At the risk of committing the intentional fallacy, The Hateful Eight seems to show writer/director Quentin Tarantino at his angriest as a filmmaker. It plays like Django Unchained‘s pissed off, bleak, twisted cousin – Samuel L. Jackson plays bounty hunter Marquis Warren, a Civil War veteran and the sole black man in this (literally) white world. In that regard it’s only a short step away from Django; but this is a much more complicated, vicious, murky affair, lacking the righteous moral center that Jamie Foxx’s titular character provided in that film.
The title is an appropriate one – this is a movie about eight deplorable and despicable people, all cooped up together in a Wyoming haberdashery thanks to a blizzard. Add Robert Richardson’s 70mm capturing of the snowy, wind-howling frontier landscapes and Ennio Morricone’s ominous musical score and the main character total climbs to ten, but most of Eight‘s run time is dedicated to the slow burn of tempers and tensions inside this stagecoach stop. These tensions are initially stirred up by John “The Hangman” Ruth (an outstanding Kurt Russell, whose mustache deserved a credit slot), whose bounty, Daisy Domergue (a bloody, roughed up Jennifer Jason Leigh), is worth $10,000. Forced into Minnie’s haberdashery, run dubiously by Bob (Demián Bechir) by the blizzard, Ruth is understandably paranoid. Furthermore, the African-American Warren’s presence ruffles Lost-Causer-turned-sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) and ex-Confederate general Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern). Tarantino mainstays Michael Madsen and Tim Roth round out the ensemble as a mysterious cowboy and hangman respectively. Comparisons drawn between this film and The Thing, as well as his debut Reservoir Dogs, are apt.
But The Hateful Eight, despite its expected homages and influences, is its own beast. As visually stunning as it is (and it is truly gorgeous), this is one mean, ugly, and often downright nasty movie. As always, there are layers upon layers of artifice here (this may be his first movie that could effectively function as a stage production), but despite the gallows humor sprinkled throughout and the bursts of over-the-top squib-splattering violence, The Hateful Eight is Tarantino’s most mature film since Jackie Brown. After the first bout of tensions boiling over Tim Roth’s Mobray suggests that the group split the haberdashery into sections to keep everyone calm while they’re cooped up. He labels one half the North, and one half the South, effectively solidifying this idea of Minnie’s haberdashery as America.
If that is the case, then Tarantino’s vision of America is a bleak one. It is a history of vile people taking things that do not belong to them, corrupting and perverting The American Dream into something grotesque. The lush, elaborately detailed period setting allows him to enact repeated provocation while and still successfully suspend disbelief. Yet even its provocation is layered in irony, making The Hateful Eight‘s racial politics and ideas far denser and more complex than, say, Django‘s. The film’s final shot does offer a glimmer of hope, but all in all Eight depicts a perverted America whose idealistic “Dream” is still a long way off, replaced by an all consuming hate and violence. Unlike in most of his other films, save perhaps Reservoir Dogs, the violence here is never played for laughs, and when characters get their comeuppance cathartic release is nowhere to be found. I found its meanness unsettling and affecting.
Regardless of its thematic implications, and despite its status as a chamber whodunnit (or, rather, who’s-gonna-do-it), The Hateful Eight is full of extraordinary spectacle. If it has a flaw it is in its self-indulgence, but every scene cooks and crackles with tension, especially Jackson’s soon-to-be-infamous monologue. In fact, this might be his best screen performance in a Tarantino movie. The filmmaker still knows how to spin a yarn, create authentic characters, and find actors that become those characters, rather than assembling an ensemble of “big names.” That said, unlike many of his other films, I wouldn’t recommend The Hateful Eight as a “good time,” or a movie you’ll love. This is a rough, angry film. Just like Sicario, The Hateful Eight depicts a “land of wolves.” There are no sheep.