Every Quentin Tarantino film has been greeted with considerable controversy and critical scrutiny, with arguments concerning each new release ranging wider and raging more contentious. The Hateful Eight (2015) continues this trend. Following a 2014 script leak, the film’s much-hyped ensuing production, the use of the nearly extinct – though certainly still “glorious” – 70mm format, and the director’s own divisive contributions to America’s police brutality conversation, Tarantino has been confronted by accusations of misogyny, racism, over indulgence, and excessive violence. While none of this is particularly new to the Tarantino discussion, the widespread attention paid to the film is somewhat refreshing, insofar as a serious film is being taken seriously. Yet for all this background clamour, The Hateful Eight is more essential as a notable addition to Tarantino’s evolving artistic career.
To take a few of its criticisms as jumping off points, however, the objection of over-/self-indulgence is a revealing one, especially given that since the back-to-back phenomenon of Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), Tarantino has been essentially operating free from creative constraints. In the case of The Hateful Eight, the aesthetic excess has centred around the film’s length, its subsequent pace, Tarantino’s integration of cinematic influences (though there appear to be less here than in his prior work), and his decision to shoot the film on the scarcely used 70mm format.
Tarantino again divides his film into chapters, a technique that opposes the inconspicuous transition from scene to scene and signals a clear emphasis on novelistic arrangement. His stories unfold in locked segments that, while often recalling elements of preceding chapters, also frequently function as standalone dramas with distinctive rising and concluding action, an approach only realised if given adequate time. Save for one chapter toward the end of The Hateful Eight, which provides a crucial plot reveal, Tarantino does away with the disjointed unspooling of events and spatiotemporal shifts that were staples of his storytelling elsewhere. The narrative establishes and maintains a taut pace, driving forward with an increasing build up of tension not broken by structural deviations.
The foreboding pressure cooker tone of the film, amplified by Ennio Morricone’s brooding score, lends the picture a haunting tenor of dread, and when a lone figure emerges standing in front of a stack of frozen bodies, the film resembles the start of a horror movie as much as a western. Fittingly then, John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), a remake of The Thing from Another World (1951), directed by Christian Nyby and an uncredited though more influential Howard Hawks, has been a recurrent point of critical reference regarding The Hateful Eight. The Thing (both versions) revolves around an isolated group of individuals in a singular location as they face an impending menace. The evil in the case of these two films is a solitary foreign “other”, while in The Hateful Eight nearly everyone is potentially dangerous, but the scenario is similar. As a storm rages outside, the danger develops within, isolating the players and making their confines and their interactions combustible.
To go more specifically to Hawks , The Hateful Eight continues a Tarantino thematic tradition largely derived from the director – that of professionalism. As they candidly express their animosities and suspicions, the characters, particularly those introduced in the film’s first half hour, are distinguished by what they do or did for a living. Whether their occupations and intentions are admirable or not, they each identify themselves by their profession, and as such, they fall in line with earlier Tarantino characters, from the thieves of Reservoir Dogs to the titular crew of Inglourious Basterds (2009). They take pride in what they do, and they aim to do it well. The bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) introduces himself by his prior military association and his current role as a servant of the court. After recognising John Ruth (Kurt Russell), Warren refers to his fellow passenger as “John Ruth the hangman”, a name/profession combined into one persona. Like Warren, he has a reputation for efficiency and ethics. Despite differing methodologies, there is an instant mutual admiration for the proficiency of each other’s work, and a camaraderie imbued with the assumption of safety in a like-minded alliance.
With Ruth’s professional aptitude also comes a stubborn distrust bred from the $10,000 bounty on his prisoner, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and his anxiety that everyone he encounters is working to give her freedom or cut in on his profits. Just as he and Warren recognise each other based on their past and current vocations, Ruth likewise assumes everyone is aware of Daisy’s misdeeds and her consequent worth. Sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), another stranded figure joining the group, is connected to the others by a war-related past and a current livelihood in law enforcement. He too knows of John Ruth “by reputation”. And for her part, even Daisy is aware of Warren’s notorious history, thus further contributing to a conception of identity in the film based on professional repute.
Everyone assembled in the film, perhaps discounting stage driver O.B. Jackson (James Parks), already knows each other to varying degrees, setting up a coincidental affiliation akin to the haphazard connections built in other Tarantino movies such as Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown (1997). That these connections emerge in The Hateful Eight at this treacherous outpost is indeed a suspect occurrence, and the resulting leeriness derives strongly from the characters’ shared past, their unexpected assembly, and the screen time devoted to discovering their assorted backstories.
The relative stability of this initial quintet is upended with the introduction of the remaining figures of the film, all of whom, again, identify with their jobs and their perceived responsibilities. Present are Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), who quite securely touts his job as a hangman (a job putting him on the legal level and ostensibly the same side as Ruth and Mannix) and Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), who sombrely reveals the modest inauspiciousness of being “just a cow puncher”. Bob (Demián Bichir) is apparently looking after Minnie’s Haberdashery in the absence of its owners, his relationship with the respected proprietors ensuring his standing. Finally, dressed like Warren in his military garb, there is General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), who stresses his rank to John Ruth, lest he not get the respect his title deserves.
There can be no denying Tarantino takes his time with these opening segments. But this has been time well spent, with character development constructed to the point of negating the need for any further backstory, yet still leaving room for doubt regarding what the characters have planned. We do not necessarily need to know more about their past, but we are continually left to wonder about their current intentions. Within the narrative of the film, no character undergoes any substantial growth – their personality has been settled by the discussions of their lives to this point and the brief period of time encapsulated by the film reduces the potential for personal progress. Nobody ends any different than they began (other than those who end up dead). In this, The Hateful Eight resembles the compact timeline of Reservoir Dogs and the immediately formulated introductions of the girls in Death Proof (2007).
What distinguishes these final characters is that they are not, as Ruth rightfully speculates, who they say they are. Rampant suspicion is partly based on the notion that someone present – or perhaps multiple people – have a hidden agenda and are impersonating a character as part of their as yet unclear scheme.
Clocking in at 167 minutes (even longer in its roadshow version, with its overture, intermission, and additional footage), the runtime of The Hateful Eight is something of a commercial exception. But within this duration, Tarantino crafts a progressive and deceptively intricate tale, one in which not a minute is wasted. He revels in the film’s length to develop suspicious action resulting from scene-specific misdirection, whereby characters behave a certain way that arouses the expectation of conflict, only to have it dissipate by scene’s end. When Mannix and O.B. lay down a line in the deepening snow, for example, the sequence is given nearly a minute of dialogue-free screen time, for an action that does not need to be shown. What is more, as we see the struggle of the two men, our senses are primed for something bad to happen, with their strain and the already established potential for violence. But despite the anticipation, a consequence never arrives. There are several such incidents in the film, where things happen as if they should have meaning, where people behave in volatile ways, yet the outcome proves to be rather inconsequential. Suspense is built upon these moments of increasing tension, and though they may not always result in an expected dramatic payoff, their recurrence keeps the film on the razor’s edge of anxiety.
On the heels of Django Unchained (2012), and with a shared setting of post-Civil War America replete with a proliferation of “the N-word”, race seems again to be at the forefront of The Hateful Eight. But if one takes as the primary plot of the film to be about the bounty on Daisy, which is what gets the ball rolling and leads to the demise of most all involved, then the racial tension in the film is itself something of a misdirection, and more a discomforting part of the period setting. Though the racial bitterness emerges and never quite dissipates, even periodically supplanting the issue of Daisy and her incarceration, the film’s essential plot is less dependent on the facilitator of racism. The only significant act that occurs as a partial effect of genuine race-related hate is the shooting of Smithers by Warren. But even in this case, the deed is done as a sort of narrative deception, for looking back one has to wonder why Warren even wanted to provoke Smithers in the first place, unless it was purely for the hate of it all. This type of pervasive antagonism does little but detract and distract from the real issue at hand, which is the impending freedom of Daisy.
Furthermore, despite Daisy’s last ditch efforts to play Warren and Mannix against one another by rehashing their racial animosity, the two settle, albeit uncomfortably, into something resembling a partnership. The former confederate soldier quite quickly, unquestionably, and rather cheerily stands by Warren’s side as he begins his Clue-like summary of what led up to the poisoning. Is his acceptance of Warren’s action a result of the legality of self-defence, or is it simply because the racial rancour is not so very relevant after all?
However the characters act and for whatever reason, The Hateful Eight resolves the varied disputes with violence. From the shooting of Smithers to the blood-smacked bonding at the end, in which Mannix and Warren rest in a sticky red recollection of Mr. Orange’s dire state, The Hateful Eight has more than its fair share of bloodshed. The blowing off of Bob’s head and the gruesome spewing of brain matter on Daisy’s face are probably among the nastiest examples. Yet there are times, recalling Kill Bill: Volume 1 in particular, where the amount of gore is so prevalent that it borders on absurdist humour. Nevertheless, the violent scenes are often disturbing – and Daisy bears the brunt of them. There are times when the abuse genuinely produces a smile – such as when Warren gives her a whack, sending her and chained companion John Ruth toppling off the stage – but it is in these repeated assaults that the accusations of misogyny enter the picture.
It is not that the men disrespect women in general – Ruth probably wouldn’t treat Daisy as he does were she not a criminal, and Oswaldo, when questioned about hanging a woman, chalks up the duty to a dispassionately cruel part of his job. But as the only major female character in the film, and the one who is almost entirely shown in a submissive state of pain or degradation, Daisy seems to be an obvious victim. She is not. Like The Bride in Kill Bill and the women from Death Proof, Daisy is a survivor, and she is stronger and wiser than she lets on. Though she is increasingly brutalised throughout, she continually riles the others with a marked self-assuredness. Just as quickly as she takes a beating, she smiles, winks, licks her blood, and stares knowingly off into the distance, held in a prolonged shot by Tarantino to emphasise the confident trouble brewing. Though Daisy does suffer throughout, as a character she provides another startlingly powerful Tarantino female role, this time for Jennifer Jason Leigh, who especially shines in the film’s concluding minutes when she has the most dialogue and her most animated action.
Even with so much happening at a narrative and structural level, The Hateful Eight’s chief selling point, at least for technically-minded individuals, is perhaps the 70mm exhibition. With renowned cinematographer Robert Richardson at the helm, there are the expected instances of outdoor grandeur accentuated by the format, mostly at the start of the film, but aside from these natural vistas, the 70mm more prominently adds width and depth to the interior compositions and clarity to Tarantino’s staging. The level of detail produced by the format creates a textured interplay of light shafts through the haberdashery, dancing dust particles, snowflakes sprinkling through holes in the structure, and assorted decorative ornamentation. The sense of indoor scope is emphasised by lateral tracks and pans, camera movements that keep everything developing from side to side, and compositions built on multi-character wide shots. The close confines of the shop are expressively opened up by the size of the frame. The geographic placement of characters stresses their distance from one another as well as their potential handicaps and advantages; scarcely any image held for any duration does not have another character milling about in the background or sitting suspiciously still. There are sequences of comparatively conventional visual inventiveness, such as a shot from above the rafters that marks a drastic shift in perspective and thus repeats the misdirection theme by suggesting a subjective vantage point. Tarantino truly excels, however, when the compositions more directly serve a narrative purpose, and do so as a result of the layering produced by the enlarged, enhanced image.
Ultimately, more so than when scrutinised under the influence of any sociocultural profundity, The Hateful Eight is most engaging and revealing when viewed as a continuing examination of Tarantino’s recurring themes, narrative strategies, and stylistic preferences. As another controversial entry in the remarkably singular career of the quintessential film geek virtuoso, it is everything one would expect from a Quentin Tarantino film, and then some. If a film is going to be self-indulgent, it’s best someone like Tarantino is doing the indulging.