Written by: Zac Fanni
There is a point in the The Hateful Eight where you realize that you might be watching the most menacing film to be released this year – for me, it was after Samuel L. Jackson filled the 70mm frame and faced the audience directly to release a laugh filled with such sadistic glee that I was almost afraid for my personal safety. However, what truly makes The Hateful Eight so unnerving is its relevance. While menace and bloodshed is nothing new for Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained seemed to use every squib available in Hollywood), the violence on display in his past two films is fundamentally cathartic: even if Basterds and Django contain tacit critiques of how we consume violence as viewers and consumers, they relish (and expect us to relish) the vengeance they exact on the past.
The Hateful Eight is an entirely different animal – while the style is recognizable, its violence is specific, particular, and filled with malicious intent. This is a film that doesn’t revise American history. It is a film that peels away the atrophied tissue of our national identity to show us the brutal sectarian violence that pushes American history down an almost-literal river of blood.
This is a long way of saying that the beloved Tarantino features are, oddly, in service of one of his most mature visions: an exploration of how a hate-filled history has been repeating itself, of how the post-Civil War frontier is akin to 2015 America. And, like with all of his films, Tarantino guides you through his vision expertly: the dialogue sparks with insistent energy between the characters, physical and verbal details boomerang back into later scenes with new import and consequence, parallel actions (like the playing of a piano and the telling of a tale) are meticulously paired to build and resolve suspense, and the 70mm format displays it all in a manner so tactile that you feel implicated in the violence that Tarantino brews beneath every scene.
This masterful execution is helped by actors that clearly relish their roles – with the exception of a few scenes, the entire film takes place in one haberdashery where a couple of bounty hunters, criminals and other questionable folk shack up for an evening during a blizzard sometime after the resolution of the American Civil War.
This makes The Hateful Eight Tarantino’s most literary and theatrical film (best paired thematically and structurally, perhaps, with Jackie Brown). This also makes the film rely heavily on its cast, all of whom dominate the stage in their own way – Kurt Russell makes John Ruth a bounty hunter that has your grandfather’s sense of propriety and a resolve that borders on naivety, Walter Goggins imbues his racist Southerner with a childlike impetuousness, and Tim Roth and Michael Madsen pontificate incessantly and glower mysteriously, respectively, while conveying a disturbing sense of duplicity.
While these actors (along with Bruce Dern as an obsolete Confederate general and Demion Bechir as a taciturn host of the haberdashery) truly fill their roles in a way that makes every scene seem pregnant with violent possibility, the performances of Samuel L. Jackson (Major Marquis Warren) and Jennifer Jason Leigh (Daisy Domergue) emerge as the film’s focal points, coalescing plot points and characters into a spectacular final clash that feels as amoral and titanic as a natural disaster.
Leigh, with her hyena-like attraction to carnage, and Jackson, with the capricious forcefulness of a hurricane, command every frame they are in, and it is an absolute pleasure to be enthralled by each of their performances. Warren and Domergue also seem to be the only characters aware of the tensions and conflicts at play in the haberdashery, which makes them effective stand-ins for the audience: we are with Warren in one moment, delivering retribution to malevolent characters, and with Domergue in another, trapped in a plot that moves forward because of our desire for spilled blood. In this way Tarantino continues his tendency to feed us our violent fantasies while implicating us in their construction – we are horrified and repulsed by the carnage…yet we cannot wait to see it unfold.
Some viewers will inevitably find fault with the film’s length and the ratio between violence and dialogue (this is one of Tarantino’s talkiest films). Like any outrageously successful director, Tarantino answers only to himself, which means he can take his time. Yet with a filmmaker as disciplined as he is, this moves beyond self-indulgence: seeing the three-hour-long 70mm roadshow version felt like an evening event, as the overture and intermission allows Tarantino to pace the film superbly and play the audience with a nuance that is rarely experienced at the movies (the collective gasps, shrieks and laughs were as genuine as they were unexpected). While it may seem to fill too much of the film, all exposition is rooted in interaction and every detail becomes relevant to our understanding of the characters and to the outcomes of later scenes. As a result, we are given characters that feel truly alive, characters that feel like they have lived beyond the celluloid that has captured them. I relished being given a chance to live in Tarantino’s universe, where events were recounted that felt like they could have been a part of history.
The only possible problem with The Hateful Eight is that we may be seeing signs of a Tarantino that is starting to become trapped by his own habits. When character smokes Red Apple tobacco (a reference to the Tarantinoverse that almost plays like a commercial), worry creeps in – are we watching the Tarantino ouroboros? Are we actually seeing his rhythms start to settle into limits?
The film left me with the hope that Tarantino will soon expand beyond his predilections (in order to grow instead of stagnate), but it still fundamentally works – The Hateful Eight still manages to shock, surprise and delight. Even though you know Tarantino, you never quite know what turn the film will take, which makes watching it utterly thrilling and enthralling in the true sense of the word: you are are entranced, given over to it, relishing the rare cinematic pleasure of having no idea what to expect from scene to scene.
The film’s pointed use of the grotesque is what keeps it from feeling like a predictable entry in Tarantino’s oeuvre – in watching the film you are often torn between disgust and laughter, elation and despair. The Hateful Eight is a film that drips with an alien familiarity: it pays homage to B movies and Spaghetti Westerns (and even uses a superb original score from Ennio Morricone) to serve a new vision that dissects past and present America. This conflation of opposites is everywhere: characters makes you laugh while also making you wince, and Tarantino’s characteristic humor is deftly used to make us aware of how much we are enjoying the hate and carnage on display. Thus the hint of audience critique in Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained becomes a pointed finger here, almost accusing the audience of relishing and making possible the spectacular orchestra of violence that we bear witness to. Major Warren’s letter from President Lincoln bookends the film, and it is a clear representation of the delusional American Dream, underneath which simmers the violence that birthed (and continues to plague) the country. It is fitting that the letter becomes covered in spit, phlegm, and blood.
This has been most intriguing aspect of Tarantino’s recent films: their capacity for modern comment. The Hateful Eight shows us a Tarantino furious with the delusions of democracy, equality and national solidarity that are imposed on a vast American geography of violence, sadism and racism. The film exposes us to a brutal crescendo of carnage that seems to be ordained by American history. Its grotesque pertinence makes The Hateful Eight difficult to digest: it leaves you wondering what other option could have possibly been left to either the characters or the nation that birthed them. How can we possibly deal with our history of deeply personal, systemic violence? How can we contend with the viciousness that plagues our modern identities and ‘sacred’ institutions? Might we ever manage any kind of reconciliation or resolution?
The film’s ending presents us with this national conundrum even as it slows to its last, bloody frame – we are left there with the film’s remaining characters, on our backs, in the midst of the blood and brain matter, trying to make sense of it all.