The Hateful Eight, in all its 70mm, celluloid glory, is another Quentin Tarantino experience that’s missing something. Not cinematic swagger, to be sure. Not glib humor. Not righteous anger. And not an interest in justice. The movie has all of these things, but it’s still lacking an essential element. It took me a second viewing to see what it was.
Set a few years after the Civil War, The Hateful Eight holes up in a Wyoming outpost, where a variety of characters are waiting out a raging blizzard. There is bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his prisoner, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). There is Union major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), who trades steely stares with Confederate general Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern). There is also a bumpkin Southerner (Walton Goggins) who claims to be the nearby town’s incoming sheriff, as well as the outpost’s close-mouthed proprietor, Senor Bob (Demián Bichir). It becomes clear fairly early on, however, that some of these characters, as well as others I haven’t mentioned, might not be who they claim.
And so The Hateful Eight combines the board game Clue with Tarantino’s own, criminally claustrophobic Reservoir Dogs – especially after someone poisons the coffee, the paranoia kicks in and the blood really starts spilling. As these scorpions square off, gruesome vomit spews into faces, while other faces are blown to bits. One character relishingly relays a tale of sexual sadism (Tarantino provides visual aid in case we were having trouble picturing it). And if that isn’t enough ugliness, Tarantino’s favorite racial epithet is tossed around with a frequency and casualness that far exceeds any period authenticity. It’s all audacious, extreme and more often than not played for laughs.
Even more so than Reservoir Dogs (which had its fair share of extreme moments), The Hateful Eight essentially functions as a stage play. Part of this is due to the emphasis on dialogue and the confined setting, but the widescreen, 70mm cinematography by Robert Richardson also enhances the stage sensibility. At this width, the entire cabin can be encompassed in a single shot, so that when Maj. Warren enters the door and the camera cuts to his point of view, we can simultaneously see Tim Roth (as traveling hangman Oswaldo Mobray) in the near left corner of the screen, Dern in the middle center and Michael Madsen (as cowboy Joe Gage) in the far right. Like actors on a stage, the cast of The Hateful Eight must almost always be in character, because even if they’re not the center of attention they’re often in the frame.
If only there was recognition that movie violence carries a spiritual weight as well.
There is a liveliness and unpredictability to this that makes The Hateful Eight a thrilling watch, especially in terms of the performances. While Roth and Jackson once again prove to be silky spinners of Tarantino yarns, it’s Leigh and Goggins who stand out amongst the ensemble cast. Leigh gets bonus points for being able to give Domergue a chilled fury, even as the movie seems content to use her as a literal punchline. Goggins, meanwhile, is hilarious as the weasely, would-be sheriff whose sense of justice lags far behind his sense of self-preservation.
Mobray, the hangman, is the one to first bring up the topic of justice. In reference to Domergue’s impending hanging, he discusses the difference between the justice administered by civilized society, which is overseen by the law, and “frontier justice,” which usually consists of unmediated revenge. What follows are a series of awful events that force us to ask if justice, in each case, has been served. The Hateful Eight is even visually bookended by this question. Tarantino opens his film by slowly panning down along a statue of Jesus on the cross — a symbol of unjust execution — and ends it by panning up the body of one of the most despicable characters as they’re being lynched. Are these two killings being equated? Contrasted? Does The Hateful Eight even care, or is it simply a clever aesthetic touch?
I don’t think the movie cares all that much. Most of its cinematic verve, energy and fervor are directed elsewhere – not towards seriously exploring such questions, but at making each act of hate and violence as giddily entertaining as possible. At best The Hateful Eight is a nihilistic shrug. At worst it’s an argument for auteurist vigilantism as moral high ground.
What, then, is the movie’s missing ingredient? I’d propose that a tinge of sorrow would have gone a long way toward increasing the film’s level of sophistication. If only there was some sense that movie violence is more than an intellectual toy, a tool for provocation. If only there was recognition that movie violence carries a spiritual weight as well as a titillating one. I could point to other, far greater Westerns that know this – the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, Paul Newman’s Hombre, John Ford’s The Searchers – but the truth is that the best Tarantino movies acknowledge this too. Sorrow can be felt in the way Harvey Keitel cradles a dying Tim Roth in Reservoir Dogs. You see it in Uma Thurman’s dead eyes in Pulp Fiction. Sorrow is all over Robert Forster’s face in Jackie Brown. And it can be heard in the clanging shackles of Django Unchained. But it’s nowhere to be found in The Hateful Eight. Here, even the screams are gleeful.