I just left the theater, having seen Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, and I’m still trying to put it all together. My reaction, and what it all means, and what I think he’s doing this time. I’m not sure I can, not yet. It’s a strange and enigmatic film, a film that’s clearly trying to say something about our society, about race and gender and violence, and how they relate to our past. But its thinking seems muddled to me, unclear. It’s also a film that’s difficult to analyze without giving away plot points, and it’s also a film where spoilers are particularly to be avoided by critics. It’s essentially an Agatha Christie closed door mystery (though the bloodiest Agatha Christie ever), and if I say too much, you’ll want to hunt me down and shoot me. Which I’d rather avoid.
So this is going to be an impressionistic review, mostly, if that makes sense. A ‘thoughts that occurred to me while watching the thing’ kind of thing. If you’re on the fence as to whether or not you should see it, BTW, don’t. If you generally don’t like Quentin Tarantino films, you won’t like this one either, and if you’ve liked his earlier films, you’ll like this one a lot. Samuel L. Jackson was on Colbert the other night, and when asked why he enjoyed acting in Tarantino films, he said, essentially, ‘what’s not to like? He writes complex, interesting characters, wonderful dialogue, fascinating, thoughtful scripts. Plus, (and here Jackson got a naughty grin on his face), he uses the biggest blood bags anywhere. Huge blood bags. So cool.’ Yup.
- The opening shot in the film is of a snow-covered wooden crucifix carving. The camera holds on that shot forever, while we see a horse-drawn coach pushing through a snow storm. That same shot is repeated during the closing credits. The film is otherwise absent religious imagery, except that during a particularly awful murder, a character plays Silent Night on a piano.
- The cast includes several Tarantino favorites–Samuel Jackson, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Kurt Russell. But the two strongest performances are by Jennifer Jason Leigh (who is remarkable), and Walton Goggins (Boyd Crowder, from Justified). Tarantino has always been brilliant with actors, and nowhere more so than here.
- Basically, the story: Kurt Russell plays John Ruth, aka The Hangman, a bounty hunter, who is bringing Daisy Domergue (Leigh) to justice. They’re on their way to a town called Red Rock, but a blizzard has forced them to take refuge in Minnie’s Haberdashery, a general store/saloon. Also there are a lawman, Chris Mannix (Goggins), a former southern General, Smithers (Bruce Dern), a farmhand, Joe Gage (Madsen), a British traveling hangman, Oswaldo Mowbray (Roth), another bounty hunter and Civil War officer, Major Marquis Warren (Jackson), and one of Minnie’s employees, Bob (Damien Bichir). Also there, the carriage driver, O.B. (James Parks). Ruth is convinced that one or more of the other men is in league with Daisy, and intends to kill him and rescue her. Which one? Why? That’s the mystery.
- As just a mystery, a who-intends-to-do-it kind of thing, it’s really terrific. I mean, genuinely compelling. I had no idea, and yet, the revelation of the plot was completely convincing.
- The language in the film makes an occasional nod to nineteenth century diction, but it was inconsistent, and at times the characters sound very contemporary. I suppose it’s possible that the film’s linguistic anachronisms are the result of sloppy research or authorial indifference, but I don’t think so, any more than I think that Tarantino was unaware (in Inglourious Basterds) that Adolf Hitler did not die in a fire in a Paris movie theater. He’s a meticulous and careful writer. I think the anachronisms are deliberate, an attempt at Brechtian alienation, or metacinematic commentary, or something equally suggestive.
- For example, it’s astonishing how many details of the ‘old West’ it gets right. Like details regarding how one cares for exhausted horses in a barn. Or how one lays out a rope line in a blizzard. Great care taken here with research.
- I would just point out that there are four female characters in the film, and that all of them are subjected to horrific violence.
- The key to the entire story is clearly Daisy, and Leigh is, as I said, amazing in the role. She’s not just an abused woman (when we first see her, she has a black eye). She’s a provocateur, someone who is deliberately provocative. And the relationship between her and Ruth is fascinating. He beats her up, but it’s never personal; he needs to keep her in line. Horrible things happen to her over the course of the film, but she also controls a good bit of the action. I can’t say more without revealing too much, but it’s a terrific performance. A strong woman who nonetheless gets beaten badly?
- So, what thematic purpose does her abuse serve? Why are all the women in the show treated so brutally? Why is Zoe Bell (Tarantino’s favorite stuntwoman) in the film, and why is her character so fascinating? She plays Six-Horse Judy, the only woman capable of handling a six horse team. And why does she die so soon?
- By the same token, the film is clearly also about the violence of the Civil War, but also the reconciliation of North and South; about former enemies who actually form a relationship. And die? Fade into the past?
- Mythmaking is central to this film, and especially a letter from Abraham Lincoln. It’s a film where all the characters know each other by reputation. And where we’re never quite sure who is telling the truth about what.
- As always with Tarantino, the score is tremendous. Ennio Morricone’s music is simply extraordinary. And the film ends with Roy Orbison singing ‘There Won’t be Many Coming Home,’ a song I had never previously heard of, but perfect for this film.
- Of course, it’s unbelievably violent. It’s a bloody mess. For no other director on the planet is it more important to remember that portrayal does not equal advocacy. Quite the contrary, in fact. Always, always, ask this: what’s he trying to say?
- Taking a stab: it’s a portrayal of America and our history. Racism, brutal violence towards blacks and women, sexual violence, a vicious struggle, something approaching resolution. Two former soldiers, covered with blood, desperately wounded, reconciling.
There are scenes that feel like a punch in the gut. There are films that are gory, and also gruesomely funny. It’s a Quentin Tarantino film. It’s not like anything else. At all, ever.