The Revenge Chamber Drama of “The Hateful Eight”

The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino’s eighth film, is his most extreme exploration of violence and gore as visual storytelling tools yet. The film has many of the hallmarks of a Tarantino film: virtuosic dialogue, spectacular visual feats, explorations of crime, and deconstructions of both racial and gender discrimination. Despite these similarities, The Hateful Eight also represents a turning point for Tarantino, in which his explorations of the plight of women and people of color take on new levels of complexity.

The film opens with a few minutes of overture* by Ennio Morricone, followed by a menacing cue as a stagecoach races across a snowy wasteland ahead of an encroaching blizzard toward a town called Red Rock. Inside the coach are bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his bounty, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Ruth is known for always bringing his bounties in alive, even when that’s not at all necessary. Along the way, the coach stops to pick up another bounty hunter and Civil War hero, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), who just happens to be heading the same way. Running into another bounty hunter is unlikely enough, and the riders become more suspicious when they find Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) stranded on the way. Mannix claims to be the new sheriff of the very town they’re all heading toward.

With no hope of making it to Red Rock before the blizzard hits, the travelers stop at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a lodge and general store for travelers. Minnie and the other employees have all departed on sudden business and left Bob the Mexican in charge (Demian Bichir). Already in residence at Minnie’s are a retired Confederate general (the perfectly cranky Bruce Dern), a foppish Englishman (Tim Roth) who announces himself as the hangman who will be executing Domergue once she is convicted, and a mysterious traveler named Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), who seems strangely determined to visit his mother for Christmas. Being the professionals that they are, Ruth and Warren both realize that something isn’t as it should be, and at least one of their companions may have a secret agenda. The film’s first half is devoted to Ruth and Warren feeling out their new companions. It ends with a bang, and then people start dying.

Many critics have called The Hateful Eight Tarantino’s goriest film. That’s only partially correct. No act of violence in the film’s second half is without precedent in his earlier films, but the sheer number of violent acts is staggering. The film threatens to turn into a horror film, but the humor that animates even the most stomach-churning moments prevents the mood from darkening too much. Greg Nicotero of The Walking Dead fame is responsible for the gore effects, and the fact that he gets second billing in the end credits makes it quite clear that Tarantino considers the film’s gore one of its major selling points. Tarantino’s films have culminated in increasingly messy orgies of violence starting with Kill Bill, and The Hateful Eight surpasses even Death Proof, Tarantino’s only film explicitly set in the horror genre. There’s nothing particularly wrong with gore, except that it signals a break in the film’s development for Tarantino. The verbal acrobatics that Tarantino is rightfully famous for, that have elevated films like Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown above mere pulpy crime dramas, come to a screeching halt whenever someone’s head explodes. Tarantino is a gifted creator of visuals, which he applies to these gory scenes, but he’s an even better writer, and that superior talent takes a backseat to the violence.

Although Tarantino struggles with how to integrate violence into the film, it also includes his most sophisticate examination of the plight of women and people of color in America. Domergue is perhaps the film’s most evil character and deserves much of what comes to her, but she’s also the victim of countless acts of unnecessary cruelty. She’s called a bitch nearly as often as the n-word is hurtled at Warren by Confederate sympathizers. Tarantino seems to take pleasure in the increasingly baroque acts of violence committed against Domergue because she is an evil person. But the film’s characters also delight in insulting and assault her simply because she’s a woman. It’s an important distinction, but one that many viewers will fail to make; the audience I saw the film with erupted into howls of approving laughter whenever Domergue was humiliated without making a distinction between whether or not she actually deserved it.

Tarantino also pays special attention to the discrimination that Warren experiences on a nearly constant basis. It’s no surprise that the former Confederates would loathe him, but those sympathetic to the Union don’t particularly respect a black man either. Even Domergue, who receives a constant stream of invective because of her gender, fears him because of the color of his skin. In a rare moment of candor, Warren admits that he has to find ways to make himself the exemplary African American. It takes a letter addressed to him from Abraham Lincoln for anyone to show him even the most begrudging respect. Like many of Tarantino’s films, The Hateful Eight is divided into multiple chapters, and the final one, “Black Man, White Hell,” makes no bones about Warren’s place in the world. For a film that sacrifices much of its deeper aspects in exchange for buckets of blood, it still manages to be far more sophisticated about the place of a person of color in America than even Django Unchained, a film that should have been devoted to the issue.

The Hateful Eight ends up being one of Quentin Tarantino’s most minor films, more in line with Death Proof, his half of the Grindhouse double feature, and Reservoir Dogs, his first film forged before his style had fully developed. That’s not to say that it’s an unsuccessful film, however. The film’s first half, mostly staged within a single room, plays out like a filthy Agatha Christie whodunit. The suspense is palpable and thrilling. Although only a few spots in the film have the kind of majestic landscapes that stand out in 70mm, the large format still gives a sense of epic scale to small interior spaces. Close-ups are also made more majestic; most actors would kill for the kind of 70mm close-ups Jackson is given. The extremely wide screen also allows Tarantino to make compositions that completely fill the cabin. And is this film ever funny. Even at its bloodiest moments the comedy, both verbal and physical, is unrelenting.

I left The Hateful Eight appreciating all these elements. I also left the film missing the humanity that has been largely absent from Tarantino’s films since Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown. Does the man who made those films even still exist? Will Tarantino ever again be able to subordinate his urge toward violence and cruelty in order to let his verbal wit abound? The violent final act of The Hateful Eight is the fullest example of Tarantino’s id run amok to date. Whether this is the furthest Tarantino is willing to go in the direction of extreme horror, or merely another step along his journey remains to be seen.

* Whether or not you’ll actually hear Morricone’s overture depends on which of the two version of The Hateful Eight you see, the 70mm roadshow version or the traditional digital wide release. The film was shot on 65mm film and blown up to 70mm for projection. Compared to 35mm film, 70mm film offers a larger, brighter, and more stable image. The format used to be common for epics like Lawrence of Arabia and Ben Hur, where the greater picture quality could preserve the splendor of epic landscapes. The film format largely died out due to the expense of the film and projectors, as well as the relative ease of maintaining digital projectors. However, Christopher Nolan’s last few films have included significant portions shot in 70mm, and films like The Master and The Hateful Eight have had small 70mm runs, reigniting a passion for the format among cinephiles.

The Hateful Eight was released on December 25 in a 70mm roadshow format. In addition to the ultra-wide, higher quality projection, this version of the film features an overture by Ennio Morricone, an intermission, and six minutes of additional footage, as well as some alternate takes that Tarantino felt worked better for the 70mm format. The digital version without overture, intermission, or additional footage will be in wide release on December 31, although the 70mm version will continue to be shown. If you don’t mind paying more, 70mm is the way to go. The photography looks beautiful, the film is the closest to Tarantino’s vision, and you get more music from one of the greatest film composers ever. This is also Tarantino’s longest film to date, so an intermission break to stretch your legs is a welcome addition.

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