The Hateful Eight (2015) / Western-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for strong bloody violence, a scene of violent sexual content, language and some graphic nudity
Running Time: 168 min. (70mm print runs 187 min.)
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Bruce Dern, Tim Roth, Demian Bichir, Michael Madsen, Channing Tatum, James Parks, Dana Gourrier, Zoe Bell, Lee Horsley
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino
Review published December 24, 2015
It's Quentin Tarantino's eighth film, and his second Western in a row, after Django Unchained. It will likely go down as one of QT's middling works, who is not only still continuing to recycle bits and pieces from some of his favorite filmmakers of yesteryear -- from traditional oaters to Spaghetti Westerns to Agatha Christie murder mysteries to John Carpenter's The Thing (which also features Kurt Russell) -- but also echoes elements of Tarantino's own prior works as well, almost to the point of self-parody.
As with all of Tarantino's prior flicks, there's a good deal of murder, vengeance, and twisted alliances. Set in a wintry Wyoming in the late 19th Century, we start the film off with ex-Union soldier turned bounty hunter named Major Marquis Warren (Jackson, Avengers: Age of Ultron), who stops a stagecoach in the middle of travel through a desolate mountain pass just ahead of a major snowstorm. On board the stagecoach is a fellow bounty hunter, John 'The Hangman' Ruth (Russell, Bone Tomahawk), who, unlike Marquis, takes his dead-or-alive bounties in while they're still breathing so they will be hanged at the public square. The other passenger is one of those bounties Ruth is taking in to Red Rock, a racist spitfire named Daisy Domergue (Leigh, Welcome to Me). A little further, they reluctantly pick up another passenger, Chris Mannix (Goggins, American Ultra), who claims that he's set to become the new sheriff of Red Rock upon arrival, and to whom they would collect their rewards.
The quartet, along with stagecoach driver O.B., are forced to shelter from the blizzard at a secluded tavern called Minnie's Haberdashery, where they meet a new collection of interesting people, including a Mexican, Bob (Bichir, Machete Kills), who is tending the needs of the place while Minnie is away, a former Confederate general named Sandy Smithers (Dern, Nebraska), a drifter named Joe Gage (Madsen, Scary Movie 4), who says he's there to visit his mother for the holidays, and Oswaldo Mobray (Roth, Selma), and a man claiming to be the hangman who is traveling to Red Rock to put a noose on Daisy Domergue. Ruth begins to become convinced that one (or perhaps more) of the men in the group is actually there to help Daisy escape, which, if true, means there's going to be a violent confrontation about to go down at the Haberdashery if he's not rooted out before the plan is hatched.
Tarantino's love of film prompted him to shoot The Hateful Eight using older camera equipment and for it to be shown, in a limited selection of theaters, on 70mm film stock in widescreen Super Panavision 70 (the first film to use the process in nearly 50 years), complete with an introductory overture and intermission, shot by Academy Award-winning director of photography, Robert Richardson (Hugo, Eat Pray Love). In keeping with the old-school Western homage, Tarantino also enlists the services of his favorite composer, Ennio Morricone (Mission to Mars, Bulworth), for the phenomenal original score (including three unused tracks he had originally composed for 1982's The Thing), perhaps my favorite thing about the film overall. Interestingly, despite its film stock and widescreen pedigree, most of the film is set in one cabin location, mainly indoors, which makes it feel like the most small-scale film ever to go for the Panavision process in memory. In fact, it wouldn't take much paring to make this a one-set stage play. Does it need to be nearly three hours in length? Not at all, but one might suspect Tarantino is willing to pad things out in order to get that ultra-cool intermission for the reel change in those cinema theaters that still have projectors that can handle 70mm reels.
The reasons that The Hateful Eight is a lesser Tarantino work primarily resides in its script. Every bit of dialogue feels like typical Tarantino, such that it's hard to not hear his voice in your head, despite the words being spoken by the group of character actors on the screen. QT's voice is literally in this film at a certain point, in one sequence in which he narrates for reasons that are mystifying. One can see that with someone with the name and esteem (and ego) of Tarantino as a screenwriter, the actors are forced to make the dialogue work, even if it doesn't suit them, which does tend to make some scenes seem artificial. Tim Roth's foreign hangman character in particular feels like a Tarantino archetype used in his last two movies, and though I don't have evidence of this, I wouldn't be surprised if the character weren't written with Christoph Waltz in mind. Waltz, who seems to fit Tarantino's wordy monologue-heavy style like hand in glove, would have knocked it out of the park; Roth hits a bloop single. Jennifer Jason Leigh gives the closest thing to a standout performance in a supporting role, mostly for how willing she is to get sullied and mistreated while still never losing her impish spirit for caustic behavior.
As you'd expect, The Hateful Eight is an ultra-violent, grindhouse-worthy work, but far more over the top in its viscera than most non-horror flicks, taken to nearly absurd levels when wounds burst with blood the consistency of fruit punch, taking an obvious homage to The Wild Bunch to extreme proportions. It's use of the n-word and b-word and a few other epithets is also quite liberal, perhaps even overused to tasteless effect, even by Tarantino standards. More than any other film in his oeuvre, The Hateful Eight finds Tarantino at his most gleefully indulgent in terms of envelope-pushing carnage, gratuitous racial slurs, torture, rape, and rampant misogyny. It's as if he said to all those who criticize his excess in these regards, "Alright you whiny critics -- I'll give you something to really stew over!"
The Hateful Eight is a hateful movie, deliberately, which may divide viewers feelings on how to take in the repugnant excesses. Tarantino was able to get away with it because he had unsympathetic villains to skewer in the Nazis of Inglorious Basterds and the slave-owners in Django Unchained, but outside of the Confederate general who killed black people just because he could during the war, we get no backstory for most of these characters to suggest that they deserve what's coming to them. Tarantino may bask in the ultra-violence for bloody ultra-violence's sake, but he's pinned us in a position as a viewer that assumes that we love to watch people force sexual acts from desperate and dying men, vomiting blood in each other's faces, or human heads improbably exploding from gun shots. Sorry Quentin, not everyone gets the same hard-on for sensationalistic, cartoonish sadism and pornographic displays of desperate men (and a woman) butchering one another into a splattering of fake blood and smoking lumps of meat. Remove the n-words and tone down the levels of violence, and all but the most unapologetic of Tarantino fans (i.e., his enablers) will likely see that, underneath the button-pushing and wanton need for titillation, The Hateful Eight is one of his least inspired works.
Still, even when Tarantino is half-inspired, he's more inspired than most filmmakers on their best days, which is why I find myself ambivalent when he makes a pretty good movie instead of a great one, and why The Hateful Eight is still worth a try, despite being everything QT's detractors are hateful for.
©2015 Vince Leo