The Hateful Eight
Suspicion, Suffering and Snow
Quentin Tarantino is a fascinating filmmaker. Never one to shy away from sharing his thoughts with the world, his films have garnered controversy over the years due to several typical characteristics: over-the-top violence, coarse language, and racist characters. Some object to Tarantino’s use of such content, but he doesn’t seem to care. Quentin Tarantino makes the films he wants to make, not the films other people want him to make.
Now, with the arrival of the new year, Tarantino’s eighth film has arrived. Tarantino has repeatedly stated that he only wants to make ten films, and with only two left, The Hateful Eight is here to offer a glimpse into the mind of a director whose time is running out, not because of any outside pressure, but because he wants to quit while he’s ahead. After viewing The Hateful Eight, I can’t help but wonder — has that time already passed?
Viewers of Tarantino’s films tend to argue about whether or not certain content belonged in each film. The explicit violence of Inglorious Basterds, the excessive racism in Django Unchained, and the heavy drug use in Pulp Fiction are a few examples. I think many of Tarantino’s detractors may miss the point; as I stated above, Tarantino makes his films the way he does because he wants to. He’s not asking his fans to tell him what they want from the next Tarantino movie. He’s doing what he loves, and we as viewers are simply along for the ride.
Now, all of that to say, his style is eccentric. His dialogue is sharp, witty, and absolutely full of heavy profanity. I can definitely see where some viewers find issue with the way his characters talk. His excessive violence is also hard for a number of viewers to watch. Racist characters can definitely offend, too, especially in a culture as volatile as the one in which we live today. But so far, his style has mostly served the story of each film. No one can honestly argue that the way Jules speaks to Brad in Pulp Fiction is out of the realm of believability, or that Calvin Candy’s sickeningly sweet demeanor in Django Unchained doesn’t work in the context of him being what he is — a selfish, violent slave owner. However, The Hateful Eight is the first time that I’ve seen a Tarantino film so full of his style that I had trouble finding the substance underneath.
The Hateful Eight is an extremely well-made film. The cinematography by Robert Richardson is strong, and highlights the tension and uneasiness throughout the majority of the film. Tarantino’s decision to shoot on 70mm was a strong choice, and many shots of The Hateful Eight look like works of art. Coupled with a strong score by Ennio Morricone, The Hateful Eight is a treat for the eyes and ears.
Tarantino’s dialogue is as entertaining as ever. Every character is acted excellently, with Kurt Russell, Walton Coggins, and Tarantino’s longtime collaborator, Samuel L. Jackson turning in particularly strong performances. Jennifer Jason Leigh is also a delight as Daisey Domergue, offering up a wicked smile as intimidating as any villain in Tarantino’s catalogue. However, despite strong dialogue and acting, The Hateful Eight can’t help feeling slightly off. Maybe it’s because the first half of the film is almost entirely exposition. Maybe it’s the narration in certain scenes that takes away from moments that could be interesting surprises. Overall, the film feels sort of like a second or third draft of a great story, but not quite the finished product we’ve come to expect from Tarantino.
One of the strongest scenes in Inglourious Basterds was the scene in which several characters met in the basement of a French tavern. The scene is tense, beautifully shot, and a major testament to Tarantino’s strengths as both a writer and a director. The Hateful Eight is a lot like that scene — it’s primarily people talking and sitting. Or walking and sitting. Or both. The tension builds as the characters continue to talk, revealing new facets of their personalities, some shocking, some humorous. Then, when the tension has built for over an hour, all hell breaks loose. In typical Tarantino fashion, blood is spilled. Lots of blood is spilled.
Unlike the tavern scene from Inglourious Basterds, however, the cycle of building tension and then releasing it violently is not just a part of the film — it is the film. Tarantino has proved himself a master of such scenes, as some of the more famous scenes in his filmography follow a similar structure — the conversation with Brad in Pulp Fiction, the dinner in Django Unchained, and so on. However, these scenes are not the only scenes in their respective films. There is more before and after each scene, which allows the audience to not only exhale, but witness the context in which such tension was necessary in the first place. The Hateful Eight contains very little of that. While the film is truly a testament to Tarantino’s strengths at building tension and directing actors, I can’t help but feel as though it’s just not as deep as we’re led to believe.
Early in The Hateful Eight, we see a wooden statue of Jesus Christ on the cross. As the snow swirls through the air, it collects on the statue, obscuring its visage. I believe this statue sums up the experience of The Hateful Eight. Christ on the cross is without a doubt the most famous death in human history, and a widely known example of pain, suffering and violent death. With snow on top, the audience is offered a summary of the film: there will be pain, suffering and violent death, and just like the statue, the heavy snow will bear down relentlessly. The snow traps the characters together and forces them into their situation. When I saw the statue, I thought that perhaps Tarantino would use the suffering of the characters to make some statement about the character of man, or at least offer some insight into why the people in the film do what they do.
I was not offered such insight.
Instead, I was offered the typical Tarantino mixture of humor, tension, violence, and racial slurs. For the first time, I found his style slightly abrasive. Sure, his previous films have adult content, but the story underneath makes a point of giving reason to the content. In The Hateful Eight, the story is the content. I don’t want to spoil this film for anyone who hasn’t yet seen it, but the film essentially boils down to: people enter a confined space, spend some time together, and then attempt to murder each other. That’s it.
Some could argue that the characters themselves are where the meaning of the film comes from. There is depth to several of the characters, but the majority come off as caricatures of stock film characters, which makes focusing on any depth defficult. I’ve heard it theorized that all of the characters may represent humanity as a whole, and that The Hateful Eight is a a glimpse into how Tarantino views humanity. In that case, Tarantino proposes that we’re all just waiting to kill each other. Whether that observation is astute or absurd, I will let the viewer decide.
That being said, there is depth to the carnage. As the story is set in the aftermath of the Civil War, racial tensions are still very high. Samuel L. Jackson’s character encounters an immense amount of racial slurs from almost every character in the film, and his journey from outsider to ally to a number of characters highlights the way people can overcome prejudices. A purported letter from Abraham Lincoln is read towards the end of the film. It reminds the viewer, albeit in a slightly heavy-handed way, that carnage like the events of the film will happen, but it can be avoided, if people are willing to put aside their differences. Unfortunately, the buckets of blood obscure the poignancy of this message, highlighting even further the uneven nature of The Hateful Eight.
Throughout the film, I was reminded of another, similar story: John Carpenter’s 1982 horror film The Thing. In The Thing, an extraterrestrial creature stalks the crew of an Arctic outpost while they are unable to leave due to the severe weather. The titular Thing can mimic its prey, and it begins to replace them one by one, causing paranoia to run rapant throughout the camp. Like The Thing, The Hateful Eight is about a small group of people who don’t trust each other, trapped together by a harsh blizzard. Yet in John Carpenter’s film, the story is: ordinary people trying to do their job must band together to stop an outside threat. In Tarantino’s, the story is: eccentric characters don’t trust each other for a while, and then they kill each other.
The Hateful Eight is not a bad movie. I do not want to imply that I didn’t like it, or that it isn’t worth your time. I’m simply conflicted about it. It’s the first Tarantino film that I wouldn’t immediately recommend to other film fans. It’s beautifully shot and obviously well put together, but I feel as though it may be less than the sum of its parts. Without giving too much away, it feels like two films put together, without enough story given to either film to justify connecting them. By the second half, the tension is gone, replaced by violent act after violent act. This change in tone could be considered a release, but it feels self-indulgent. Fans of Tarantino expect this sort of violence, and they will find what they expect, but there’s so much of it that it becomes more than entertaining; it becomes repugnant.
In the end, I find it difficult to describe exactly how I feel about The Hateful Eight. It’s full of Quentin Tarantino’s signature style, and everything that comes with it. But that’s essentially all there is — Tarantino’s style. Maybe my expectations were too high. Maybe I looked too hard for substance when I wasn’t meant to. But this is the same director who gave us Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds, and Django Unchained. I’m not sure if The Hateful Eight measures up to those films. Tarantino’s plan to stop with ten films is so that he can avoid becoming stale or repetitive. Unfortunately, The Hateful Eight did feel slightly repetitive. There’s no real goal, it’s just that scene for an entire movie. One can argue that it is up to the artist what sort of art they will produce, and it’s true — Quentin Tarantino makes what he wants to make. Still, I found myself wondering something I’ve never wondered before after one of his films — Why?
Now, a less-than-perfect Tarantino film is still a Tarantino film. It’s stronger than many of the other films currently playing. It’s not a sequel. It’s not a CGI-heavy spectacle. It’s beautiful to watch and hear. The production design is excellent. The dialogue is strong. But it also follows up some truly exceptional films, and their shadows loom long over The Hateful Eight. I can’t help but wonder if, after eight films, it’s slightly wrong to expect more from Quentin Trantino. And then I wonder if I have the right to ask that question at all. The Hateful Eight is fascinating, not only for the experience of watching it, but how it will be interpreted. It’s uneven, and definitely not for everyone, but I’m glad I saw it.