The Hateful Eight is the most extreme film Quentin Tarantino has ever made. Above all else, his work fetishizes two things – dialogue, and old movies – and now he has enough material so that he can reference past films, in addition to others. While his eighth film is ostensibly a claustrophobic western, one that relies on escalating tension and familiar archetypes, he ultimately wallows in violence and exploitation to advance his ideas. This celebration of brutality and ugliness dares the audience to tolerate rampant misogyny, racism, and homophobia. Some critics argue that this “objectionable sadism” is precisely the point, a means to unveil some truths about how we consider history. Maybe I lost my nerve, but this venture into exploitation crosses a line so that the medium kills the message, and Emperor Tarantino is buck-ass naked. While The Hateful Eight is not a bad film, it is certainly his worst.
Part of my frustration is its confident, suspenseful first half. After a swirling, nostalgia-tinged overture by Ennio Morricone, there are snow-swept vistas of the Wyoming countryside (I’ll get to the roadshow print later). The first image of a person is also striking: Samuel L. Jackson, wearing a cowboy hat and a parka, sitting on a pile of corpses. Jackson plays the bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren, and asks for a ride from the stagecoach that comes to an abrupt stop. An encroaching blizzard threatens them, so the driver wants to take John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the safety of a nearby tavern. Warren negotiates his way onboard, and indeed The Hateful Eight is one negotiation after another. This a post-Civil War environment, so reputation and wartime behavior are what drive one party to accept/reject the terms of another.
The stagecoach also picks up Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), the new sheriff of the town where Ruth is taking Domergue for her execution. The remaining hateful four are already at the tavern when the rest arrive, and like in Django Unchained, Tarantino raises the stakes through civility. The characters are disarmingly polite to each other (pun intended), except flashes of anger and distrust start to reach the surface. There is also some levity from the tavern’s disrepair: the door is broken, for one thing, so every time it opens it must be nailed shut again. But once everyone gets cozy and break bread, Warren decides to provoke Confederate General Smithers (Bruce Dern). By the time the provocation is over, civility ends along with it, so everyone must figure out who they can trust or need to kill.
The Hateful Eight gains a lot of traction from the sheer likability of its actors. Jackson is a Tarantino regular – so is Russell, to a lesser degree – and Goggins is simply one of the most fun actors to watch on screen. Their characters are badass archetypes, instantly familiar to anyone who watches John Ford and Howard Hawks Westerns (Russell does an uncanny John Wayne impression). Tim Roth also pops up as a peculiar dandy, one who uses his accent to disarm his temporary housemates. The problems arise, proverbially speaking, when everyone under one roof stops acting polite and starts getting real. Aside from language and violence, The Hateful Eight is rated R for, “a scene of violent sexual content.” That’s one of saying it. Another word is rape, and Tarantino wants us to laugh along with the perpetrator. The scene has its roots in exploitation, with one act of ugliness as retribution for another, except here they’re both so low that there is no sense of catharsis.
There is nothing inherently wrong with on-screen violence and sexual assault. In the controversy surrounding the release of Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow defended scenes of torture with, “Depiction is not endorsement,” and that applies here, too. The problem with The Hateful Eight is that Tarantino is so obsessed with the mythology of cinema and the glory of his own oeuvre that he creates archetypes, not characters. They no long behave according to their natures, but what the genre requires of them, so then The Hateful Eight is excessive for its own sake.
The same excess applies to the violence against Domergue, which is often, and the near-constant racial epithets. There might be a greater point about the soldier’s code in the North and South, but it’s lost in a puddle of brains, shattered testicles, and vomited blood. Tarantino constructs the second half as if he’s constantly asking, “Am I shocking you yet?” It’s a game with loaded dice: if I answer “no,” then I’m detached enough to be on his level, but if I answer “yes,” then I’m a prig because I’m offended. It’s a sick game, and while I understood it, I got sick of playing. If Tarantino aspires to make his audience uncomfortable, then he should at least do them the courtesy of including characters that are worth a damn. All previous Tarantino characters had recognizably human characteristics, even at their most exaggerated, yet here they are as empty as what we might expect from Eli Roth or Tom Six. The only depth come from meta-references: Tim Roth riffs on his character from Reservoir Dogs, while Jackson does the same from Jackie Brown. The only fresh face is Leigh’s, but it’s so caked in viscera that connecting through it is impossible.
Before the release of The Hateful Eight, Tarantino and The Weinstein Company made a big deal about its roadshow release and the old-school cameras they used. I saw a digital transfer of the 70mm version, complete with an overture and an intermission, and while “gimmick” is too harsh a word for this version, it is not far off. I am certainly appreciative of any film with a built-in bathroom break, yet Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson waste their cameras on unimaginative imagery. Except for a handful of exterior shots, the vast majority of The Hateful Eight takes place inside one wooden tavern. In fact, the cameras are kind of a sick joke, since they mostly capture Argento-style gore. We do not realize it right away, but Tarantino does not share the joke with the audience. The audience is the butt of the joke, and it’s about time we expect better from him.