I’ve been thinking a lot about Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight pretty continuously since seeing it in theaters back in December, turning over certain images and moments in my mind over and over again. Tarantino’s bitter pill of a bottle episode confounded critics and audience members alike as Tarantino hurled bullets, blood geysers, and racial invective at an audience that could be forgiven for sitting down with what they thought was going to be a Western-set thriller. Instead they were greeted with Tarantino’s meanest, cruelest prank yet, a film that addresses America’s ongoing racial strife with all the subtlety of a Band-Aid being ripped off.
A major part of the dissonance that some fans felt while watching the movie was the way that other audience members reacted. When Kurt Russell’s John Ruth bludgeoned Jennifer Jason Leigh in the face, her nose giving with a sickening crack, audiences laughed. And there are absolute horror stories of black filmgoers being trapped in auditoriums where crowds of white folks laughed and laughed at each and every utterance of the n-word, delighting in the naughtiness.
When Hateful Eight first came out, I remember thinking (maybe even tweeting) that either the film would be revisited in years and discovered to be a masterpiece of the auteur tearing down his own image and work, or swept under the rug as critics and audiences remembered the Oscar-anointed triumphs like Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained and left Hateful to rot in the snow.
Revisiting the film on its new Blu-ray release, I feel confident in the former fate. Divorced from hype and the avalanche of thinkpieces that apparently are not just a prerequisite for any piece of art that dares stray from accepted norms (really not looking forward to folks getting ahold of the second season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, seeing as Tina Fey uses at least the first three episodes to blow raspberries at the pearl-clutchers) and placed in a setting where you don’t have to worry about a white supremacist cackling three rows behind you, The Hateful Eight’s virtues as one of Tarantino’s sharpest and definitely most incendiary work shine through.
For those of you who missed the film during its theatrical run, The Hateful Eight is set in a post-Civil War Wyoming, where a group of strangers have found themselves waylaid by a blizzard and stranded at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a store/inn sitting on the mountain pass. There’s bounty hunter and Civil War cavalry officer Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), who was rescued from the storm by fellow bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell and a mustache). Ruth is transporting Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a twitchy murderess, and after rescuing Warren the group runs across Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), the son of a Confederate marauder who now claims to be the sheriff of the town where Ruth and Warren are transporting their cargo.
Got all that? Good, because there’s a whole other set of characters waiting at Minnie’s, a group that includes effusive hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), terse cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), ornery Confederate general Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), and a tight-lipped Mexican by the name of Bob (Demián Bichir) who claims to be running the place in Minnie’s absence.
Everyone has a story to tell, or a story that has been told about them, and as the storm rages on those stories and the bloody, awful history behind them begin to conflict in ways that draw closer and closer to bloodshed. And that’s before you factor in that one or more of these travelers may be misrepresenting themselves in a bid to rescue Daisy from Ruth’s clutches and the hangman’s rope.
Tarantino’s scripts have grown more and more diffuse as time has gone on, and anyone who found themselves impatient throughout Basterds or Unchained may get weary, quickly, of the nigh-on three hour chatterfest that is The Hateful Eight. Tarantino’s scripts have always held that words could be as destructive as any weapon, and most every scene here palpitates with threat. I delighted in it, but I can respect those viewers who long for the days when Tarantino expressed a degree of self-control with his scripts.
There’s more restraint on the director’s side, as Tarantino does away with the stylistic flourishes and needle drops that have given his period pieces the propulsive energy so many others lack. With the exception of a song at the top and a Roy Orbison tune over the credits, the film is otherwise scored by Ennio Morricone (who won an Oscar for his work) dialing back into the throbbing menace that set the tone for The Thing so many years ago. Robert Richardson’s work as cinematographer holds up beautifully on Blu, as do all the rich shades of gore that douse the screen thanks to FX work by industry legend Greg Nicotero.
And the cast is beyond whatever superlatives you could think to throw. Madsen and Roth are both palpably delighted at having the chance to play in this sandbox again, and Roth in particular savors every line like a well-seasoned steak. Bichir’s performance only gets funnier and funnier once you know the true depths of his Bob, while Bruce Dern inhabits the broken heart of General Smithers to such an extent that you may find pity in your heart for the bastard, even as he is clearly beyond any kind of redemption.
Russell deconstructs his own tough-guy persona with the same egoless aplomb that made his Death Proof performance so indelible. He has a willing and able partner in Jennifer Jason Leigh, who attacks this material with a ferocity that is still unsettling to witness even after multiple viewings. Even as the credits roll, Daisy Domergue remains a maddening character, with depths and capabilities to which the film only briefly gestures. Tarantino is always talking about doing this or that spin off or prequel, and I would love for him to someday revisit this character and give us Daisy as the central figure of towering evil in some other story.
On the rewatch, though, the movie really comes down to Jackson and Goggins, the broken axis around which this whole film spins. No one speaks Tarantino-ese like Samuel L. Jackson, and Tarantino has rewarded his greatest collaborator with some of the best material that this great actor has ever been given the chance to play. There’s a monologue at the mid-point of Hateful that is just a fastball right down the middle, and Jackson CRUSHES it. There’s not a moment when Warren is on screen that you can’t see Jackson thinking, acting, being present in a real and appreciable way.
The same goes for Goggins, who, if you read any press surrounding the film, will happily tell anyone that he is excited just to be included in such a project with such a cast. Goggins (who played one of the all-time great TV villains with his Boyd Crowder across six seasons of the excellent Justified) comes very close to stealing the entire film away from a cast loaded with nothing but scene stealers. He finds the humor when he needs it, the menace when he needs it, and he roots it all in a reprehensible wretch of a person that you may find yourself unexpectedly rooting for.
Tarantino has been shaking up audiences ever since he had that one guy cut off that other guy’s ear to a chorus of shrieks and sickness from the Sundance audience. But The Hateful Eight is his trickiest, bleakest work. Anytime you think two characters are establishing a connection beyond mistrust, they are not. Anytime you think a character is about to have a change of heart… they ain’t. Tarantino is a living supercomputer of filmic knowledge, and he knows exactly what you expect and when you expect it; The Hateful Eight is a masterclass in how to relentlessly fuck with an audience for close to three hours.
Some audiences will, understandably, reject it. Others, understanding what Tarantino is up to, might still reject the film for its excessiveness and the little-boy-naughtiness that underscores the pulped skulls and fountains of gore.
I’ll understand it, but I don’t agree with it. The Hateful Eight represents an American master at the height of his powers, wielding genre like a nail-studded bat to highlight tragic reality. Nobody makes ‘em like Tarantino, so now we just have to hope that he keeps making them.