The Binge Review: Eight Observations About “The Hateful Eight”

cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Demián Bichir, Bruce Dern, Channing Tatum

writer/director: Quentin Tarantino

MPAA: Rated R for strong bloody violence, a scene of violent sexual content, language and some graphic nudity

After hitting a career-low with the uncharacteristically broad and simplistic Django Unchained, untamable cinematic id and noted foot-fucker Quentin Tarantino swings way in the other direction with one of his least accessible moments yet on his eighth feature, appropriately named The Hateful Eight (you can take the man out of the self-referential ’90s but you can’t take the self-referential ’90s out of the man). In his most ostentatious exercise in classic cinema homage to date, Tarantino and his distributor, The Weinstein Company, are presenting The Hateful Eight theatrically in the style of old-timey ’60s-era epics: as a three-hour “experience” that opens with a full orchestral overture (complete with illustrated OVERTURE title card), has a 10-minute intermission at its halfway point, and was filmed in 70mm with the same lens as Ben-Hur. Stunt queens gonna stunt, I suppose.

With its split halves divided into six chapters, The Hateful Eight tells the story of two bounty hunters traveling across Wyoming whose journeys converge. John Ruth (Kurt Russell) has captured the feral Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an accused murderer who has a $10,000 dead-or-alive bounty on her head (in a self-aware running gag, other characters repeatedly ask John Ruth why he hasn’t just killed her, given how much her being alive complicates his mission). He’s transporting Daisy in a stagecoach en route to Red Rock when he comes across Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), who has three stacked dead bodies he intends to turn in for a combined $8,000 bounty. With a blizzard looming, John Ruth reluctantly agrees to take in Warren and his bodies. They make one last unexpected passenger pickup in the form of Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), an oily racist who claims he’s the newly appointed sheriff of Red Rock.

The Civil War is still a very recent memory, and its shadow looms tensely over the characters and their suspicions of one another. This only intensifies when the coach pulls into a stopover point called Minnie’s Haberdashery, where they intend to hide out for a few days until the blizzard passes. Minnie and her staff are nowhere to be found; instead, John Ruth and Co. encounter a group of mysterious men already occupying the space, including a Mexican named Bob (Demián Bichir) running the shop in Minnie’s absence, a grandiose Brit named Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth, doing his finest Christoph Waltz impression), taciturn Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), and former Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern). Trapped together by the raging winter squall outside, these eight cohabitants regard one another…well, hatefully, more often than not. As their mutual distrust gradually builds to accusations, revelations, and at least one gunshot castration, you’ll find out what happens when eight people picked to wait out a blizzard in a haberdashery stop being polite and start getting real.

With all that said, here are eight things I was thinking about while watching The Hateful Eight:

  1. For all its extravagant cinematic bells and whistles, this is actually the most claustrophobic and stagey movie Tarantino has ever made; more so even than Reservoir Dogs, this is the only QT film that could easily be translated to a theater production with very few tweaks (and an enormous budget for blood bags and squibs). Once the characters arrive at Minnie’s after the opening scenes in John Ruth’s stagecoach, the movie remains there for the rest of its running time. And I don’t mean on the property surrounding Minnie’s, either; there’s maybe two minutes of footage where characters step outside. No, I mean that for two and a half of this movie’s three hours, we’re watching a fixed cast of characters interacting solely with each other on a wide-open soundstage. It’s cinema’s grandest bottle episode.
  2. In classic Tarantino fashion, he’s selected an elite handful of arguably past-their-prime movie stars and gifted them with their juiciest roles in years. One such actor is Kurt Russell, with whom Tarantino previously collaborated on Death Proof (which I actually forgot he was in until I was looking at Russell’s IMDb just now to see what he’s been up to for the last decade). Russell has always been at his best doing humor-inflected action, and that’s what he does here beautifully. Sporting an enormous horseshoe mustache and delivering his lines in a cocksure John Wayne cadence, Russell is a hoot.
  3. On the subject of actor resurrection, Tarantino has also given the magnificent and perennially underrated Jennifer Jason Leigh her most unforgettable screen role in twenty years. As the wonderfully named Daisy Domergue (pronounced Dah-merg-yoo), Leigh mines the very darkest corners of her emotional-access coal mine. This is an actor who’s always displayed an effortless flair for the disturbing and self-destructive (Single White Female, Dolores Claiborne, Georgia, Last Exit to Brooklyn) but who’s been relegated to playing moms and aunts for the last ten years, so she throws herself into this pungent character with raucous abandon. I’m not optimistic that Hollywood will suddenly figure out what to do with the 53-year-old Leigh at this stage in her career, but at least we have this. Also, this is one of two films this year (along with Anomalisa) where Leigh sings a song, so that’s a fun trend.
  4. Over on the other end of the spectrum at “actors who never ever ever stop working,” we have Samuel L. Jackson. I feel like we all kinda take Jackson for granted, which is partially his doing for booking pretty much any movie he’s offered (the man has 166 acting credits) and having no issue making a parody of himself. But when Jackson and Tarantino combine—and usually only then—we all get a bracing reminder that Jackson is a goddamn master. Watching him holding court in The Hateful Eight, wringing every last ounce of controlled humor, pathos, and tension from Tarantino’s dialogue, feels like watching a great theater actor schooling his costars on how it’s done. So far it seems like only Tarantino really knows how to reach Jackson on this level, or maybe Jackson just knows when he does and doesn’t have to try. But try he does here, and it’s glorious.
  5. From old to new collaborators, Justified breakout Walton Goggins cements himself as a thrillingly perfect match for Tarantino’s voice. After appearing in a smaller role in Django Unchained, Goggins steps center-stage and nearly walks off with the whole movie—no easy feat given the caliber of performances around him. Confession time: I’ve never watched Justified or Sons of Anarchy, so this was by far the most time I’ve spent watching Goggins act, and I now definitely count myself as a fan. I also just now saw his character on SOA, so I maybe spent the last ten minutes looking at Google Images of that.
  6. As I mentioned, this is a far cry from the simplistic, unambiguous morality of Django Unchained (despite their shared focus on Civil War-era bounty hunters and similar structures—humorous first half, bloodbath second half). Whereas in that film we had clear delineations between good guys and bad guys, The Hateful Eight is more of a frontier justice free-for-all. There are no purely virtuous characters; pretty much everyone has a shady backstory, as we learn from the pages of expository dialogue to which we are treated. While this makes things more interesting, it also makes it harder to root for anyone in particular—or against anyone, for that matter. This becomes troubling in the film’s final moments, when a character is executed in especially queasy fashion rendered all the more unsettling by the film’s triumphant tone. Some have accused The Hateful Eight of being excessively nihilistic, even by Tarantino’s standards. We all know by now that the man doesn’t believe in offscreen or implied violence. Frankly, it only really bothered me in that final scene, since the film seems to hang its hat on it.
  7. Another troubling thing Tarantino returns to here for the first time since Pulp Fiction is the use of man-on-man rape for the expressed purposes of humiliation and emasculation. If you thought it couldn’t get more shocking than Ving Rhames with a ball gag in his mouth getting backdoored while the Gimp leers on, oh man, just wait. And while the scene in Hateful Eight is in some ways less offensive (with its modern setting and recognizable S&M props, the Rhames rape in Pulp Fiction came pretty damn close to perpetuating the “gay people are violent sex criminals” stereotype that had run from Cruising to Basic Instinct), it’s not great that Tarantino’s gay rape/gay character ratio is now 2:0.
  8. On the subject of Tarantino’s interest in the politics of respectability, The Hateful Eight makes it abundantly clear that he simply doesn’t fucking have any. If anything, The Hateful Eight feels like an intentional and defiant fuck-you to the age of internet-fueled outrage we live in. Don’t like Tarantino writing the n-word for white actors to say? Oops, get ready for more of it than ever before! Offended by glorified violence against women? Settle in to watch Jennifer Jason Leigh get savagely and repeatedly punched in the face for the entire first half of the movie, and also to have it played for laughs/entertainment! Have a problem with female and/or characters of color introduced for a few seconds only to be brutally murdered moments later? Leave during the intermission! And while Tarantino has some half-assed racial commentary he thinks he’s making here (the final chapter is called “Black Man, White Hell”), he doesn’t quite pull it off. Instead, The Hateful Eight positions Tarantino along with Matt Stone and Trey Parker as culture-shaping ’90s icons who’ve grown into middle-aged white dudes grumpy the zeitgeist is turning away from them and who will NOT be told what they can and cannot say. In the case of South Park‘s most recent season, this clearly resonated with a sizable portion of their audience likely made up of demographics similar to Stone’s and Parker’s. Still, when your most prominent cohorts in the war against “PC culture” are the demagogues running for the Republican presidential nomination, maybe give it just a little more thought if this is the side you want to be on.

Wow, this is a very long review! I could sense there was a lot to unpack about this movie and I still feel like I only scratched the surface, but there you go. In short (TL;DR), Tarantino fans will love every verbose, electrifyingly performed, exquisitely shot-and-cut second of The Hateful Eight—but when a director sets himself above criticism, as Tarantino has increasingly done over the last decade, that makes it all the more crucial to take a hard look at what his movie is really messaging. Not quippy enough for an ending? Okay. How about: The Hateful Eight is hateful-great! Sorry.

The Hateful Eight opens in San Francisco today.

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