-impeccable setup that preceded it.
Laced throughout this winding narrative road is a ton of unflinching commentary about race in America, which lends the film a great deal of power. Through Warren’s interactions with Ruth, Sanders, Domergue and Mannix, we see the various hostilities, dismissals and condecensions that African-Americans must face every day. And in Warren himself, we see a black man who is constantly under siege from every side, who needs every advantage he can muster to stay alive, and who carries within him an awful fury all his own towards the racist whites like Smithers that have been a perpetual source of pain and misery in his life. Perhaps the biggest disservice Tarantino does to his story is that this thematic meat feels mostly resolved by the intermission, and while the clockwork-precise structure of the second half continues to provide tension there is a bit less weight to it all without the racial backdrop playing into it.
Throughout all of this, the cast of characters remains compelling and arresting. Most of them walk the line between audaciously charming and disturbingly ugly, and the results are often hypnotizing. In particular, both Samuel L Jackson and Walton Goggins kill in their roles; Goggins finds some good nuance for the self-satisfied redneck Mannix, while Jackson plays Warren with the same collected demeanor as Jules in Pulp Fiction… until he has to reveal the inner darkness of the character, where he brings some additional sadistic relish to his performance. As a whole though, the ensemble all play off each other very well indeed, working in lockstep with Tarantino’s forceful direction and scripting to bring some heavy humanity to the heightened proceedings.
The Hateful Eight is a bleak film, moreso than any other film Tarantino has made. It’s message about race and it’s ugly climax are disquieting and mean, and the whole film is as uncompromising as anything Quentin has accomplished before. The final result is singularly brutal and undoubtedly watchable, but also highly recommended for those who can stomach it. Right now it is far from my favorite Tarantino film, but like its predecessors it is certainly a film I expect to revisit more than once in the near future.