The Hateful Eight
Tarantino’s new Western is more than a little cold around the heart
The Hateful Eight (2015)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh
In a nifty act of symmetry, indie icon Quentin Tarantino has crafted a numerically appropriate film for his eighth outing as director. The Hateful Eight finds him lingering in the spaghetti Western genre he dipped his toe into in 2012’s Django Unchained. Fans will, as always, find plenty to gush over. Will he win any new converts? Probably not. But this mean-spirited powder keg of a mystery/action/drama is easily his tightest, most narratively focussed since his 1992 debut, Reservoir Dogs.
It’s not that Tarantino has dropped his trademark style of raping and pillaging his way through film history, leaving behind references to French crime films, Italian cop dramas, Chinese marital arts movies, assorted American grindhouse flicks of the 1970s and pretty much anything else that’s crossed his radar in the last 30 years of obsessive film consumption. His works will always be maniacally “inspired” by five or six obscure old cult films that he saw but you didn’t. Yet The Hateful Eight actually seems more concerned with narrative than with name-dropping.
It’s winter in Wyoming and a stagecoach is racing madly ahead of a raging blizzard. It’s trying to reach the nearest shelter, a humble wooden waystation called (improbably) Minnie’s Haberdashery. Inside the coach are notorious bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his prisoner du jour, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Ruth is trying to get to the town of Red Rocks in order to collect the $10,000 bounty on Domergue’s head. She’s wanted dead or alive, but Ruth prides himself on allowing his quarry to keep their appointments with the business end of a noose (hence, his nickname).
Ruth’s progress is impeded by two hitchhikers, a fellow bounty hunter by the name of Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and a man claiming to be the new sheriff of Red Rocks, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins from “Justified”). Ruth doesn’t trust anyone, assuming everyone he meets is either a fellow bounty hunter trying to steal his prisoner or a compatriot of Domergue’s trying to free her. But, on the off chance Warren and Mannix are on the up-and-up, he can’t abandon them to die in the looming blizzard. The quartet make it to Minnie’s Haberdashery just as the storm smashes down like the hammers of hell. There, they cross paths with four other stranded strangers: A fancy-talking British hangman (Tim Roth), a crotchety old Confederate general (Bruce Dern), a tight-lipped cowpoke (Michael Madsen) and a bemused Mexican caretaker with the unlikely name of Bob (Demián Bichir). All are trapped inside the tiny lodging house until the storm passes. What follows is basically a feature-length Mexican standoff.
Though it keeps its genre mashups and references to a minimum, The Hateful Eight can best be described as Stagecoach crossed with The Thing as written by Agatha Christie and directed by Sergio Leone. Our eight main characters are stuck snowbound together for the duration, suspicions running wild and trigger fingers getting itchier by the minute. Tarantino does a pitch-perfect job stretching out the film’s tensions and building up the mystery of who wants to kill whom and why. That isn’t to say he fails to indulge in his trademark tangential conversations. But the film’s various subplots, character interactions and curse-filled speeches all more or less coalesce around post-Civil War social and racial relations. Everyone on screen is either black or white, Southern or Northern, American or Mexican, outlaw or lawman—all of which ratchet up the conflicts, even among characters who aren’t secretly plotting to murder one another. There are plenty of metaphorical references to today’s racial and social landscape, making The Hateful Eight one of Tarantino’s most contemporary films, oddly enough. But the bottom-line question of the film is simple: Can human beings trust each other enough not to kill one another the first chance they get?
The answer is “of course not.” I mean, c’mon, this is a Quentin Tarantino film. After the film’s tense but fairly chatty first half (the film is divided neatly in two with a full-fledged intermission), the second half explodes in copious bloodshed. Some may find the wait a bit long-winded (upwards of two and a half or three hours, depending on which version you see). But Tarantino is the kind of filmmaker you just have to indulge. The Hateful Eight is ridiculous, crazy, funny, violent, claustrophobic, profane, macabre ... and one hell of a hoot.